Communicating With Music
As an Indian American, Sameer Patel chose a fairly uncommon career by becoming a musical conductor.
Sameer Patel’s parents had pretty conventional hopes for their son. “Like many Indian American parents, they hoped I’d become a doctor, lawyer, engineer or businessman,” says Patel. Things turned out differently, but his parents were not disappointed. Today, Patel, 36, is one of the leading young musical conductors in the United States.
Patel is in his third season as the associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony orchestra. And, for the third year in a row, he has received a Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award, an honor given to the country’s best young conductors. Patel is also the associate conductor of the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, whose musicians come from some of the finest orchestras in North America.
It is a fairly uncommon career path for an Indian American, but it was blazed a generation-and-a-half earlier by another famous Indian American conductor, Mumbai-born Zubin Mehta. “Even friends of my family who don’t know [Western] classical music know of him,” says Patel.
Patel’s parents are of Gujarati origin, born and raised in Kenya. His father went to Mumbai to study medicine and then, in the late 1970’s, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, with his wife, where he began a long career practicing medicine.
Patel and his brother had a typical American upbringing in Michigan, going to public schools and playing sports—tennis, basketball and soccer. Their parents were not particularly interested in music, he says. But they made their sons study music. “They saw it as an opportunity for us to get a hobby as well as discipline.”
Patel studied piano, but it felt like a chore as he was not very interested in it. Then, at the age of 13 or 14, his teacher, an elderly Italian man, introduced him to the works of the 19th-century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. “This was really the light turning on for me,” he says. “It was a profound encounter with beauty and art.”
From then on, there was no looking back. Young Patel began devouring Western classical music. He played in his school band, where the band leader lent him recordings of different composers each week, giving him a broad classical music education. He also went to music summer camps. After graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in orchestral conducting. Every summer, he went to different European countries to participate in master classes.
Then began his career as a conductor, first as a conducting fellow with the Boston Philharmonic, then as an assistant conductor with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in Indiana and, starting in fall 2015, as associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony in California. Patel does guest conducting with numerous other orchestras. He is also an advocate for music education, and enjoys teaching and learning from the students he works with at music festivals, school programs and youth orchestras across the United States.
His goal is to become the musical director—the chief conductor—of a major orchestra. “I know I want to share Western classical music with as many people as I can,” says Patel.
Living in Southern California with his wife, Shannon, and their son, Devan, Patel is part of the rich mosaic of American life. “I have an immigrant background. I trained in the U.S. and my wife is an American,” he says. At the same time, “I have lots of pride in my Indian background. When I go to India, I feel part of it. When I visit my grandfather in his ancestral village in Gujarat, I feel very proud.”
Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.