Vinay Parameswaran (B.A. in Music ‘09) is currently in his fifth season as Associate Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. He studied political science and music at Brown, but he didn’t plan to become a conductor. Either law school or a career as a pianist seemed to be more likely paths for him. However, as a performer in the Brown University Orchestra, he started to get curious about how conducting worked. He approached Paul Phillips, then-conductor of the Orchestra, with this curiosity, and Phillips took him on as a private student to teach him the basics. “I was taking the RIPTA bus down to Cranston to his house once a week,” says Parameswaran. “There’s a lot of things that a conductor has to know before they can even step on the podium.”
Once he did get up on that podium, Parameswaran still had to get over a learning curve: “I fell on my face many times, but thankfully, it was in front of my friends. So they forgave me.” He fell in love with conducting, with studying scores, making music with up to hundreds of people, trying to get inside a composer’s head. During his junior year, he put aside plans for law school and started to focus more on a future career as a conductor. He ended up going to graduate school for conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music, a small conservatory in Philadelphia.
Parameswaran’s first job after Curtis was as an assistant conductor for the Nashville Symphony. He stayed in Nashville for over three years, earning a promotion to associate conductor, and he says that this orchestra was a great place for him to kick off his career. “They do a lot of concerts -- I ended up doing almost two hundred concerts in my time there -- and they range all over the place. Classical concerts, family concerts; I did a ton of pops, which they don’t teach you in grad school.” He was able to work with Boys II Men, Diana Ross, and other famous singers, and he learned a lot about the versatility required to be a conductor in the U.S.
In January of 2017, Parameswaran was asked to apply to the associate conductor position at the Cleveland Orchestra. “For me, that orchestra was always the gold standard,” he says. “Some of the first recordings I ever had were from the Cleveland Orchestra.” He applied and was offered the job in March. Along with his role as associate conductor with the Orchestra, he’s also the music director for the Youth Orchestra there, “one of the really elite youth orchestras in the country.” His weeks in Cleveland are busy and full of different experiences, from studying scores at his piano at home, to helping edit the orchestra’s digital content, to spending weekends creating full programs with his youth orchestra -- not to mention the actual conducting.
“I am so thankful every day that I get to be at a place like this orchestra,” says Parameswran. “It’s not just the artistry -- that is amazing every day -- but the best part about this job is the people I work with. It’s the culture of the orchestra, the work ethic, the dedication to honest music-making, just the joy of working hard.” Conducting with the Cleveland Orchestra has been exactly the step Parameswaran needed, and he’s ready to move on to the next journey in his conducting career. He’ll be leaving the orchestra at the end of this season to move with his wife as she starts her veterinary residency, and then he’ll begin traveling to guest conduct so that he can see more orchestras. “That’s my next step, and then hopefully, down the road, there’s a music director job that I could get, and I can really build something wherever I end up.”
Reflecting on his time at Brown, Parameswaran appreciates the independence given to students and the quality of his music education. “The rigor of the curriculum was great, and just how much freedom we were given to explore what we loved, how much creativity was encouraged from us -- that’s what really made it special,” he says. Members of the faculty like James Baker and David Josephson, now Professors Emeriti, and current Professor of Music Michael Steinberg left an impact with their deep knowledge of music and close attention to the students. Parameswaran also loved the supportive atmosphere he felt with his fellow undergraduates at Brown and within the Department of Music. “There’s a really human quality of being a musician -- you have to be collaborative and listen to others, and the ethos of the department encouraged that,” he says. “It was never competitive or anything, we all just loved music.”
Parameswaran has some words of advice for students interested in conducting. “Just study, study, study and get your hands on as much music as you can, go to as many concerts as you can. Be curious and live in the music.” To all music students, he would urge them to reflect on their love for the art, something that he feels is an important practice in his own life. “Even if music becomes your job, don’t ever forget that joy you get from it, that wonderment you experienced the first time you heard a Mahler symphony. If you remember that, your music-making is going to be genuine and infectious.”