What's Happening at the Symphony

Behind the Scenes of Noel Noel with Sameer Patel

The holidays are in full swing at the San Diego Symphony. Copley Symphony Hall at Jacob’s Music Center is decked out in lights and greenery and rehearsals have begun for our holiday Noel Noel concerts. Associate Conductor Sameer Patel sat down with us between rehearsals to tell us all about what goes on behind the scenes to get ready for these spectacular concerts.

What excites you about this year’s concert?

I really feel this year’s program is quite special as the musical selections capture the wide variety of holiday sentiments: faith and tradition, nostalgia and joy, and wonder and excitement. And let’s face it: these concerts are just plain fun! I love that Noel Noel is an ongoing tradition for our audiences in San Diego and it’s heartwarming to know that so many people love spending their holidays with the San Diego Symphony.


Are there any challenges performing these holiday concerts?

The biggest challenge is that there are so many moving parts behind the scenes. And because we perform three different shows (in addition to Noel Noel there’s a special holiday concert for military families and there’s also a Family concert), each program has its own separate needs.  These shows take months of planning, countless number of meetings and discussions, and many hours spent studying and rehearsing the music. But it’s a wonderful feeling once we get to the performances ... it’s always touching to see how much these concerts and our music-making means to our audience.


Can you describe some of the preparation that goes into Noel Noel?

The first words that come to mind are a mantra from a famous speech by Bo Schembechler, the legendary football coach of my alma mater, the University of Michigan: “The Team, The Team, The Team.” These shows are a colossal team effort. I’m dependent on and grateful to a number of people who all do their part to make these concerts a success.

The planning starts many months before the first note is sounded at the Jacobs Music Center. It starts in the summer with a conversation with our CEO Martha Gilmer about the vision and direction of the program, and then I’ll submit programming drafts to our artistic team.  I’ll work closely with them on the selections I’ve chosen and we will look at numerous aspects of these programs: how does each selection fit within the overall flow of the show? Is there a good balance between sacred music and secular music? Is the orchestra featured enough? Is the amount of chorus music taxing on their voices? What would our guest artist Bryonha Marie Parham like to perform? And then together we may add, subtract, or move a piece around. After several programming drafts our two fantastic librarians, Courtney Cohen and Rachel Fields will then weigh in on the logistics of the music selections. Later on, they’ll go through a massive undertaking in preparing the sheet music not only for the San Diego Symphony, but also for the 100+ singers on stage. Courtney and Rachel are the unsung heroes of these shows.

After the program is finalized I’ll then meet with my tremendous conducting colleagues John Russell from the San Diego Master Chorale and Ruthie Millgard from the San Diego Children’s Choir. We’ll go through each chorus piece on the program and discuss tempi, diction, breath marks, and even where the choruses might sit, stand, or exit. This allows them to work with their own respective groups in the weeks leading up to our concerts. I’ll also go and rehearse each chorus separately prior to our orchestra rehearsals, which allows us to get to know each other before we’re all amassed on stage. The choruses are a joy to work with and I appreciate the energy they bring to these shows.

Prior to the orchestra’s first rehearsal I will meet with my colleagues Magda O’Neill and Victoria Moore to discuss and decide on musician personnel and rehearsal orders. I’ll also go over stage technicalities with Paige Satter and Nicole Houghton in our production department. We’ll talk through every detail of each show. They’ll make sure our hardworking stage crew can fit all of us on stage and they’ll oversee lighting cues, stage moves, and sound and microphone needs. By the time we get to the rehearsals it’s a matter of making sure that everything not only sounds good on stage but also looks good from a production angle as well.

And naturally at the heart of these shows are the fantastic Symphony musicians. I’m grateful to them for the way they share their artistry and spirit in these performances. But as you can see there are countless people that help these shows get off the ground – the artistic team keeps everything running efficiently backstage, the marketing team ensures we have an enthusiastic audience, the ticket office and ushers bring holiday cheer to those walking into the Jacobs Music Center, the facilities team makes sure the hall looks festive and is ready to go, our advancement team coordinates our free performances for military families, our learning and engagement team creates fun pre-concert activities for our Family concert ... I could go on and on.

So I suppose this is also one big thank you note. But that’s okay because part of the holidays is remembering to be grateful. And to “The Team” I mentioned above (and heaven forbid I forgot someone!) - I thank you.


What is your favorite holiday song to perform with the orchestra? Why?

There’s so much magic on these programs that I can’t say I have a favorite, though I do really love Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” I also love the grandeur of “O Holy Night” and the innocence of “Silent Night.” And I love our sing-a-longs – it’s an incredible feeling to be completely surrounded by sound with everybody on stage and in the audience joining together in the spirit of music. But there is one piece that I’m especially looking forward to sharing this year, which I stumbled upon while researching holiday music this summer and fell in love with instantly. It’s called “Glow,” by the composer Eric Whitacre, and was used at the Disney World of Color Winter Dreams show at Disneyland. It’s beautiful and I know our audience will be very moved by it.


What are some of your holiday traditions?

I grew up in Michigan where a “White Christmas” was almost always guaranteed. Naturally there were traditions associated with that kind of weather that are incompatible here in sunny San Diego, though I can’t say I miss the cold. So we’ve created our own holiday traditions here- visits to the Hotel Del Coronado, Jungle Bells at the San Diego Zoo, and lots of time spent with family and friends. My wife, Shannon and I also try to get to a local nursing home to perform some holiday music together with her singing and with me at the piano. We have a 15-month-old son at home, and ultimately there’s no greater joy than seeing him experience the wonder of the holidays.


Deck the halls with us at Copley Symphony Hall. Tickets are still available to our Noel Noel concerts. 

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