Alexander Platt discussed his career and his interest in becoming the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's new music director over a Tuesday morning breakfast at Stella's. Copyrighted Herald-Leader/Kentucky.com photo by David Stephenson.
Alexander Platt loves to create events. As a student at Yale, he raised the money to present a production of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia with Yale and New York City Opera singers. At Cambridge University, it was Britten again, with the infrequently performed Owen Wingrave, which was reviewed in several London dailies.
Just last summer, at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, N.Y., Platt premiered his reduced version of David del Tredici's Final Alice, which received a sterling review from the New York Times' Steve Smith. That ended a summer that started with the demanding double bill of Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung and Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle for the Chicago Opera Theatre, where Platt is the music director.
Directing Maverick and Chicago Opera Theatre are two of six posts Platt currently holds, including music director of the Marion (Ind.) Philharmonic, the Waukesha (Wis.) Symphony Orchestra and the Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia, for which he just conducted his first official concert as music director Sunday.
But Platt, 42, is in town this week as the second candidate to succeed George Zack as music director of the Lexington Philharmonic. Over breakfast at Stella's yesterday, Platt said his dream is to be the music director of a, "mid-sized American city regional orchestra." Friday night Platt is conducting the Phil in Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 88, Ludwig van Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 3, which Platt says presents him and the orchestra a steep challenge with its complex rhythms.
Below is an edited transcript of that interview:
Copious Notes: What’s your take on the state of classical music in America, today?
Alexander Platt: My hope is that classical music in America is recovering from this kind of amnesia we’ve had for 20 years that we’ve spent apologizing for ourselves as part of a popular, wider American culture. I think we’re hopefully in the process of waking up from that and asserting ourselves as not just one of many musics in America but rather as a set of truths that need to be told from generation to generation, and each generation we add a new truth with the composers of their time adding their voices. Classical music is in one sense a kind of entertainment, of course. It always has been. But in another sense, it has a scriptural truth for all of us, and can tell us some things we can’t get anywhere except in the world of classical music.
CN: What are some of those truths?
AP: . . . I think classical music is a unique kind of music in that it fosters the art of listening in a way that no other music does. Popular music, any kind of pop music, is no more than a five minute form. Now I’m not saying that’s not as good an experience,or it’s an inferior experience. But it’s a totally different experience from when you sit down at a concert hall and engage with a 45-minute symphony or a three-and-a-half hour opera. It’s just different, I’m sorry.
I’ll leave it to others to talk about how Mozart will improve your children’s SAT scores, although that is true. There’s no question there’s a reason why people who do well in music tend to do well in many other pursuits in life. Whether it was 19th Century Germany or the ancient Greeks, there’s a reason why music was considered part of everyone’s education. And that had it’s great fruition in America in the first three quarters of the 20th Century. When I went away to Cambridge in 1988, classical music was still seen as the lodestar of our culture as Americans. I remember Robert Shaw, and reading during my first year at Cambridge in the London newspapers about Robert Shaw’s triumphant tour of Europe and how this was the great valedictory of his career having built the Atlanta Symphony from a glorified community orchestra to a truly world class ensemble.
Three years later, I got back from Cambridge in the early ’90s, and classical music had gone from being the lodestar of our culture to being this object of derision, something quaint and ridiculous and totally irrelevant to modern life. Then we spent the rest of the ’90s, sort of apologizing for ourselves and saying we should be doing more pops concerts or something to engage with contemporary American audiences. And there was this dialog about how we’re just one more type of music, we’re just another kind of ice cream in the frozen food section.
And you know what? That was a really dumb thing.
We’re slowly waking up to the fact that classical music is not something to be apologized for. The classical repertoire is these truths that need to be told from generation to generation.
I can let my hair down and do pops concerts as well as anybody and with as much enjoyment as the rest of them . . . We are, in classical music, part of something called entertainment, but we are also uniquely a kind of spiritual engagement, which is why the best kinds of popular music over the centuries get appropriated into the tradition of classical music -- whether its Aaron Copland writing Shaker hymn tunes in Appalachian Spring or Mozart and his Turkish drums in The Abduction at the Seraglio.
So in the 1990s, we said, ‘Oh, that means classical music is just like popular music.’ No. No, it’s not. It’s classical composers taking the best of what they saw in popular culture and making it a tributary stream of classical music of their own time. But again, we live in this strange kind of elitism where you can’t say that now. We live in this uniquely American kind of elitism, the elitism of the popular that reigns over everything, where only if something makes money does it have value . . . There’s nothing wrong with the culture of money. It made America. I often remind people we’re not in Sweden. We don’t have 95 percent state funding for the arts.
I always defend the Reagans, because we forget that Ron and Nancy had classical music in the White House. With Ron and Nancy, you had the Tokyo Quartet playing, Itzhak Perlman playing in the East Room. When I got back, it was George Bush feeling ashamed of himself that he went to Yale and having anything but classical music.
It’s the culture of money, the culture of politics, and then in the ’90s it got married to the culture of political correctness. Then people appropriated classical music as a kind of white, male elitism, which it’s never been. Anyone who’s worked with classical musicians for more than 10 minutes knows we’re tradesman . . . Probably most of the people in the Lexington Philharmonic are people like me who have traveled the world as classical musicians. We tend to be extremely under-compensated and terribly overworked. But there is this spiritual reward to what we do that is something you can’t describe in words, but you can describe at the end of a great concert when an audience shows its appreciation for what you’ve engaged them in.
CN: How did you get into classical music and find your way to conducting?
AP: I came out of a family of self-made people. I grew up in New England, I went to Yale, I went to Cambridge, yes. OK. But I’m the son of two totally self-made people who were the first people in their families to go to college, who came up through the Great Depression and World War II and met and married in New York in the 1950s, in a glorious time for this country, at a time for great optimism in this country. And they put their kids in this great public school system that had great programs in the arts. They encouraged us because it was a time when we were almost close to accepting a life in classical music as a decent middle class profession. It seems we’re ebbing away from that the more orchestras struggle to pay their musicians appropriately . . .
I was the beneficiary of this idea that, without a second thought, it was great that our children engaged themselves in classical music. So I excelled at it, and here I am.
CN: So you played an instrument?
AP: Yes, I played the viola. I loved playing the viola. It was my voice. I was a violinist through seventh grade. Then my string orchestra conductor said they needed viola players, so I switched, and I loved the dark melancholy voice of the viola. Suddenly I was practicing 4 hours a day. Being a viola player gives you the ability to listen, because the viola is the inner voice of the string section. So you have to learn to listen. If you can lead and listen, you can maybe be a good conductor.
CN: How did you find your way to conducting?
AP: When I was a kid, I had these idol dreams about being a conductor the way people have idol dreams about being a movie star. It looked very glamorous. It also looked very easy, because you’re just waving your arms around up there.
At that age, I was mesmerized by Leonard Bernstein and his young people’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic.
I was an accomplished viola player, mainly through hard work, and I got into the student orchestra at Tanglewood. I had the rather curious experience of spending most of the summer as the principal viola player in the student orchestra at Tanglewood. In some ways, I was very knowledgeable for a 17 year old, and in some ways, very naive about it. Anyway, I asked the conductor, ‘Maestro, why did you make me principal viola most of the summer, when I was clearly not the best player?’ I was in a section of 12 and I was maybe the fifth or sixth best. And he said something that struck me instantly. He said, ‘You weren’t the best player, but you were the best leader.’ At that moment, a little light went on inside that maybe my instincts were best served by being a musical leader.
So, the next year, I became the student conductor of the high school choir. And taking a year off before college, I formed my own orchestra in my hometown. By the time I got to Yale, I thought I was going to be Sir Colin Davis. That began what I would call the infantile period of my conducting, where I was 20 and I had great dreams and no experience. I spent those years, first at Yale and then at Cambridge, forming my own orchestras and conducting anything that moved. It was incredibly valuable early experience, because conducting and music directing is something you only learn by doing. That’s why conductors don’t seriously mature until their 30s or early 40s.
I would mount these very ambitious projects that were a mix of idealism and self importance.
CN: What were some of those projects?
AP: In my last year at Yale, I mounted a production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which fit my rather histrionic sense of conducting, with some members of the New York City Opera. I just raised the money to get together some of the best singers at Yale with members of City Opera to do my own semi-staged production of Rape of Lucretia. I organized a liturgical performance of Mozart’s Requiem on All Souls Day in the great university chapel, which was packed with thousands of people. I had this ability to create events, early on, which I guess put me in good stead.
Then I went to Cambridge which, not only is it one of the great universities on the planet, but it is also a de facto music conservatory with all these brilliant young people who are also brilliant at playing musical instruments. So there, I did things like the fourth production ever of another Britten opera, Owen Wingrave, which was his penultimate opera, and almost never done. The idea of students doing Owen Wingrave was probably pure lunacy. It probably took a few years off my lifespan, but it was for the better, for me and a lot of other people. Several of the people in that cast have gone on to important careers in the London opera world. To do that and get reviews in some of the great London newspapers . . . that’s a beautiful thing. That was the zenith of this highfalutin’ part of my career.
Then, at the end of those three years, I got back to the states and got a conducting fellowship at Tanglewood, which is something I always dreamed of having . . . When I was a kid, Tanglewood was sort of the be-all and end-all. And to be a conducting fellow at Tanglewood and go in the footsteps of Bernstein, Mehta, Ozawa and Abbado, goodness me. So I got this conducting fellowship and proceeded to spend the rest of the summer having the you-know-what kicked out of me because I was so full of attitude, and I was a completely self-taught conductor. So in some ways, I had these great ideas, but in other ways, I had no idea what I was doing. That was the beginning of my real eduction as a conductor, because that began a 16-year odyssey, mostly in the Midwest.
My first post was an apprentice conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra working for a rather tough Dutchman, Edo de Waart . . . I had two years in Minneapolis -- apprentice conductor to the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera where once again, I was doing incredibly ambitious things. I had been given my own production of Madama Butterfly for Minnesota Opera, working with Colin Graham, the genius British stage director who recently died.
From there, I went to my own first bona fide music directorship, down the road so to speak, in Racine, Wis., one of the great smaller, industrial cities of the upper Midwest. And I proceeded over 12 years to build it from a community orchestra on the brink of insolvency to something that, at the end of my 12 years, was this thriving, regional, largely professional ensemble . . . We built an orchestra out of almost nothing, at a time when orchestras weren’t supposed to grow, and corporate support had dwindled. But we did it by giving really great concerts at a level of excitement and intensity Racine really had not seen in its 75-year history. And we built a culture of patronage, of people who wanted to be stakeholders in the Racine Symphony. We got a lot of people who were giving $50 to give $500, and a lot of the people who were giving $500 to give $5,000 or $50,000. It was a glorious 12-year time. And I think in this modern age, 12 years is a good tenure.
By 12 years, you need to take stock of what you’re doing and move on to other projects. Now, I have been moving on to other things and couldn’t be happier about it . . .
CN: So what got you interested in the Lexington Philharmonic?
AP: I always wanted to run an orchestra like Lexington . . . I don’t know George Zack. I only met him last night. He seems like a wonderful man. And again, I don’t know him, so I’m not saying this to flatter him. But without knowing him, he was, in a sense, one of my heroes, because even when I was an adolescent conductor in adolescence in my teens, the great dream for me was to be a great steward of an orchestra that was not in one of the major cities. My heroes were people like Sir John Barbirolli, who spent 30 years conducting the Halle orchestra in Manchester, England . . . I always dreamed of going to a wonderful mid-sized American city and really being able to be a leader and part of the community.
In a mid-sized city like Lexington, if you are successful, you can create a classical music culture that really does communicate with the entire community.
CN: A lot of people here, because George has been here so long, are surprised to learn the next music director may not be a Lexington resident. If you got the job, what do you think you would do?
AP: Whether I would reside here full time as George did is something that could only be determined by several factors musical and non-musical. What I will tell you is, it is not like I am just going to just come and stay in a hotel room. This business is rife with situations where music directors are hired by boards of regional orchestras in great rushes of enthusiasm and everyone says, ‘He or she is not going to live here, but he’s really going to be part of the community.’ You see it in press releases all the time, especially in the last 10 to 15 years, when the old paradigm of the person who lived somewhere all the time and did that orchestra and only that orchestra passed into something new where we have the jet age, globe-trotting conductor or continent-trotting conductor. ‘He’s not going to live here but . . . ’ I could name conductors and orchestras not unlike Lexington where that happens, and two or three years later, they’re flying in, staying in a hotel the day of the first rehearsal and flying out the morning after the performance. I’m sorry, that’s not being part of the community. Then you have conductors who live there, but are not there. They’re off traveling and doing other things.
I would certainly be part of the community. It’s what I want to do and one of the main reasons I want a post like this. I don’t want to live on an airplane. I don’t want to live in hotel rooms. I’ve done that for 10 years, and I’m tired of it. I can do it occasionally, but being based in this upper middle west, I love this rhythm I have with me and my good second-hand Volvo trotting across the prairie. I love the solitude of it. I love dividing my life between two, maybe three places, and being a steward of those two, maybe three places.