ArtsPaper Interview: Alexander Platt
May 30, 2009
By Greg Stepanich
Palm Beach Arts Paper
BOCA RATON -- The Boca Raton Symphonia is, along with the Master Chorale of South Florida and the Delray String Quartet, one of the few area cultural institutions to have emerged and thrived from the demise of the Florida Philharmonic in May 2003.
Since October 2007, the Boca Symphonia has been led by Alexander Platt, 43, a New York-born musician now resident in Chicago who, in the manner of most conductors today, has other directing jobs. He leads two other orchestras (the Marion Philharmonic of Indiana and the Waukesha Symphony of Wisconsin), serves as resident conductor of the Chicago Opera Theater, and runs the Maverick Concerts chamber music series each summer in Woodstock, N.Y.
His leadership of the Boca Symphonia has been distinctive for its fresh, challenging programming. In the season just ended, the Boca group performed music by two contemporary American composers Ė Libby Larsen and Jonathan Leshnoff Ė as well as rarely heard works by Benjamin Britten (the Suite on English Folk Tunes, Op. 90) and Antonin Dvorak (the Symphony No. 5 in F, Op. 76).
The upcoming season promises the same kind of inventiveness, as Platt has scheduled works by four American composers Ė Aaron Jay Kernis (Air for Violin) and Ned Rorem (Violin Concerto), as well as Aaron Copland (Music for the Theatre) and Samuel Barber (the Capricorn Concerto) Ė and European rarities including the First Symphony of a teenage Franz Schubert (in D, D. 82), and the Second Symphony of Felix Mendelssohn (in B-flat, Op. 52, Lobgesang).
That Mendelssohn symphony has a big choral finale, but Platt will replace it with a rarely heard Mendelssohn overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which Platt says will flow seamlessly out of the third movement of the Second, creating a new all-instrumental Mendelssohn symphony.
Palm Beach ArtsPaperís Greg Stepanich talked with Platt on May 13 from the conductorís home in Chicago. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Stepanich: The programs for the Boca Symphonia have been distinguished by some rarely heard music and some contemporary music in what you have referred to as the ďhouse styleĒ for the orchestra. Itís something you feel strongly about, and I was wondering whether you could walk me through why you think itís so important.
Platt: I think in the crises that all these orchestras, not only in Florida but all over the country, have been facing, I think itís more important than ever to do concerts that really matter, to create a concert that is a work of art in itself. And half the reason I stay in this business is for the joy of putting together for an audience a great combination of works that somehow speak more powerfully together than they even do on their own.
Stepanich: How have audiences reacted to this approach, especially in Boca?
Platt: I think weíre slowly but surely building up a solid audience that recognizes the quality of the programming and responds in kind. That program we did around works like the Dvorak Fifth Symphony or the Tchaikovsky First Orchestral Suite, where we did these great 19th-century works that had basically been forgotten, along with these great works of more recent vintage, such as the Libby Larsen songs [Sonnets from the Portuguese], or that wonderful Benjamin Britten Suite on English Folk Tunes Ė Iím still so, so proud of how perfectly the orchestra played that piece Ė that really is what inspires me to stay on the site, in Boca, in South Florida, and keep this orchestra going.
Stepanich: How do you choose programs for the orchestra? I noticed you did [Brittenís opera] Owen Wingrave at Cambridge, and the Chicago Opera Theatre is doing it next weekÖ.
Platt: The preview is tomorrow [May 14], actually. Iím doing the penultimate of my Tragedy of Carmen [an adaptation by Marius Constant of Bizetís opera] tonight and Friday. And tomorrow weíll do the preview of Owen Wingrave, where Iíll be there very enthusiastically, but as a spectator. Steuart Bedfordís conducting it.
Stepanich: When you were doing Wingrave, did you say, ĎIíve got to find some good Britten to do with an orchestra some day?í Is that the kind of thing that leads you to the kinds of programs you do?
Platt: Yeah, all these passions had their crucible in my teenage years. Like a lot of musicians, a lot of creative people, I had a somewhat lonely childhood. I was drawn to the obscure, drawn to the forgotten masters, drawn to the works that had been overlooked.
I guess you can say when I was in college, when I did Wingrave, which I think is a work of real greatness, I was instinctively attracted to it because it had been neglected.
Stepanich: When you got to do the major pieces, was your faith in the quirky ones justified?
Platt: You know what? I think I can say nine times out of 10 my faith is justified. Iím only human and sometimes I get it wrong, but most of the time I get it right.
Iíll give you an example: This Dvorak Fifth Symphony that we did so beautifully together in Boca, where, to my astonishment, at the beginning of the first rehearsal, I blithely asked: ďHow many of us have ever played this piece before?Ē
Assuming that, say, half of the orchestra had played it because itís always been on the fringes of the repertoire, you know; I remember a couple years ago hearing the New York Philharmonic play it with Riccardo Muti.
And to my astonishment, not a single hand went up. And that was how my sort of lonely fight for this piece was so vindicated in that performance.
I remember years ago, on the other side of the coin, in Racine [Wisconsin], I did the Dvorak First Symphony. And letís just say I sorely realized why that piece is never performed. Itís the only one of the nine symphonies Dvorak never got to revise.
Itís that famous story of how he wrote out the manuscript and sent it off to Vienna for some competition and never heard back, and the score surfaced in the 1920s in some antique shop in Prague. Crazy. Iíd like to go back to it, but Iíd have to completely reorchestrate it, because it just has a lot of problems.
But Iím very proud to say that nine times out of 10, Iím right.
Stepanich: That reminds me of the work you did restoring the Erwin Stein [chamber orchestra] version of Mahlerís Fourth. Is doing that work preferable to conducting?
Platt: Oh, no, itís not preferable. I just think itís important for conductors to have some other vocation in their lives as musicians.
Because there are a lot of conductors who, as you know, also are great pianists, there are a lot of conductors who are great violinists. I think for me, since Iím neither of those things, doing arranging and orchestrating, creating new visions of great works, allows kind of a sideline that brings me back to earth, that brings me and keeps me inside of the music.
And then running a chamber music festival in the summertime [the Maverick Concerts] also just allows me to be the maestro while not being the fellow in the hot seat. And it also allows me to experience music in a different kind of way.
I think conductors for their own benefit need something like that to keep them human. I worry about conductors who just conduct. I worry about those people. I think the evidence is telling, without naming names.
This is just a vital sideline for me, and as you know I still have a great vision of bringing to Boca this other chamber orchestra arrangement I did, which is David Del Trediciís Final Alice, which Iím still in the process of revising. I think the Mahler Fourth was a tea party compared to this. Itís even more vast a project.
Stepanich: I had to sing that [in the chorus] when I was a composition student at Boston University in the early Ď80s. That piece was such a big deal at the time.
Platt: It was such a big deal, and I grew up with that recording made by the Chicago Symphony with Georg Solti. And then it just kind of dropped out of sight, and I think the main reason being that itís so incredibly expensive to perform. He basically has written for an orchestra of about 123 people, and Iíve reduced it for an orchestra of about 23 people. And itís still massively difficult, but it really, really does work. It really, really, really works.
Stepanich: This is something that Del Tredici sanctioned?
Platt: Oh, yeah, he completely sanctioned it. Itís been an amazing experience working with him and making it happen, and revising it. He is really one of the supreme musicians in America. Heís like a kind of Richard Strauss. To watch him work has been an amazing experience.
Stepanich: Youíve worked with a lot of smaller orchestras, Waukesha, RacineÖ
Platt: Yes, in fact, last night I was rehearsing the Rachmaninov Second Symphony in Waukesha.
Stepanich: The long version?
Platt: Oh, yeah, the long version. I make one little cut in the finale, but Iím not saying where.
Stepanich: Weíll see if anyone notices.
Platt: Alexander Platt, prince of the blue pencil.
Stepanich: Since youíve worked with all those regional orchestras, that raises questions about the future of orchestras in general. Some say big orchestras wonít make it, but if we do smaller orchestras weíre in better shape. Are you a partisan of either side in that debate?
Platt: No, Iím actually totally non-ideological about that. I think in some communities, like Boca, I feel this really is perfect, the Symphonia is the perfect-sized orchestra. And youíve got such a depth of talent in the string section, as we have proved this past season.
And Iím so grateful that youíve recognized this, because there are works, carefully chosen by the principal conductor, that are big works that can be played by a lean orchestra.
Other communities Ė you know, Iím rehearsing this Rachmaninov Second with a very large orchestra in Waukesha. I know this is an orchestra that few people have heard of, but itís a very serious orchestra, and has always been, for 62 years.
And this Rachmaninov Second, given the hall that we have, given what that community wants to hear, this is the perfect kind of music for that community.
So Iím totally non-ideological about this. I can conduct orchestras of 15 or 150. It all depends on what works in the situation.
Stepanich: Let’s go back a little. What is your major instrument?
Platt: I’m a viola player. I was a viola player.
Stepanich: You don’t play much anymore?
Platt: No, I don’t take that thing out of the case.
Stepanich: How did you get excited about music in the first place?
Platt: I grew up in a community where my parents were not both musical, but we had a great public school arts program. And it actually was the viola that took me into music, because I was a very bored and not-at-all-accomplished violinist. Back in those days – it really isn’t true anymore, now we know that viola sections of the major orchestras are just like, monsters, they’re amazing – but back when I was a kid, nobody wanted to play viola. It was the ugly duckling of the string section. And I guess this says something about my personality, but I said, “I’d like to play viola.” I was fascinated by this instrument for which there were almost no concertos, this ungainly, large version of a violin. And I said, “OK, I’ll do that,” and from the moment I started playing I got hooked. I loved being the middle voice in the orchestra, because you had to listen to everything around you. I think there’s a reason why a lot of the great conductors were viola players, like Pierre Monteux and Carlo Maria Giulini, many great conductors. And that really got me interested. This ties into something that’s become my credo: Love of the neglected, the inner voice, the obscure. There’s something about that that keeps me going.
Stepanich: The vital but unrecognized.
Platt: Yeah. So then when I approach a work like last night, the Rachmaninov Second Symphony, it feels so fresh. I’m not at all jaded about this. I can just look at the majesty of this piece like a kid.
Stepanich: You must have been a rather good violist, to get into the Tanglewood program.
Platt: Let’s just say I got in not by talent but by hard work.
Stepanich: So when did you decide to pursue conducting?
Platt: It was actually at Tanglewood. I can tell you exactly when it happened, because I had a summer as a teenage viola player, and curiously [I sat principal in the orchestra], even though it was quite obvious that I was not the best player – I was not the worst, but I wasn’t the best; I was somewhere in the middle of a rather large viola section. And at the end of the summer we all had to present a work in recital. I played the Darius Milhaud Viola Sonata incredibly poorly. And I had to play it for the jury, for the professors, one of whom was Victor Yampolsky, who is a major conductor and pedagogue, and a professor at Northwestern here in Chicago. And it was just terrible. It was horrible. And at the end of it I was out on the lawn, that beautiful lawn at Tanglewood, and I saw him. And I said, “Professor Yampolsky, maestro, I have to ask you. I’m clearly not the best player in the viola section. Why did you seat me as principal for most of the summer?” And his answer, which came back instantly, and which just stunned me, was: “Well, you obviously weren’t the best player, but you were the best leader. So that’s why we put you there.” And a little light went on inside, and I think that was the moment I realized that maybe being a conductor was the best way that I could be in music.
Stepanich: When did you pick up the baton for the first time?
Platt: It was in high school. In my last year of high school, I conducted my high school choir, and from then on I was hooked. I began at Yale, and in the grand Ivy League tradition, I just put out my own shingle and formed my own orchestra. When other guys were out drinking with their frat-boy fellows, I was up all night begging musicians to play in some ad hoc orchestra where I was doing the Mozart Requiem or something. I had an amazing four years. We did what I try to do in Boca: We put great events together. We did things like liturgical performances of the Mozart Requiem, the Faure Requiem, on All Souls’ Day. We did Walton’s Façade with people from the American Repertory Theatre. We did all these crazy things, and often to really, really large audiences. I’ll never forget doing Battell Chapel, the university chapel at Yale, the Mozart Requiem on All Souls’ Day, and the proceeds were going to go to AIDS Project New Haven, and there was all this – you could feel the controversy in the air. But it was packed. You could really feel the energy, that idea of music being dangerous.
Stepanich: That sounds very Ivy League. It’s always got to be something big.
Platt: But then I turned around and did my first opera, which was Benjamin Britten’s [chamber opera] Rape of Lucretia, which also still had kind of a capacity to shock in the early 1980s.
Stepanich: Then you went off to England, and you got interested in 19th-century music. Was that the kind of music you felt the most affinity for?
Platt: It’s interesting: I have this great interest in a modernist composer like Britten, but at the end of the day I’m definitely a man of the 19th century. And that was a time, remember, in the 1980s, when in academia the 19th century was seen as fusty, and sentimental, and totally unfashionable. And I think now in this splintered and volatile age in which we live, I think people are finally going back to look at the 19th century as actually a great, great era. Of course, there were a lot of horrible things that happened, but when you look at the history of the European imperial powers, there is actually a lot of what they did that made a lot of sense. I know this is horribly idealistic, but I’m very attracted to the Habsburg Empire as really the founders of multiculturalism. They really were. It’s not for nothing that my favorite novel is probably Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. It’s just this paean to all the glory that was gone in the Habsburg Empire, which eventually obviously creaked under its own weight, but this idea that as long as you followed a certain tradition and allegiance, you really could basically be anything that you wanted. And this idea of this diverse group of people under one crown: I think there’s a lot in this day in which we live, I think there’s a lot to commend the 19th century. So I’ve always been kind of attracted to that. I think that’s when I began to delve into that world, because I was doing other modernist things or I was doing Mozart Requiems and things like that.
Stepanich: Is there any composer from the 19th century you thought was shamefully overlooked?
Platt: I’ve always been a huge fan of Dvorak. Mendelssohn I’m very attracted to, and I think Mendelssohn has finally come into his own. I think we’re finally getting to the point where we can say that Mendlessohn is not underrated. I mean, there are works of his that are still underrated and unplayed, and as you know I’m doing this symphonic portion of the Second Symphony, the Lobgesang, which is going to be a concoction of my making, and I’m totally confident is going to work like hand in glove. But of all of them I think Dvorak is the most neglected. I remember being at Tanglewood and hearing the great Joseph Silverstein, the longtime concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, say something that would be unthinkable today. I’ll never forget him telling the conducting class: “We all know that Mendelssohn is the greater orchestrator, but Schumann is the greater composer.” That’s a totally ridiculous thing to say, which you couldn’t say now, because in the last 20 years, we have delved more finely, we have truly delved more deeply into the world of these two great composers, and have realized they are truly great composers and great orchestrators in their own way. Similarly, to this day, I think when we think of Dvorak, we think, “Well, he’s not as great as Brahms, but they were buddies, and isn’t that nice? They were kind of like Haydn and Mozart.” But Dvorak is an absolute towering genius, it’s just that his kind of genius is totally different from that of Brahms. Dvorak could have never written the Brahms Fourth Symphony; Brahms could have never written the New World [Symphony]. And there’s a reason why we hear that piece all the time. Because the New World Symphony is like a Brahms Fourth: it’s perfect. It’s a perfect piece. It’s like Beethoven. There’s not one note that’s extraneous. And Brahms could have never written that piece. They’re equally, profoundly great, but in profoundly different ways. Again, I love the idea of a culture in which a Brahms, a totally German Viennese, and Dvorak, a butcher’s son from Bohemia who could then become the musical monarch of Prague, could all exist in one apostolic empire.
Stepanich: And he was a viola player, too.
Platt: (laughs) And he, like me, was a hapless viola player. The unsung hero.
Stepanich: And Brahms could never have written the Dvorak Cello Concerto, either.
Platt: No, and he could have never written the unbelievable late Dvorak string quartets. Let’s be honest. I mean, I love the Brahms quartets, but Dvorak’s string quartets are superior.
Stepanich: I wanted to ask about working down in Boca, how you came to work here, and what makes it different than your other jobs.
Platt: It’s totally different than any other job I have because the weather’s great. (laughs) When I go down there, the moment I’m getting into my rental car, I feel like a new man. It’s just the feel of the air, the sunlight: It’s something I really need for myself. You know, this job just happened by pure luck and timing. I was one of several people who came down to conduct in the early days, one of several rotating guest conductors. And I was invited to do the Festival of the Arts Boca. At the 11th hour, [flutist] James Galway decided he couldn’t play and conduct at the same time, and so they brought me in at 48 hours’ notice to conduct that program with him. And that was such an electric experience -- that culminated in that magical Mendelssohn Italian Symphony that we did together -- that the die was cast. And they created a kind of post for me. It’s really been a blessing in my life, and I think my wonderful board of directors agree that I bring something also unique to them. It’s been great all around.
Stepanich: These programs you do have your own personal stamp on them, so how do you consult with your board on what’s going to be on the programs?
Platt: We have an artistic advisory committee, very devoted people who work on these. And a couple of these programs – I won’t go into details – a couple of these programs in the brochure that I’m doing still could be tweaked a little. Watch this page; I’ll get back to you on this. Even the one I’m not conducting, the one that the very talented Scott Yoo is going to conduct [March 21, 2010], that’s a program I put together with my committee that I’m just very proud of. I mean, look at that: you see Copland, Mendelssohn and Rodrigo, three composers from three totally different worlds. But then – and I’m glad you asked me, because I think this is very, very important – think of those three composers from three totally different worlds, and yet what unites those three works: Music and theater and magic, and music of the night, the slow movement of the Rodrigo [Concierto de Aranjuez], much of Copland [Music for the Theatre], the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream. Think of how, on a more subtle, much deeper level, those three totally disparate works just go together so beautifully. That program was a joy to put together, and I’m deeply envious that I’m not going to conduct it, but I’m sure Scott Yoo will do a lovely job.
Stepanich: They all have that sort of magic feel….
Platt: Right, and programs like that just don’t come together. You have to have a certain background culturally to have the mental equipment to do that. It’s not like saying, Let’s do a Mozart overture, a Beethoven concerto and a symphony by Brahms. Anyone can do that.
Stepanich: Which begs the question: How do you go about creating such a program? What kind of things are paramount for you?
Platt: It really is like a chef in the kitchen putting together a great meal with the ingredients he has. We, as a committee, we talk about soloists we’d like to bring in in the coming season, major works we’d like to bring to our public and then we set about putting these things together into beautiful programs, and I do very sincerely work with this committee, and it’s understood I have the final say, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work with them. At the end of the day, somebody has to be the boss, like any part of life. But these programs really are better -- and I’m not just saying this to be politically correct – at the end of the day, I have to have the final say. That’s just how it has to be, and any conductor would say that. But with equal sincerity I would tell you that these programs would not be as good as they are if it hadn’t gone through the process of consulting with the committee. Because you really do learn from other people’s ideas and feelings. I know that sounds like I’m a Lutheran pastor or something, but it’s really true. This is where it really is true that, as Daniel Barenboim says, music really can be the school for life. It is this laboratory where people really can work together.
Stepanich: Let’s take a look at that last program. The Copland [Music for the Theatre] is not often done….
Platt: I can’t think of a piece that captures the spirit, the real, real, real inner spirit of New York in the 1920s, [better] than this piece. It is the equal of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But because it’s a little thornier, we don’t hear it as often.
Stepanich: Because it would be the end of the season, were you trying to do something ….
Platt: Something celebratory. I wanted to do the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I also thought: music and theater, I thought, gosh, Copland’s Music for the Theatre, I’ve always wanted to do that piece. And it’s also got these amazing trumpet solos, it’s a great showcase for our principal trumpet and director of artistic operations, the wonderful, the indispensable, Jeff Kaye.
Stepanich: You’ve got a lot of different gigs and you’re wearing a lot of hats. That has to be difficult to juggle. How do you manage all that? Do you use, I don’t know, a whiteboard or some technical application?
Platt: No, I’m the last Luddite of my generation. I mean, at 43 I still have a morocco leather pocket calendar. I don’t have an iPod. I guess I’m just sort of a 19th-century eccentric who’s just making his way in this post-modern world. I’m totally non-technological. As my friends know, it’s totally pathetic. Or, depending on your viewpoint, it’s a breath of fresh air. I think the world needs a few people who still write in longhand.
Stepanich: Personally, I think we’re going to get to a point very soon where we’re going to get a whole lot of Luddites and refuseniks, because there’s so much technological push … there’s going to be a lot of opting out, I think.
Platt: I kind of realized, maybe ahead of a lot of other people, that basically a lot of this high technology – especially in communications, I mean, e-mail is great, it’s fantastic, it’s a great way to communicate at any hour of the day or night. It combines the best, and I should also say sometimes the worst, attributes of a letter and a telephone call. But it’s a great way to communicate, and that’s terrific. But I think the problem, what people are realizing with a lot of this high technology, is: A, it has a way of sucking up all your money, and B, it really doesn’t make your life any better. I mean, how much do you need a cellphone to do?
Stepanich: With something like an iPhone, you’re never going to use 80 percent of the power that thing has.
Platt: There are a lot of people out there who think it really changes their lives. There’s a part of me that admires those people and envies their technical facility, and then there’s a part of me that feels a true – and I don’t mind saying this for a recording – a true revulsion, because I want a Dvorak symphony to change your life.
Stepanich: How many different jobs do you have? I know you’re doing the Marion [Ind.] Philharmonic…
Platt: I just got back from there, actually. And Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Chicago Opera Theatre, and then Boca, and then the Maverick …. I’m also getting more involved with the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. So yeah, I’m a very busy man.
Stepanich: Does all that work leave any time for any sort of personal life?
Platt: Yeah, on a very limited basis. I have a very devoted group of friends in Chicago and New York, and I see them when I can see them. That’s my life.
Stepanich: The last question is about the purported death of classical music. But it seems to me that it’s mostly critics that are saying that.
Platt: They’ve been saying that for about 30 years now. And isn’t it amazing how the vast majority of all these orchestras still exist, and they’re still playing for very large and enthusiastic audiences.
Stepanich: And why do you think that is?
Platt: Because it is. I’m to the point where I’m so tired of navel-gazing about this. I’m tired of navel-gazing, I’m tired of political correctness. All I’m interested in is bringing great concerts to audiences, and communicating to them musically and verbally about why this music still needs to be part of our lives.
You know, I’m like an itinerant pastor, that’s what I do.
Greg Stepanich has covered classical music, theater and dance for 25 years at newspapers in Illinois, West Virginia and Florida. He worked for 10 years at The Palm Beach Post, where he was an assistant business editor and pilot of Classical Musings, a classical music blog. He now blogs for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper at www.pbartspaper.com and at classicalgreg.wordpress.com. He also works as a freelance writer and composer.