Master of the Magic Baton
Acclaimed music conductor Sameer Patel, who remains in high demand, has been chosen for engagements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Princeton Symphony, the Florida Orchestra, and the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, among other orchestras. Last year he was appointed as artistic director of the San Diego Youth Symphony. Born to Indian immigrants and educated at the University of Michigan, Patel holds a master’s degree in orchestral conducting and a bachelor’s degree in orchestra and opera conducting/theory.
[Top] Photo: Sam Zauscher Photo
Recently, I heard Indian-American musician Hrishikesh Hirway’s interview on NPR. His parents initially welcomed the idea of him pursuing music as a hobby, not a career. From a traditional South Asian perspective, you too made an off-the-beaten- path career choice. Tell us more about that.
Growing up, my parents insisted that I play music—I think they thought it would only be as a hobby and not turn into a career. I can understand that reasoning: from a cultural perspective, they didn’t really know much about Western classical music. Coupled with the heavy expectations of being immigrants in a new land, they certainly wanted what was best for their kids. But I’m grateful that they let me figure out that a career in music was best for me—it’s a gift that I can’t repay them for. To this day they’re proud of who I am and what I’ve achieved. I owe a lot to them, for their love, their support, their concern, and their pride. It hasn’t always been easy in this career path, but they’ve always stuck by me.
When you were first introduced to music by your parents, you didn’t care much for it. What made you stay the course?
I had no choice! I wanted to quit many times as a child and they wouldn’t let me. All these years later I appreciate their insistence that I stick with it. Like many other things, the beginning stages of learning aren’t always fun and early on you realize how far you are from sounding good. But learning music is a very long game: if you persevere and practice diligently, then eventually things start to work out and you start to realize your own potential. That’s when playing music really becomes a great joy. I am grateful that I had teachers that nurtured my musical curiosity—they introduced me to composers like Chopin and Beethoven, and that really lit a spark.
Over the course of your career, you have studied with many stellar conductors. What are some of your most memorable learning moments?
I am very fortunate to have worked with some of the giants in this profession, particularly the late conductors Kurt Masur and Bernard Haitink. Through observation and study, I saw how they were fiercely dedicated to the art form, its traditions, and its potential. Even in their late years they were still searching for meaning in the music, still wrestling with their interpretive decisions, and still chipping away at making beauty in this world. They taught me that the best conductors are lifelong learners, bound by duty to the study of music and to sharing its joys with the world. To simply be in their orbit as a recipient of their generous spirit and wisdom was a lesson not only in music but also in how to live life.
How do you create synergy in your orchestra during a performance?
I think the conductor’s role is to have good musical taste, sound ideas, and a musical empathy with the musicians they’re working with. Since conductors don’t make sound, it becomes the goal in rehearsal and performance to create the best circumstances for the musicians and the music to shine. I believe that oftentimes good conducting is a fine balance in knowing when to lead with conviction, when to follow, and when to get out of the way.
[Right] Photo: Jamie Geysbeek Photography
You are celebrated for your “deep musicianship and passionate communication.” What ignites the fire in your belly?
I am motivated by the music and how we respond to the live performance of it, sometimes hundreds of years after it was written. I feel the greatest masterpieces are still beckoning to us, whispering in humanity’s ears that we still have so much to learn about ourselves. As a musician it’s my duty to dig deeper and deeper into a musical score at every encounter with it. I love wrestling with trying to understand the work’s meaning and its relevance today, and I rejoice when the music has done its job by moving, touching, and inspiring audiences.
You have earned countless accolades—from being recognized by Daniele Gatti as a top conductor at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, to being one of the six conductors selected by the League of American Orchestras for the Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Kudos aside, how do you measure your success? What are some of your greatest moments as a conductor?
For me success as a musician is simple: it’s not the accolades but the love of music itself and what it does for us as people. This means striving every day to be a better practitioner of my craft and passing along what I’ve learned to the next generation of musicians. I don’t take the responsibility of making music lightly—whether it’s with one of the best professional orchestras in a major city or a community or youth orchestra. Regardless of the situation, the mission of the music and my role as a conductor is to create musical moments that move us. This was drilled in even more for me during those first months of the pandemic when our industry had no choice but to lean into the silence. The first performances following the aftermath of the shutdowns, those first sweet tastes of live music making, were the moments that meant the most to me.
Your advice to those stepping into the conducting arena is to read and travel, amongst other things. Can you share a few stirring moments that have informed your relationship with music?
I am an early bird; I have a small studio that I rent around the corner from where we live. In the wee hours of the early morning I go to my keyboard and I practice Bach. I sing, study the craft of composition, and work on ear training, jazz harmony, and score reading. In other words, I still practice. Doing this kind of work infuses my understanding of the music I conduct. And it also feels like I’m taking one small step every morning at climbing Mount Everest. I’m aware in those early hours of the day of how much I still don’t know.
What is it like to teach and work with youth symphony orchestras?
It is simultaneously a great joy and an incredible responsibility. Young musicians don’t approach a musical work with the same experience, knowledge, and artistry that a professional group of musicians might. With professionals, you say something once and it is understood, applied, and remembered. You have to be more patient with students, and you often have to work a lot harder by teaching them not only what to do but how to do it. This requires a deeper level of preparation and understanding on my part. Witnessing the transformation that happens in a young mind when you see them finally get something they’ve been struggling with is an incomparable thrill.
How do your son and daughter relate to music?
Both of my kids love music and it makes me overjoyed to see them enraptured by sound, singing, and playing. My son will start singing in a youth choir this year. Here in San Diego, the San Diego Youth Symphony offers early childhood music education classes, and my daughter started going to them before she turned two. Music teaches us a lot about ourselves and the world around us, and it warms my heart to see them engage with it.
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
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