Nikhil Sardana: Please share your background with us.
Sameer Patel: My Gujarati parents are from Kenya, and my father went to college and medical school in Mumbai. In the 1970s, they immigrated to the United States and settled in Michigan, where I was born and raised. They didn’t have a musical background, but they believed that music should be an important part of my education and started me on piano lessons at the age of nine. I later joined the school band, and soon enough I was intrigued by the role of the conductor, which eventually set me upon the path of study at the University of Michigan. Following my studies, I held a fellowship with the Boston Philharmonic and spent three years as Associate Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in Indiana. I’m now starting my second season as Associate Conductor of the San Diego Symphony.
NS: Many congratulations on receiving the Solti Foundation U.S. 2016 Career Assistance Award. Tell us more about this foundation, its selection process and how will this take your career forward.
SP: The mission of the Solti Foundation U.S. is to identify, support, and promote promising young American conductors as they launch their careers. Applicants submit proposals to the selection committee detailing how they will use the awarded funds, and a select number of grants are awarded each year. I’m grateful to the Foundation for their support and I will use part of my Solti award to travel to Washington, D.C. to observe and learn from a mentor of mine, the brilliant conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who will soon begin his tenure as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra.
NS: What are your various day-to-day activities as Associate Conductor of the San Diego Symphony?
SP: In San Diego I conduct education, family, and special events concerts throughout the year with the orchestra. Additionally I work with the staff and help set the tone, vision, and programming for numerous artistic projects. I’m also an enthusiastic advocate for the work we do in our community by working with students and speaking about music to people of all ages and backgrounds.
And of course an important part of my job is assisting the Music Director and the guest conductors as they prepare the orchestra for their concerts. I listen to the rehearsals from the concert hall and provide feedback to the conductors based on what I hear. This allows them to adjust what they are doing with the ensemble and helps ensure that their artistic vision is coming across. I enjoy this aspect of my job because it allows me to help my colleagues and contribute to the success of the performance.
NS: What challenges do you face as a young conductor?
SP: Personally, I think the greatest challenge to being a musician is that there’s simply never enough time in the day! To be a conductor requires so many skills and attributes, and the pursuit of this passion is a lifelong mission which requires discipline, hard work, courage, and a deep sense of self. I spend countless hours studying, and as someone with insatiable curiosity, and also try to spend as much time as possible reading and learning about the world in order to cultivate my creative and artistic impulses.
NS: Your favourite composer and piece of music?
SP: I believe our job as performing artists is to fall in love with whatever music is in front of us and to convey that love to our fellow musicians and to the audience. That being said, I think most musicians would agree that whatever they’re working on at the moment is their favourite piece or by their favourite composer. Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 (“Resurrection”) has always had a special place in my heart, as that was the piece that made me want to be a conductor in the first place. Nowadays, I keep returning to Beethoven. Whenever I encounter his music in study or performance it’s hard not to be moved and uplifted by its humanity; in spite of not being able to actually hear most of his own music because of his profound deafness he still created some of the most universally beloved music ever written. It might sound like a cliché to say this, but his 9th Symphony is my favourite; however, while most people cite the “Ode to Joy” as their favourite moment in the piece, I find so much irresistible beauty and intimacy in the third movement.
NS: How often do you visit India? Would you consider working with some of the orchestras here?
SP: I have been to India three times, most recently in December 2015, when my family and I visited my grandparents in their village not far from Vadodara. It was a special feeling to be in their home with four generations present. We can trace our heritage and family line more than 400 years within the village itself, and as an American-born Indian, to feel a kinship with a place that feels so foreign and yet simultaneously familiar was truly special. I’d love to go back again and again to see much more of India, and I’d love to have the opportunity to make music there.