To say that the Fulbright changed my life would be an understatement

Jun 18, 2018

Viswa Subbaraman, US
Fulbright Scholar, 2012-2013
Opera and Orchestra conductor


To say that the Fulbright changed my life would be an understatement – American overuse of hyperbole not withstanding. When I graduated from Texas Tech with a Masters in conducting, had someone told me that I would build the life that I have lived to this point, I would have laughed in their faces. The turning point in my life was the Fulbright Grant.

I will never forget receiving an email in April 2002 telling me that I had been selected to receive a Fulbright to France, but it would hinge on me finding a different project. Luckily, one of my previous teachers had a connection to John Nelson and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, so I was able to actually accept the Fulbright. I will never forget the aloneness I felt the first three months in Paris. Had anyone handed me a ticket to return to Midland, TX, I would have gladly taken it.

But, through all that, I grew. I learned what it meant to be a citizen abroad. I began to learn what it meant to be a citizen of the world. My French began to improve (thanks to late night viewings of Docteur Quinn femme medecin). There was the crazy night my neighbor was locked out of his flat at 1:00AM, and it turned into our letting the locksmith down on a rope from my balcony. (Poor Fifi the dog!) There were the nights with fellow Fulbrighters – many of whom have become my closest friends. Some of whom I speak to weekly.

The life changing moment for me was my accidental audition for Kurt Masur and the Orchestre National de France. Who would have thought that my poor French would have been the best thing to ever happen to me? A friend told me that Masur was doing a masterclass in Paris, so I found the advertisement online, it seemed to be a masterclass, but it was not. I applied in the hopes of learning from Maestro Masur. In the end, I was selected in the audition to be his assistant.

with Didier de Cottignes, Bruno Hamard (now with Orchestre de Paris), Tomoko Masur, Kurt Masur, and me

This was the beginning of my true conducting career. Maestro Masur was the mentor I had always needed, but it also opened the door to meeting and learning from the musicians of the Orchestre National de France. In fact, on our first tour through Europe with Masur, the concertmaster of the Orchestre National de France, Sarah Nemtanu starting teaching me French because my spoken French was so bad. I was amazed that 15 years later, on my most recent trip to Paris, I snuck into a rehearsal of the Orchestre National, and they almost reduced me to tears in their welcoming me back as though I was family who had never left. Two years ago, we lost Maestro Masur, and I was honored to be invited to his memorial service in New York. As distraught as I was, Mrs. Masur hugged me and said, « Viswa, do you know why I am not as sad as you? » When I asked her why, she replied, « Because every time you pick up a baton, Kurt lives. »

With Maestro Kurt Masur in a water taxi in Venice

The legacy of the Fulbright is of course the opening of doors to other cultures and people. I don’t know where I would be without my French friends – both in France and in the United States. But, in the end, the Fulbright allows for a search for knowledge. Hearing Pierre Boulez rehearse his own music; watching John Nelson work with singers; and in the end learning from Maestro Masur as we traveled through Europe. Every time I open a score, and I see a note that says, « KM said… », the Fulbright gave me the opportunity to carry on a musical tradition and allow those great moments to exist and continue.

With John Nelson

Even now, I am contemplating a return to Paris because it has become the place I feel the most life and opportunity. Perhaps in the next year, I shall find my flat in the 11eme arrondissement, and the French adventures can continue? So many of my accomplishments can be linked to receiving the Fulbright and my subsequent extension. I could write story after story about my times in Paris – some of which I’m sure Julien Hardy, Mark O’Tool, and Jovonne Bickerstaff would probably glare at me for, but when an experience is so foundational, the stories just keep going. I’m honored to be a Fulbright alumnus, but more than that, I am thankful.


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