Donald Munro

In impressive outing, Patel sets bar high for remaining Fresno Philharmonic conductor candidates

I’m guessing Sameer Patel got on the plane from Fresno to San Diego whistling a happy tune.

Patel, the associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony, was the first of six finalists vying for the position of conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic to visit. He arrived last week for an intense job interview that included search-committee interviews, photo ops with young musicians, mingling with subscribers, schmoozing with donors and meeting the media.

Plus, the most important part: conducting the orchestra in the opening concert Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre.

He ended up setting the bar quite high for the remaining five candidates.

Strong without being overbearing and precise without being mechanical, Patel – dressed in a spiffy Nehru-style black suit – on Sunday brought a charged intensity to a concert that showcased the orchestra in bright, bountiful moments. (The program consisted of Jonathan Leshnoff’s contemporary piece “Starburst,” Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor – featuring guest soloist Gabriela Martinez in a virtuosic performance – and concluding with the gorgeous Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major.)

The music was stellar. It had a crisp ambiance that suggested a conductor in sync with his players.

And Patel’s connection with that music – nearly stormy when need be but dispassionate when appropriate – was clear. Part of the magic of any kind of music is chemistry, and he delivered it in often subtle but sometimes striking interludes.

Behind the scenes

Before the concert, I got an opportunity to meet Patel both in a lunch interview (which included a Facebook Live interview) and backstage at a rehearsal and the performance. I watched him interact with the musicians during the rehearsal process and talk to the audience in “Words on Music,” the pre-concert lecture.

You can read some of my impressions about Patel as a person in an online piece I posted Friday. While it is hard to truly get to know someone in a couple of meetings, he struck me as an exceedingly thoughtful, gently ambitious musician who would bring high expectations and an even higher degree of musicianship to the job of music director. Outgoing and friendly, he’s quite deft in social situations, always important for the fundraising and educational components of a conductor’s job duties.

A few excerpts from our piece:

Does he get nervous? “I love meeting people. I’m a very extroverted person. I enjoy meeting people from all walks of life. I’m very much my mother’s son in that regard. I’m also very much a Midwesterner, in that I talk to just anyone I possibly can. That’s something we do, I guess.”

Attracting younger listeners: “There’s no one answer to this. Orchestras in general have an identity crisis. Nobody knows the fundamental answer.” He’s big on programming music by living composers: “Otherwise we become museums.”

Music on his iPhone: Three albums right now: jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, Radiohead’s “A Moon-Shaped Pool”; and Johnny Greenwood’s “Junun.”

Froelich’s take

For the concert itself, I asked Fresno State music composition professor Kenneth Froelich to join me in the audience. While conducting isn’t Froelich’s specific expertise, he knows a great deal about music, and I thought he’d be a good person to offer a viewpoint. Here are some of his thoughts on the overall concert:

Connection to the Leshnoff: “Patel had a clear and precise connection to the music. The Leshnoff presented itself with a challenging rhythmic palette and required the conductor to be somewhat locked into the meter and tempo of the work. What I saw was that Patel appeared to be impeccably clear and that his conducting ensured that the nuanced rhythmic lines were able to shine through.” Froelich was also happy to hear a work by a contemporary living composer such as himself.

Connection to the Mozart: “I saw the same level of precision. The challenge in that piece is not so much about the rhythm but more about ensuring that the transparent operatic texture is on display.” Froelich says Patel at all times allowed the operatic lyrical lines to come through, which is necessary for music of the classical era.

Connection to the Sibelius: Patel “showed the greatest degree of intensity where he was channeling the sheer joy of the music to great effect,” Froelich says.

Presence on the podium: Patel was strong, Froelich says. “At the same time, he was never a distraction. He knew exactly when it was necessary to add additional motion to bring out more from the ensemble and when to step back and let the music shine. His presence never overshadowed the music, and that is a wonderful thing.”

Connection to the orchestra: “Based upon the overall quality of the music, I would say that he was able to demonstrate a powerful connection with the orchestra. He brought out a pure musicality from the ensemble.”

Overall sound: “While I hate to resort to hyperbole,” Froelich says, “I honestly cannot remember the last time the Fresno Philharmonic sounded this strong. Patel brought out the absolute best qualities of the ensemble. The tone and power of the brass, particularly during the Sibelius, majestically filled the hall with a resonance that could send shivers up your spine.

Final thoughts

An impression sticks with me more than any from the concert: Patel’s arms wide in the most effusive moments of the Sibelius, marking the beat in great, sweeping gestures, and you could almost feel his muscles quiver as he coaxed the most from his players. I feel something deep within, a soaring, emotional pull. Then the final pluck of the strings in the movement, and those arms slowly lowering to a hushed conclusion: dramatic without being heavy-handed.

The applause in the Saroyan is long and effusive.

One person tells me at the reception: “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen the string section really smile.”

There are five more talented conductors to come. It’s going to be a tough competition, I think. As Froelich tells me afterward: “I think he set a really high bar. It’s the job of the other candidates to demonstrate that they can meet and exceed that.”