Please tell us about yourself
When one of the world’s leading orchestras calls, you answer, says Vinay Parameswaran: “The Cleveland Orchestra is the gold standard. And it’s actually the first orchestra that I ever listened to,” he says. So when the young conductor was asked to join, he jumped at the opportunity to bring it full circle.
In his new role as assistant conductor, Parameswaran looks forward to reaching out to local communities. “Going into schools and underprivileged neighborhoods to make connections through music is essential,” he says. His two-year post follows a summer at Tanglewood Music Center and a three-season stint with the Nashville Orchestra.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career? What did you study?
Vinay Parameswaran was born in Walnut Creek, California and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began playing piano at age 4 and percussion – initially drum set! – at the age of 6. By middle school he was already playing percussion in band and taking private percussion lessons, and from 7th grade until he graduated from high school he participated in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO).
In high school, Vinay took classes at San Francisco Conservatory of Music‘s Pre-College division, including lessons with Jack Van Geem, (then) Principal Percussion of the San Francisco Symphony and (still) Percussion Chair at SFCM. He also participated in debate, wrote for the school newspaper, tutored other students, and participated in piano and percussion competitions.
“Youth orchestra was my favorite extracurricular activity.” said Vinay. “I got to go on two international tours with SFSYO when I was in high school. On the first tour we went to Russia, Lithuania, and Ireland. The second tour was to Central Europe: we started that tour at the Musickverein in Vienna with the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony! Then concerts throughout Germany and France, ending with a performance at The Concertgebouwin Amsterdam! I was 16.”
Looking ahead to college, Parameswaran wanted to hone his musical skills while pursuing other interests. “I visited Brown and saw how much was going on in terms of the arts.” he says. “Once I got accepted, there was no question—I was going to Brown.”
Parameswaran decided to pursue an unlikely dual concentration: politics and music. “That can only happen at a place like Brown,” he says
Vinay attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island for his undergraduate studies and earned a B.A. with a double major in Music and Political Science. Initially he had interest in becoming a lawyer. But a high school music teacher named Ric Zappa had suggested that Vinay consider studying conducting, and it was while at Brown that he began his conducting studies.
Shortly after he realized he “was drawn to all the colors an orchestra can create,” he expressed an interest in conducting to Professor Paul Phillips, who generously took him on as a private student.
“We started from scratch: how to read a score, how to transpose instruments, how to figure out the structure of a piece. When we began setting scores together, I was hooked.” Phillips soon gave him podium time, which was unheard of for an undergraduate: “Of course I littered the floor with mistakes, but at least it was in front of my friends.”
He took lessons with Paul Phillips, brown’s orchestra director, including reading through scores at the piano, becoming familiar with different clefs and transpositions, baton technique….the first score he studied was Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. “And with that, I was hooked.” he said.
“At this time I was thinking of going to law school. Between my sophomore and junior years of college I interned with a classmate at the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, New York. During the days we helped process paperwork, interviewed victims and families….it was tough work, public assistance work. At night I was studying scores – Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – I began to think ‘maybe law school’s not for me, maybe I’ll give conducting a shot’.”
He applied to 10 schools to pursue conducting studies after graduating from Brown, although from the beginning his first choice was Curtis Institute of Musicin Philadelphia.
“My SFSYO conductor in 7th and 8th grades was Alasdair Neale, who studied with Otto-Werner Mueller at Yale in the 1980s. He encouraged me to apply to Curtis for the chance to study with Mueller, who is a legendary conducting pedagogue. Curtis was my last audition! I got into Eastman, but then – luckily – I was accepted into Curtis.”
Vinay attended Curtis from 2009 – 2013 and received an Artist Diploma in Conducting. Nashville Symphony Vice President of Artistic Administration Larry Tucker contacted Vinay about auditioning for the position of Assistant Conductor here in the summer of 2013, and he auditioned for the orchestra in September of that year. The rest is history.
How was the experience at Brown?
Today, Brown is expanding the footprint of the creative arts on campus—something Parameswaran says is endemic to the school’s identity: “Brown is brimming with creativity, so it’s a perfect match with what the University stands for: the freedom given students to take risks and explore different avenues.”
With the new Brown Arts Initiative, the University is formalizing the arts as a pivotal element in the academic experience. One of the cornerstones of this new initiative is the Performing Arts Center. The state-of-the art facility—slated to open in 2021—will host a range of performances from student groups to international artists.
“It’s special that a school of this caliber recognizes how much the arts can inform all the other departments. It’s going to make what’s already a vibrant campus much more of a destination,” says Parameswaran. “I hope I get to perform in these spaces!”
Your career path?
Vinay began as Assistant Conductor at the Nashville Symphony in January 2014, and was promoted to Associate Conductor beginning with the 2015 – 2016 season. His responsibilities included “covering” – learning the scores and being present and ready to take over in case of emergency – for every Classical Series concert. In addition he conducted many Pops Series concerts, Special concerts, and movie and video game music concerts.
During November and December of 2014, when I was transitioning from my position as choir and orchestra director at Nashville School of the Arts to my post at the symphony, the NSA Madrigal Singers performed as the chorus on the symphony’s Pied Piper performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Vinay met with me to discuss our role in the production, and visited me and the choir at NSA to rehearse. It was the first of many collaborations.
We have spent many hours together since then, sketching out themes and programming with Larry Tucker and discussing scripts with Kelley Bell: for Nashville Symphony Young People’s Concerts, Pied Piper Series concerts, and Community Concerts. Vinay conducted nearly all of these performances. He also conducted Free Day of Music performances, Side By Side concerts with Curb Youth Symphony, and served on the jury panel for the final round of the Curb Concerto Competition each year he was here.
I asked Vinay about what he felt were his personal highlights of the last few years here.
“Conducting a concert with Itzhak Perlman in March 2014 was a fantastic experience and very memorable. And of course, the opportunity to program and conduct my first Classical Series subscription concerts last fall was a tremendous experience.”
Vinay’s first Classical Series concerts in October 2016 featured Tumblebird Contrails, which was composed by Gabriella Smith, a classmate from Curtis; Grieg’s Piano Concerto featuring soloist Conrad Tao; and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. Vinay speaks about his Classical Series debut here.
” I loved so many of the things I was able to do here.” said Vinay. “Before I came, I had never conducted a Young People’s Concert or a Pied Piper Concert. My favorite Young People’s Concerts were the ones for Kindergarteners. They are so enraptured by what is going on on stage.”
Vinay also expressed how impressed he was but the symphony’s commitment to reaching new audiences
“My favorite runout concerts were the ones to communities in rural areas beyond Nashville. I received many emails and other messages of appreciation from people who attended those concerts. It really shows that we made an impact with our music. When we perform music that is this meaningful it doesn’t feel like work.”
“I’ve really loved my time here.” he said. “I’m grateful that I was able to start my career in a place that allowed me to grow and where I felt I had artistic freedom. I’m especially grateful to the orchestra – they have been very generous. Giancarlo and the symphony staff have been first class!”
It’s been a truly wonderful experience working with Vinay – we will all miss him. Not only is he a superb musician and conductor, he is a kind and thoughtful person and all-round superlative human being. I am excited to watch what will happen in the coming years for him and his career, and proud that we had the opportunity to work together to make some innovative and impactful education and community programs a reality here at the Nashville Symphony.
Tell us about your work
His wish might very well come true. Parameswaran’s achievements include leading more than 150 performances, winning two Concerto Competitions on different instruments (timpani and piano), and conducting “Two x Four,” a recording which received a GRAMMYⓇ nomination in 2014 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
Parameswaran credits much of his success to Brown and his unique mentorship with Phillips: “Without his help, there’s absolutely no way I would have had a career.” He has given back to Brown every year since graduation by volunteering as an alumni interviewer. “The University did so much for me that I feel like it’s my duty to give back in some way. It’s a lot of fun to do.”
Parameswaran’s love of collaboration and teamwork—on and off stage—will serve him well as he works alongside some of the world’s best musicians. “The Cleveland Orchestra attracts the biggest stars in classical music!” he says. Something tells us they just gained one more.