Conductor Sameer Patel championing diversity in classical music, inspiring young musicians across the globe

He will make his debut Feb. 20 with MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series.

SHARE Conductor Sameer Patel championing diversity in classical music, inspiring young musicians across the globe
Conductor Sameer Patel will make his debut Feb. 20 with MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series.

Conductor Sameer Patel will make his debut Feb. 20 with MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series.

Sam Zauscher

When Sameer Patel began thinking about making conducting his career, the Indian American didn’t have many role models who looked like him other than one very important one — famed maestro Zubin Mehta, former music director of the New York Philharmonic.

“In my community,” Patel said, “it’s very common for a young South Asian person to choose a path in medicine, engineering or law. One of the things that helped me explain my interest was this ability to say my friends and my parents’ friends, ‘Oh, I want to be a conductor.’ And they would be, ‘Oh, like Zubin Mehta.’ That was a very inspiring thing for someone like me.”

Patel, 40, has gone on to a successful career, serving as artistic director of the San Diego Youth Symphony and guest-conducting professional orchestras including the Toronto Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

He will make his debut Monday with MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series. It features members of the ensemble in configurations typically ranging from duos to small ensembles.

Sameer Patel

Sameer Patel: ‘Inspiring Voices’
Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW

When: 7 p.m. Monday.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

Tickets: $30-$50.

Info: cso.org

Patel will lead two of the works on the “Inspiring Voices” program, a string-orchestra version of Osvaldo Golijov’s 2002 string quartet “Tenebrae” and Israeli composer Betty Olivero’s “Bashra’v,” a work for flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion, piano/celesta and string quartet.

“It’s a very tricky piece,” he said of the latter. “It’s not easy to learn. It’s not easy to conduct.”

“I travel around and work with professional orchestras but I also have the great ability to share not only what I know with young musicians but also learn from what they have to share,” says conductor Sameer Patel.

“I travel around and work with professional orchestras but I also have the great ability to share not only what I know with young musicians but also learn from what they have to share,” says conductor Sameer Patel.

Sam Zauscher

In both selections, Patel said the conductor serves as a kind of “silent chamber-music partner,” helping to illuminate the structure and making sure that all of the musicians are in sync.

The conductor grew up in Port Huron, Mich., across the St. Clair River from Canada and abutting Lake Huron.

“I used to take piano lessons in Canada,” he said. “This was pre-9/11, when you could zip across the border in minutes.”

His parents enrolled him in those lessons, and he didn’t particularly enjoy them at first. But once he got to the point where he could play some substantial works, his attitude changed. He said he fell in love with music around when he was 14.

“It was a pivotal time in my life,” he said.

He attended three summer camps at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and flourished playing saxophone in his high school band.

At the same time, he became enamored with a compact disc that featured Mehta leading the Israel Philharmonic in Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. He played it so many times that it got scratched.

“I vividly remember seeing his face on the cover of that recording,” Patel said. “We talk about representation mattering, and that was an important thing for me back then — to see somebody who came from a background similar to my own.”

Patel became fascinated with conducting while listening to that album and others that his music teachers shared with him.

He also attended performances whenever he could of the Detroit Symphony, an hour away, meeting there with friends from Interlochen.

“That, for me, was beginning of my interest in symphonic music,” he said. “And, by the time I got to college, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

He went on to obtain his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Michigan, spending summers in European masterclasses with such famed maestros as Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur and Gianandrea Noseda.

“I felt like that was in so many ways a post-graduate kind of experience,” he said, “going to learn from some of the greats in the profession and how they did it.”

In 2014-15, Patel took part in Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion — now known as the Freeman Fellowship Program — a mentorship program for budding musicians from diverse backgrounds.

After working as associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony from 2015 to 2019, he was named artistic director of the San Diego Youth Symphony last May. He conducts two of the organization’s 13 ensembles and provides guidance for its other activities, including early childhood education.

Patel doesn’t rule out the possibility of leading a professional orchestra some day but said he is content with the current state of his musical activities.

“I’m lucky enough that I’m able to have one foot in each world,” he said. “I travel around and work with professional orchestras. But I also have the great ability to share not only what I know with young musicians but also learn from what they have to share.”

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