Indian American Conductor Sameer Patel Has a Busy Year Ahead in the Western Classical Music Circuit
- After a career spanning over 20 years, he is currently the artistic director at the San Diego Youth Symphony.
Indian American conductor Sameer Patel has a lot to look forward to this year. He makes his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Princeton Symphony; as well as return appearances with the Florida Orchestra and La Jolla Symphony and Chorus.
The 40-year-old has been conducting western classical music orchestras for the past 20 years. As artistic director at the San Diego Youth Symphony, he works for an organization that serves “close to 600 students, beginning through pre-professional student musicians annually in 13 full orchestras and large ensembles.”
Patel previously worked as an associate conductor at the San Diego Symphony for four years. He left that position in 2019, and over the last couple of years, “especially when things picked back up over the pandemic, and performances started to resume,” he started traveling and working as a guest conductor. With his current job in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two kids, Patel continues to have one foot in both worlds — “the performance world which is conducting orchestras like in Princeton and in Chicago and elsewhere” — as well as “sharing music with young musicians.”
Zubin Mehta’s Influence
It wasn’t easy for him to make a mark in this non-traditionalist career for a person of Indian background. “There are so many expectations for us to go into medicine, or business or IT, so going into the arts is not necessarily welcomed with wide open arms,” he tells American Kahani. So it was difficult for him “to carve out” his path. Of course, he didn’t do it alone. “I had a very supportive family, and even though they might have not understood what it is that I was doing they were always happy to help me chase my dreams.”
He credits his early success to his teachers and professors as well, and to Zubin Mehta. “In classical music in general, there aren’t many people who look like me,” he says. “Even though people in my own community may not have understood western classical music, they knew the name, Zubin Mehta. So it was easy for them to understand from a distance what it was that I was looking to pursue in my career.”
Patel was exposed to music from an early age. His parents enrolled him and his brother in music lessons at an early age. “They played piano and, they were also in the band. He says his parents wanted them to continue pursuing music, “not necessarily for us to think about a career,” but for a well-rounded education.
Patel’s love for conducting began in high school and got deeper at college. When a director let him borrow some of his CDs which had symphonies he had never heard of before, he “really started to get fascinated by the music itself and the power of the music.” He found himself looking at “the musical scores that have all the instruments laid out on them, and look and see what a conductor was doing.”
At the University of Michigan, he would sit in on all the conducting classes, and go to all the rehearsals. His selection into an honors program at the end of his sophomore year allowed him to join a conducting studio as an undergraduate student, working with the choir conducting professor, the opera professor, and the orchestra professor. He studied languages, music history, music theory, and liberal arts classes, as well as and culture and history. He stayed on at the university for two more years to pursue a master’s in orchestral conducting. But beyond that, he would also spend a few weeks in Europe with “some famous conductor, some famous teacher to learn the craft of it.”
Desi Set of Challenges
The pursuit of a music career is not easy, Patel warns. “There’s always an aspect of uncertainty you are dealing with.” Additionally, being an Indian American in this field has posed its own set of challenges. “I can’t speak of how others have perceived me over the years, but I think that no matter what, I come from a culture and an upbringing where the understanding is that sometimes you do have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” he says. There’s also “an element of pride” Patel feels in being an Indian American conductor. “I understand that there are very, very few of us in this field, so I find it to be a big responsibility to be the best that I can be” so that the younger generation might have “a positive role model.”
The desi pride was evident when Patel watched the Broadway adaptation of the superhit Bollywood film “DDLJ: Come Fall in Love.” He says he had “the chills, all of sudden seeing people like me, singing on that stage. I never would’ve thought that I would’ve had such a visceral feeling to this.”
Patel was born and raised in Michigan to parents who immigrated from Kenya.“My childhood was riding bicycles, going to school, and listening to the same music as all my friends.” Being Indian would be “something you’d experience on a Friday or Saturday night, when everybody would get together, party at an uncle and aunty’s house for potluck style Indian food,” he recalls. “But the rest of the time I was American.” He admits that “only in recent years I have started to embrace more and more of the culture.”
A Fascinating Journey
He is open to working with Indian or India-centric projects. A few years ago, with an orchestra in Chicago, he worked on a project where they took a piece of music from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird,” and adapted it for a Diwali concert. They teamed up with a South Asian dance company and put the story of Ram to this musical, “which works out beautifully because Diwali is the story of light over darkness, and so is this ballet story.”
One of the “exciting things” he is working on during his stint at Princeton University is the premiere of a violin concerto about William Harvey’s “Seven Decisions of Gandhi” featuring the composer as a solo violinist. “It’s never been performed before — so the composer and I will be working together, to determine if he needs to make any changes — so it’s kind of a living, breathing art form.”
The young conductor is optimistic about the changes taking place in the field of classical music, which has traditionally been a white male-driven field. “I see more and more things are getting better for women, as they should,” he says, giving a shoutout to Reena Ismail and Nina Shekar. “I think that we are going to see that there are more and more Indian American classical musicians coming up, as it’s starting to be fully accepted in a way that is unprecedented.”
Patel is married to Shannon, a social worker, with whom he has two kids — Deven 5, and Veda, 2.
He sums up his past two decades as a music conductor, as “a fascinating journey because of all these speed bumps.” Unlike medicine, engineering, or law, a career in music, sometimes, forces you “to scratch your head and think now what am I supposed to do, and how am I supposed to do this.”