With the unusual number of guest conductors leading the San Diego Symphony this season, it might be easy to miss a new face that is actually a recent addition to the orchestra’s conducting team, Assistant Conductor Sameer Patel.After three years of conducting in the Midwest with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and the Chicago Sinfonietta, Patel joined the San Diego Symphony staff this summer and will lead the orchestra Sunday, November 1, in a Family Festival concert titled “A Walk through Balboa Park: Celebrating San Diego’s Landmark,” a program that features classical works by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, John Williams and others that suggest the park’s gardens, fountains, and historic buildings.
Patel’s San Diego podium debut in July proved more than auspicious, playing to a crowd of over 7,000 at the Symphony’s Summer Pops Star Wars spectacular during Comic-Con, one of San Diego’s defining annual rituals.
“It was the most enthusiastic audience I’ve ever seen in my life,” Patel said. “When John Williams gave a welcome on video, the crowd roared its approval, because everyone there knew who the Star Wars composer was. And after every piece we played, their ecstatic applause sent chills down my spine.”
Part of the enthusiasm of that concert was its surprise factor—none of the Comic-Con attendees knew beforehand that this symphony concert was scheduled, and all of the preparations were kept secret.
“We could not rehearse at the Marina Park South site, because it is adjacent to the San Diego Convention Center, so we rehearsed our music in a hall down at the Musicians Union, Local 325.” Patel also explained that even the rehearsal was conducted under the watchful eyes of security guards sent from the Disney Company, and that the orchestra members were sworn to complete secrecy prior to the performance.
Once the Comic-Con crowd was brought from the Convention Center to the SummerPops site, they were given light sabers—which had also been carefully guarded and secreted away—and treated to onstage appearances of Star Wars actors Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamil and Harrison Ford, as well as director J. J. Abrams.Sunday’s Family Festival audience probably won’t break into the rhythmic chanting of “Thank you, thank you” like the Star Wars audience did after Patel took his final bow and exited the Summer Pops stage, but the young conductor is equally enthusiastic about bringing symphonic music to new and young audiences, the major function of an Assistant Conductor here in San Diego.
Although Patel and his wife live near Balboa Park and had casually visited it on their own, he decided that to choose the right music for an orchestral program saluting the park on its 100th anniversary, he needed the insights of an expert.
“We were fortunate that Park Ranger Kim Duclo was able to give us a private, two-hour tour of Balboa Park in June,” Patel explained, “and I was so taken with his in-depth knowledge of the park, that I invited him to serve as co-host for Sunday’s concert.”
Other program connections to Balboa Park include the guest appearance of dancers from the Civic Youth Ballet, an organization that is based in the park, and a salute to the park’s famous Spreckels Organ, “Sea Fanfare on a Theme by Monteverdi” by the contemporary Italian composer Salvatore DiVittorio. The orchestra intended to premiere this new work—with its prominent organ part—at a free concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion this summer, but the program was rained out. Patel thought the Sunday concert was a perfect opportunity to feature this new work.
When asked how he approached presenting classical orchestral music to younger audiences, he said that Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young People’s Concerts (1958-1972) served as his touchstone.
“It has to be a careful balance of enthusiasm for the music and authenticity in its interpretation. And I never talk down to my audience.”