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Sameer Patel's return to city as guest conductor a joyful homecoming

Sameer Patel onstage at the historic Embassy Theatre with the Indiana Allstate High School Orchestra
Courtesy/Sameer Patel
Sameer Patel onstage at the historic Embassy Theatre with the Indiana All State High School Orchestra
Day one, Indiana ASTA Conference
Courtesy/Sameer Patel
Day one, Indiana ASTA Conference

It’s been 10 years since the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s beloved associate conductor Sameer Patel moved to San Diego to pursue his musical adventures.

Now firmly rooted in that community, his dreams continue to unfold and he is currently Director & Orchestra Conductor for the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, and Artistic Director of the San Diego Youth Symphony.

When WBOI's Julia Meek learned that Patel was returning to town for the Indiana Music Education Association Conference last week, to conduct the High School All State Orchestra performance, she invited him into the studio to discuss his Midwestern sensibilities and how the last decade has shaped his journey as well as his take on Fort Wayne's exploding arts and culture scene.

You can learn more and connect with Sameer at his website.

Here's a transcript of our conversation:
Julia Meek: Sameer Patel, welcome.

Sameer Patel: Hi, Julia. It's so great to be with you.

Julia Meek: Now, it has been 10 years since we met over these mics talking all things Fort Wayne Philharmonic's 70th anniversary. So meanwhile, how in the musical world are you?

Sameer Patel: (laughs) I'm doing great! I'm very happy. And I'm very happy about being back in Fort Wayne after, you know, 10 years.

Julia Meek: You've been living several dreams, I think simultaneously, and let's say your California Odyssey, which all began in San Diego as assistant conductor of the San Diego Symphony? Great entrance! So where has that led you since?

Sameer Patel: Well, when I left Fort Wayne, I went to the San Diego Symphony, and I started there as assistant and then associate conductor. I was there with orchestra for four wonderful years.

And during that time, my wife Shannon, who was here in Fort Wayne with me, got her master's degree in social work at San Diego State. And we experienced the birth of our first child, Devon.

And at the end of those four years, I thought, you know, this is pretty great; Shannon's from San Diego, we have family in the area, my career started to pick up in terms of traveling around and guest conducting.

And so it felt like a really great place to actually plant roots long term.

Julia Meek: Well, a great place, great start on getting the rooting system going nicely with all those accomplishments.

And now that you are working with the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus and also artistic director of the San Diego Youth Symphony, your impressive toolkit's getting more impressive by the year, Sameer.

How are you putting it all to use as you continue in other parts of your life?

Sameer Patel: Well, I'm very fortunate that I have these opportunities, both within my community and outside of my community, it only enriches I feel my musical life. And I always enjoy when I'm able to go and travel somewhere.

But I just love having a home. I love having a community that's become my community, that the work I do in that community both with the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus. and also with the Youth Symphony, it feels like that work gets reinvested within my own community.

And I love taking those experiences and going out into the world and carrying them out into the world. And when I go out in the world, I love collecting those experiences and bringing them back home with me.

Julia Meek: All the communities that you touch is really something and in all those capacities. Now, wherever your home base is, you do travel the music route, the music circuit, all of the music hubs.

What is that like, the guests conducting and everything that really does take you all over the world?

Sameer Patel: It's... life on the road is exciting. And it's also, I hate to say it, it's also a job in some ways. And it's the best job because it allows me to go and connect with people.

So even those moments where I feel like "Oh, I'm on a plane going here, and there and staying in a hotel", you know, I just love to feel like wherever I go and can work with an orchestra or work with young musicians, and when I go and do educational projects, I feel like I'm meeting people and getting to know them and getting to know their story and getting to know how they interact with their city.

And so that really influences my time. So it's like I said, the best aspect of that job is connecting with the people, otherwise it would just be going from city to city. And that's not so fun.

Julia Meek: Even in the name of music.

Sameer Patel: Even in the name of music.

Julia Meek: About that though, having that as your end goal? That's it, you're leading the show. It's a responsibility; what kind of a rush is it though?

Sameer Patel; It's a joyful responsibility to make music and to share the experiences that we have on stage with audiences.

And for me, that's even more important coming out of the pandemic where we feel like we can connect with each other once again, in a very authentic way.

And so for me, I just love that feeling when I walk out on stage and you see people in the hall and their eyes are shining, even if it's dark, you can see their eyes shining and it's a really joyful and serious, in a way, responsibility too, to make sure that we are really doing our job on stage to enrich people's lives.

Julia Meek: Pay it forward. That's really very enlightening, Sameer. And all of that brings us to your joyful return to Fort Wayne, (chuckles) especially to lead the Indiana High School Allstate Orchestra performance, at your former home, the Embassy. How did all of that hit you?

Sameer Patel: So I can't tell you, like this was such a joyful invitation for me because it's been 10 years since I've been in Fort Wayne. I spent three wonderful seasons here with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic as assistant and associate conductor.

And I left at a time when Fort Wayne was about to go through this incredible transformation that I never really got to see happening. And so I got an invitation from a former colleague of mine, she plays in the orchestra, Nicole DeGuire, she said to me, "Hey, how would you feel about coming to be this year's guest conductor in Fort Wayne?"

And I was so excited by this because I obviously love working with young musicians, but to do this in a place that I called home and had such joyful memories of? It was a very, very easy YES for me.

Julia Meek: And especially since your leave taking was just on the cusp of a grand explosion, some would say, of the whole Fort Wayne arts and culture scene. Really, were you ready to come and see what we've been up to since you've been gone?

Sameer Patel: I was absolutely ready and excited to hear about everything that people had talked about. A lot of folks said that, you know, you may not even recognize some things.

Julia Meek: (chuckles) Did you?

Sameer Patel: And certainly that was the case. Well, you know, this morning, I went for a little walk to get a cup of coffee, and I thought, wow, that building wasn't there.

And wow, that building wasn't there, and it was really exciting to see that, but I think for me, it was also... I just have so many incredible memories of my time here.

I mean, this was just an incredible chapter of my life, not only in terms of having the opportunities that I did with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, but just meeting wonderful people like you, Julia and, and so many others who really made a difference in my life.

Julia Meek: A word on the Midwest sensibility, because people born and raised on either coast or traveling and relocating there, as you have, there's a special place in their hearts for this. The more you travel, and the more places you travel, how uniquely Midwestern, are we, Sameer?

Sameer Patel: Oh, this my wife would laugh at this, she's San Diego born and raised. But she knows that I am Midwestern through and through, you know, if I walked by somebody on the street, even in California, we pass each other, I will look up and say good morning, or Hello.

(chuckles) And it's, you know, people would sometimes knock the Midwest, as we know. And one of the things I always say is, look, you don't understand sometimes the kind of pride and hospitality that people have there. And I said you can have, you could be next door neighbors to someone and have completely opposite political views. There might be a political sign out in your lawn and the next door, it's somebody else's.

But you know, what, if there's a big snowstorm that comes through, and they have a snow plow, they will plow their driveway, and they'll plow yours, too. And there's something really powerful about that, that the whole world can learn about.

Julia Meek: That's a grand observation. And honestly, Sameer, seemingly, everywhere you go, your enthusiasm and your output draw accolades for your work, but also for your spirit. What's your secret to being recognized as one of "America's most exciting conductors?"

Sameer Patel: Well, I don't know if I (chuckles) would necessarily say that there's some kind of secret. But one of the things that I've learned in my life, always learned again, and again, through ups and downs is that you can only ever just be yourself.

And there's a lot of integrity that comes with that. And embracing who you are, and sharing who you are, and not having a problem with who you are. But I think that that is something I've learned, and also to always try to see the best in other people.

I remember when, (chuckles) I remember when my son was born. And you know, for many people that have had kids, it's just such a crazy time and you're completely sleep deprived, you don't know what you're doing at all, because there's no playbook on how to be a parent.

And I remember a conversation with my brother, who's about two years older than me. And there's something he said that still rings in my ears, which is he said, Yeah, you know, being a parent of a newborn, you start to realize very quickly that so many people are just doing the best they can.

And you might not always know their story, their battle, or what's going on behind the scenes, or why someone might be tired or cranky or anything like that. But they're just doing the best they can, and to try to just see the humanity in people. And that's what I try to do, try to practice.

Julia Meek: And good for the whole world that you do.

Sameer Patel: I hope so. (chuckles)

Julia Meek: And now that you are globally influencing the classical music scene yourself, who are some of your biggest influences on your own personal music and professional journey? Who inspires you?

Sameer Patel: There are a lot of people that inspire me, but believe it or not, the people that inspire me at this age and this chapter in my life are actually the people that are authentic with what they do.

And, you know, I've worked alongside a lot of famous classical musicians, well established classical musicians and conductors. And one of the things that I've learned is that it's important to surround yourself with people that have integrity at the end of the day.

That are just good human beings that look out for one another, that have `to share. So I've, yes, on my resume, sure, I've worked with so many fantastic musicians and the people that I gravitate to are those that might not only just be wonderful musicians, but are also wonderful human beings.

Julia Meek: That common thread. Yes, so important. Now going back to the education part of your life's work, and working with the youth which is so important. What are some of the biggest challenges today in the classical world?

Sameer Patel: Well, there are a number of challenges. Obviously, exposure to classical music is not as, as commonplace as it was 60-70 years ago, where there was a piano in everybody's living room, or everybody took piano lessons, or everybody played in the school band.

And yet at the same time, there is also interest. Young musicians have interest in classical music. I find it to be my responsibility to nurture that interest.

And that really is what my work with the Youth Orchestra in San Diego is all about, is to really hold a high bar for these young people and to show them how incredible this art form is.

Julia Meek: Does it get harder in the 21st century with all of the technology and the faster pace and the...all the competition?

Sameer Patel: It is tougher to make a career in music, there's no doubt about that. But there's also a lot of competition, I think in terms of people's time and interest.

And yet at the same time, with technology, it also makes things somewhat easier as well.

Julia Meek: And to connect. Again, your connection, just be...

Sameer Patel: Yeah. And you know, I have, for instance, a long day of teaching today and tomorrow, and I'm going to be talking a lot and I thought, Okay, I need to warm up my voice.

And lo and behold, there's five-minute vocal warm ups on YouTube that I can make sure I don't lose my voice by the end of the day. (all laugh)

Julia Meek: A great point! There's a flip side of everything. And speaking of the flip side, what do you see as a really bright point on the horizon for the music and the youth?

Sameer Patel: Well, one of the lessons I'll tell you that that I learned from working with young people is that you can't underestimate them. I learned that again and again and again.

And so even if I look at our performance this weekend, with the All State High School Orchestra here in Indiana, that to me is a bright point. And I haven't even started rehearsing them yet.

But I know that over the period of two, three days that we are together, there's going to be this incredible transformation that I get the front row seat to because I will have seen day one and minute one and what that sounds like and the last minute of the performance.

For me, there's just so much potential and joy in seeing process and seeing what young musicians are able to do. And so I would say that a bright point for me is to just see this potential. And that potential is all around us.

It's not just here at this All State performance, and at this music education conference, but it's it's everywhere, young people create an incredible energy. And it's a joy to be around that.

Julia Meek: And harness it and put it out there. (chuckles)

Sameer Patel: And harness it and put it out, and to hold a high bar for excellence with that as well and to teach them what that can be.

Julia Meek: Fantastic. Meanwhile, in your possibly non existent free time, what do you like to do that's not about classical music?

Sameer Patel: Well Julia, as you know, I have two young children, which is 3 and 6, so I don't get much free time!

Julia Meek: Well now, (chuckles) that can even count as free time! (all laugh)

Sameer Patel: Exactly! I mean, there's nothing I love more than spending time with my kids and playing with them and going outside and having our adventures as we call it.

But you know, I'm a big, big reader, I love to follow the sport of tennis, I love to go for walks, spend time with my wife, and just kind of turn off the music sometimes I feel is a good thing for me.

Julia Meek: Besides classical music, what other genre can you say you do like to dive into, if you're diving?

Sameer Patel: I love jazz. And this is something, this is a passion that I found during the pandemic, it was one of my pandemic projects to really read about the story of jazz and the listen to jazz and believe it or not, to sit down at the piano and to try to teach myself some jazz harmony and the roots of jazz.

I'm completely classical trained. That was just such an eye-opening and fun experience. And even just learning about jazz itself. You know, it's a story of America. It's the story of American history, the good, the bad, the ugly, and it's a story of music that was born and created here on this soil.

And to see how it has spread into everything like rock and pop? And of course, there are so many great jazz musicians that are living and still creating things in all their performances.

And what I love about jazz too, is if you're a great jazz musician, and they're improvising, that music exists only in that moment and never exists again, unless it's recorded or something like that.

And even then you can't take away that special feeling of having been in the room when that happened. I'm just blown away by what jazz musicians are able to do.

Julia Meek: And now you're dabbling and even being a little bit of one. How wonderful?

Sameer Patel: I would only say in the privacy of my piano.

Julia Meek: (laughs) And back to work, what's on the near horizon for you, over and above your nine to five?

Sameer Patel: Yeah, so here I am in Indiana at the moment. Later this month. I am traveling to Omaha to guest conduct the Omaha Symphony and music by Stravinsky, Mendelssohn and some other modern composers.

And this season it's my first season in La Jolla. So I have three more concerts this season with the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, as well as I have my first concerts coming up for the winter with the Youth Orchestra in San Diego, the San Diego Youth Symphony. I'm very excited about that.

And also, this summer, I'll be returning to the New England Conservatory of Music to teach for two weeks. So lots of great things on the horizon. And as you know, Julia, there's never enough hours in the day...

Julia Meek: Never a dull moment either.

Sameer Patel: (chuckles) And never a dull moment. So I consider myself very fortunate to be able to keep, you know, part of me in the professional world, part of me working with students, part of me working with community music and community musicians.

And trying to nurture the next generation of musicians is really important to me, so I'm, I'm very fortunate.

Julia Meek: Good for you and for everyone whose lives you touch. And well, we do hope to see you again and again, Sameer and we're not going to give up hope with your itinerary being as full and varied as it is.

Before you go, what would you like to say to this very musical community that you do hold dear in your heart about its spirit and its future?

Sameer Patel: Well, this was an incredible chapter in my life. It was my first professional job and working with the musicians of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic was an incredible, incredible joy for me for those three years.

I gained valuable mentorship from Andrew Constantine, the music director, and through those numerous encounters I had with the musicians, I learned not only about their brilliant music making, but I also learned about their spirit and their heart.

And I remember in one of my very first early meetings, I said, when the general manager at the time said to me, okay, Sameer, this is the long list of all the concerts you're going to do this season. And I had a little mini freakout, I said, I don't know how to do any of that.

I didn't know how to do the Nutcracker, family concerts. I didn't know how to go on radio, Julia. I didn't know how to do anything.

And he said, don't worry, you're gonna learn and you know what? Everybody on that stage, all of the musicians on the stage, and also the staff off the stage and the community here in the city, you're gonna find that all of us have your back.

And that was my experience for these three years. I still say to people, what an incredible time I had here and how that chapter I had here in Fort Wayne, how it's influenced my entire life.

So it's, it's a community I hold very dear to my heart. And one of the exciting things then, about coming back and just getting a very short glimpse of all the exciting transformation that's happening.

When I left, it was right on the precipice of being ready to embark on their next chapter, not only in community development, but also building development, economic development, there was a lot of arts and culture about to burst at the seams.

And I'm just so proud to see where it's come in 10 years and to know about all the exciting things that are happening here. And I know that many, many, many great days are ahead here in this community, and it's just a joy to be back and to see this.

Julia Meek: Sameer Patel is music director and orchestra conductor of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus and artistic director of the San Diego Youth Symphony. Thanks for keeping us in your heart and on your itinerary. Sameer. Safe travels.

Sameer Patel: Thank you so much, Julia.

Julia Meek: Do carry the gift.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.