Conductor  Alexander  Platt

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Honored by the Illinois Council of Orchestras, Alexander Platt has built a unique career spanning the worlds of symphony, chamber music, and opera.

Alexander Platt is Music Director of the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra, and the Wisconsin Philharmonic, and spends his summers as the Music Director of the Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, New York, the oldest summer chamber-music festival in America.

Previously he spent twelve seasons as Resident Conductor and Music Advisor at Chicago Opera Theater, where he led the Chicago premieres of such landmark 20th-century operas as Britten’s Death In Venice, John Adams’ Nixon in China, Shostakovich’s Moscow Paradise, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Brook’s The Tragedy of Carmen, the Tony Kushner/Maurice Sendak Brundibar, the first full staging of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and the world-premiere recording of Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik — all to high acclaim in The New York TimesThe Financial TimesThe Wall Street JournalOpera NewsOpera Canada, and both the Chicago papers.

The former chief conductor of the Racine (Wisconsin) Symphony, the Boca Raton Symphonia, and the Marion (Indiana) Philharmonic, Platt began his career as the Apprentice Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Minnesota Opera, where he earned universal acclaim for his conducting of Colin Graham’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

A graduate of Yale College, King’s College Cambridge (where he was a British Marshall Scholar) and conducting fellowships at both Aspen and Tanglewood, he has guest-conducted the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Illinois Philharmonic, the Freiburg Philharmonic in Germany, the Aalborg Symphony in Denmark, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, Camerata Chicago, the Banff Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Houston, Charlotte, Columbus, and Indianapolis Symphonies.

In 2013 he made his debut at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to high praise in the Chicago Tribune.  Platt has recorded for Minnesota Public Radio, National Public Radio, the South-West German Radio and the BBC, and also a Cedille Records disc with Rachel Barton Pine of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.

==  'Short' biography from the conductor's website.  The 'full' version is at the bottom of this webpage.  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

We met in the office suite of the Chicago Opera Theater in mid-May of 2007, during the run of a double-bill of Bluebeard
s Castle and Erwartung.  As we were setting up to record the conversation, Platt was speaking about the reactions to one of the artists . . . . .

Alexander Platt:   I think Krisztina Szabó [as Judith] was magnificent.  The [newspaper] criticism seems to be that her voice is a little small.  It’s a Mozart mezzo, but I think she’s magnificent.  We’ve had a lot of successes here at the Chicago Opera Theater in the last seven years, but I’ve never experienced an audience reaction quite like this tumult of applause.  I’ve had some great experiences here, like Death in Venice, and Nixon in China, but Wednesday night had a higher level of electricity.  That’s what I felt, anyway.

BD:   Does that screw you up for the next performance?

Platt:   No, no, no.  I’m just so proud and content, and I’m looking forward very much to the next one.  I am tired, but happy.  This schedule is unique for us, because we usually do a Wednesday opening, and then Friday, and Sunday, and then we have four days off before Thursday and Saturday.  But because of Samuel Ramey’s schedule at the Metropolitan, we opened this production on Wednesday, and then we do nothing until Sunday.  But it’s actually nice because the last two and a half weeks have been so incredibly intense with rehearsals that we all need a little rest.  Once we do the Sunday performance, we’re really in the zone, because then it’s Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.  So, it’s day on, day off, day on, day off, so that’s nice.  We just go through it.  I have these next nine or ten days when I just get to think about nothing but this music, and then I’ll get on with the rest of my life.
BD:   When you’re thinking about these particular operas, I assume you think of it as one production, and not two separate pieces?

Platt:   You’re right.  It does come to melt together as one entity.

BD:   When you get into that zone, do you just think about that, and put off everything else?

Platt:   Oh, yes!  You don’t want to see what my apartment looks like!  [Both laugh]  I’m very evangelical about this.  This is a calling, and when I’m doing this, there’s nothing else in my life, and when I’m conducting, there’s nothing else I’m thinking about.  It is interesting how one gets into that frame of mind when you’re conducting or singing.

BD:   I understand the singers must do this, but does the conductor really have to get completely wrapped up in it?

Platt:   Well, yes and no.   Perhaps it’s in part because these Chicago audiences are so intelligent.  They
re not reverent, but they really take this seriously.  They are so serious about the art of listening to live performance, that there are moments where you just forget that they’re there, which I mean as a compliment.  It’s not like certain performances in the opera musical theater world where you just feel the audiences are dead, and you just feel that the audience is just giving you nothing back.  It’s not that at all.  This is totally different.  It’s just that you don’t hear them, and you’re able to just get into that zone.  But you’re right, it’s not like a singer.  It’s a different kind of concentration, because I have to be thinking of everything that’s coming around the bend in ten measures, or ten minutes.  I also have to be inherently reactive to what’s going on, especially in works of this complexity where you have to completely and totally be there for the artists on stage, and for the orchestra in the pit, in case someone just gets off just a little in terms of where they are in the music.  It’s strange.  On the one hand, you have to react to the fact that they’re a little ahead of me, or they’re a little behind.  But, at the same time, you have to keep cueing them as if they’re not a little ahead or a little behind.  These performances dont need that at all because they’re spectacular.  In putting Erwartung together, it is so unbelievably complex.  We have this wonderful orchestra, mainly from the Lyric Opera, and one of the violinists said that she doesn’t know how Nancy Gustafson does it for twenty-nine minutes.

BD:   You just have to concentrate completely for twenty-nine minutes, and know that it’s only twenty-nine minutes, and then give your all.

Platt:   Exactly!  That’s exactly what we did.  Before we went on, that’s what Nancy said to me.  It’s possibly the densest twenty-nine minutes of music that there is in the standard repertoire.

BD:   Would it be a different density if there were three or four singers on stage instead of just the one?

Platt:   That’s an interesting question.  The Bartók is just as dense, but it’s more complicated in a different way because you’re having to deal with the inner actions of these two characters.  What makes Erwartung so complicated is that for those twenty-nine minutes, you’re really exploring the inner world of this woman, and the way that the character of the woman is internalized into the orchestra.  Someone put it very cleverly by saying that when the woman is singing about the moon, the orchestra’s reacting not by playing music that sounds like the moon, but it’s her own image of the moon.  It’s the moon in her own mind, and the orchestra really is that woman’s internal universe.

BD:   Do you want the audience to simply go into the mind, and forget about everything else?

Platt:   Right, and that’s helped by Ken Cazan’s brilliant staging, with Peter Harrison, who is our set/costume person.  For Erwartung, they eschewed a lot folderol of the woman wandering in the forest, and all the ancillary props.  It’s really an empty ballroom.  There’s an off-kilter chandelier, and there’s this giant, gigantic piece of black drapery that she carries around with her, and wears around her body, which is perhaps the dead lover, or her dream of him.  We don’t know.

BD:   We’re not told if it’s real, or a figment of the imagination?

Platt:   Yes, so the staging helps that so much.  It is like you’re pulled into that giant piece of drapery, just as you’re just pulled into the music.  The audience certainly was, because the reaction, after it was over, was just explosive.

Director Cazan, who says he “always gets the psycho stuff,” believes every opera is more about characters and relationships than about sets. So here’s what audiences will see at the Harris [theater]: Bluebeard, “a guy with a wall around him,” lives in a big, black, fluorescent-lit box permeated by “a feeling of dank, cold otherworldliness.” The troubled protagonist of Erwartung is inseparable from a giant piece of China silk that drapes her or that she carries. Cazan sees the glob of fabric, which “moves when she inhales,” as the barometer of her interior life. “There are two ways to go,” he says, “either big and spectacular, or minimalist. This is a very minimalist approach. These operas are psychological and gut-wrenching. We didn’t want to gunk it up being literal.”

==  From an article by Deanna Isaacs in the Reader, May 10, 2007  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You do a lot of these new and intense works.  Do you also do standard repertoire?

Platt:   Sadly, no.  I’m dying to do some Verdi or some Gounod.  I think Act Three of Faust is the most perfect thing ever created.  Sam Ramey, as you well know, is a person who has some experience with that opera.  During a break, we were talking about all kinds of music, and Sam got what I was saying about Act Three of Faust being perfect.  It’s like a Beethoven Symphony
there’s not one extraneous note.  People forget that for its time, it is an incredibly honest opera.

BD:   Is there any way for you to break out of your pigeon-hole?
Platt:   [Sighs]  It’s funny...  I don’t feel jealous or negative about it because, to be fair, I didn’t grow up in the typical American opera conducting system, in that I didn’t start playing the piano at rehearsals.  This is the way the opera business usually is.  One day you’re playing the piano for West Side Story, and two years later you’re conducting the opening night of La Bohème.  I’ve never done that because I’m not a pianist.  I was a violinist and a viola player, and that was my route to music.  Basically, I wanted to be an orchestral conductor, and that’s mainly what I still do.  But in college I very quickly got the opera bug, and the first opera I ever staged myself was Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which is the opera that everyone does because it’s very straightforward and simple to put together.  That and Dido and Aeneas of Purcell, which is the other opera everyone does first.  I just quickly became addicted to it, so in my own fashion I’ve done as much opera as I possibly can.  But for me to have a more standard operatic career, I would have to find a way that I could financially and artistically give up orchestra conducting and be on the staff of a major opera house.  A lot of people are living in New York, and they’re assisting at rehearsals, and in their apartment on the Upper West side their bags are packed waiting to go in case they get the call that someone needs to do a Traviata in a small town in Italy on forty-eight hours’ notice.  So they go and they do it.  That hasn’t been my life.  My life has been as an orchestral conductor, which I enjoy very deeply.  I love being my own boss of two small-budget orchestras [in Marion, Indiana, and Waukesha, Wisconsin].

BD:   When you set up the repertoire for these orchestras, do you purposely keep it much more Classic and Romantic, rather than twentieth century in order to balance your psyche?

Platt:   Basically, yes.  I have a wonderful orchestra in Wisconsin, which is called The Waukesha Symphony.  After the Milwaukee and Madison Symphonies, one could say it’s certainly in a tie with the Green Bay Symphony as the best orchestra in the state.  It’s a regional orchestra, and it’s very, very serious.  They let me basically do whatever I want.  I make a point of doing one significant contemporary piece in every season of six concerts.  This past year was a beautiful piano concerto by Daron Hagen, who wrote Shining Brow for the Chicago Opera Theater.  The piece is called Seven Last Words, which was for piano left hand and orchestra.  We had an amazing time putting it together, and the audience loved it.  We got a standing ovation.  This coming season, I’m doing the Suite from The Red Violin by John Corigliano.  I’m also doing some other shorter works by living composers.  But in general, at the Waukesha Symphony, I stick to Classic and Romantic era works that might be a bit obscure.  In a beautiful old chapel where we do a couple of chamber orchestral concerts, we did a beautiful sacred work by the young Mozart, who wrote it when he was twenty, The Litany for the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament, which is a masterpiece that is never done.  So, I get to explore that side of my musical character, and I’m very happy.

BD:   You keep you fresh, and this keeps the audience fresh.

Platt:   Exactly.  You put your finger on it, because when we did the Seven Last Words, it was in between Haydn’s last symphony and Mozart’s last symphony.  Many people remarked on how those works sounded so fresh.

BD:   Since you do work with contemporary composers, what advice do you have for someone who wants to write, either a symphonic work for a regional orchestra, or a symphonic work for a great orchestra, or an opera?  I assume the advice would be little different in each one.

Platt:   Right!  My gut reaction, when thinking of regional orchestras, is to make it easy technically.  But on the other hand, the Hagen piece was not at all easy technically.  I know it sounds simplistic but my advice is just to write a great piece, and if it’s a really great piece, serious musicians will perform it.  There are certain American composers around right now
who I won’t namewho are very adroit in writing music that can be fairly easily prepared by a regional orchestra.  It sounds attractive, and the audience finds it palatable and not offensive, and those people actually get a lot of commissions.

BD:   Are they selling out?

Platt:   They do well, in that they get a steady stream of commissions, but that music isn’t going to last.  People forget that while Mozart and Haydn were living in the later eighteenth century, there were hundreds upon hundreds or perhaps thousands of other symphonies being written that we don’t hear of anymore.  All these composers did put out a wonderful product for it’s immediate time, but it is music that was not meant to stand the test of time.

BD:   You said you would advise these composers to write a ‘great’ work.  What kinds of things do you look for that make it a great work, and what contributes to a work being great?

Platt:   Something that makes the work seem to have the potential of being a classic, something that will last.  For example, John Corigliano’s music for The Red Violin.  Compared to the Daron Hagen work we just did, it is more accessible.  It did originate as movie music, but there is something there.  This is where music is like a religion.  You can’t put your finger on it, and you can’t put it into words, but when a piece has something there that you just know is going to last, then it’s worth doing no matter how difficult it is.

BD:   Is this greatness anything that can be written into it, or does it just have to be there?

Platt:   It has to be there.  It’s like George Szell’s famous line about auditioning young conductors.  He said that you know in the first twenty-seconds if they have it.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Do you have it?

Platt:   That I don’t know.  I’ve been very happy with the work I’ve done here, and I’ve had such amazing opportunities.

BD:   With the opera, and the two symphonies, and other things, are you getting enough work?

Platt:   [Thinks a moment]  In some ways yes, and in some ways no.  I’m forty-one, and it’s time for me to get a music directorship of a regional orchestra where I can have a real budget, and really do something.  It’s time for that to happen, and I’m hoping that in the next few years it does happen.

BD:   Would you rather it be an orchestra job or an opera job?

Platt:   Either!  There’s so much wonderful work to do in both areas.  At the end of the day, unless one is in the Daniel Barenboim category, you really do not get to write on your own ticket in this business.  So I’d be happy for either.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you divide your time at the moment between the symphony and the opera?

Platt:   I basically do one opera a year at COT, and I’m able to arrange my orchestra schedule around that.  Occasionally I may have a guest conductor.  For example, this year because Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle were so all-encompassing and intense, for both of my orchestras I had the final concerts taken by guest conductors.  In fact, in Marian, Indiana, where I have my other orchestra, the concert this past weekend was taken by Larry Rapchak, who was the previous music director of COT.  He did a good job.

BD:   How long ago did you know that you were going to do this Bartók-Schoenberg evening?

Platt:   I think I knew a couple of years ago.

BD:   Did you begin working on it immediately, or did you wait and do more intense work closer to the performance date?

Platt:   I began looking at the scores over my long Christmas vacation, which I mainly spent out on the east coast with my family.  I began looking at the scores then, and by the time I got to mid-March, I really zeroed in on them.
BD:   Did you come to the first rehearsal knowing everything you wanted to do?

Platt:   [Laughs]  In general yes.  But especially with these wonderful singers, and a wonderful director like Ken Cazan, there were so many instances where I just didn’t know what tempos I was ultimately going to take.  It depended on what we were going to do, and on what these singers wanted to do.

BD:   You mean Bartók and Schoenberg didn’t specify tempos???

Platt:   Yes, they’re both very specific about metronome markings and tempos, but even they would realize that ultimately, their markings are suggestions.

BD:   How much give and take do you have as the conductor, and then how much give and take does the director have?

Platt:   That depends on the relationship between the conductor and the director.  I’m a conductor who really wants to serve the director, and there were many moments, especially in both works where we stretched certain things, and contracted others.

BD:   Should the composers be offended by that?

Platt:   No, no, no.  There are many instances of Schoenberg saying that metronome markings are ultimately suggestions, and when you’re talking about live performance and staging, it’s a whole different relationship.  If you were doing a concert performance of these works, that might be different.

BD:   You wouldn’t have to allow for movement of any kind.

Platt:   Right.  But even there, if you listen to great recordings of Erwartung, and you compare the magisterial recording by Jessye Norman with James Levine conducting to the equally authoritative recording by Pierre Boulez and Janis Martin, they could not be more different, and they’re both great.

BD:   How can you convince an audience that one is right and another is right when they’re so very different?

Platt:   If you couldn’t, then there really wouldn’t be any point to live performance, would there?  [Both laugh]  That’s what’s so interesting, and I have to check myself when I’m a listener, because if a conductor does something in a way that I personally don’t approve of, I have to keep reminding myself that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.  However, there are times where people will do things that are just wrong...

BD:   How far is too far?

Platt:   [Thinks a moment]  It all depends on what a certain artist can get away with.  It’s funny how you can listen to a lot of Leonard Bernstein’s late recordings now, and you find them in some ways unlistenable.  I’m just old enough to remember having been present at a lot of the performances that resulted in those recordings, and feeling incredibly moved, as was everyone.  Then there were moments where it was too much.  It was too slow.  It was so espressivo that it became vulgar.  It’s all so subjective.

BD:   Shouldn’t we expect the audience to feel the same kinds of things today that they did ten years ago, or thirty years ago, or fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago?

Platt:   No.  It’s interesting to think about what an audience will respond to.  I just remember the unbelievable electricity that the audience transmitted at the end of both those operas on Wednesday.  We think about fifty years ago as
the good old days, but I have to ask myself if an audience would really have gotten those pieces like they do now?  Some great, great artists have performed those roles, like Jessye Norman, and Christa Ludwig, and of course, Samuel Ramey.  I feel his recording of Bluebeard’s Castle with Éva Marton is the authoritative recording.  I have never heard a recording of that piece which made so much sense.

BD:   Did that intimidate you at all in your own interpretation?

Platt:   Oh, it influenced me.  I’m happy to say that I’m influenced by that recording.  The conductor was a very fine Hungarian, Ádám Fischer.  I make no bones about the fact that I can learn from recordings.  One of the other famous recordings was with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, conducted by István Kertész.  That is the one I’d owned for years.  I love a lot of Kertész’s work.  I have all of his Dvořák symphonies, which I grew up on, and which I just worshipped. They’re so wonderful, and they’re always fresh.  Even the early Dvořák symphonies never get stale, whereas I was never convinced by his Bluebeard.  I thought it was a great piece, and then I heard Sam’s recording with Ádám Fischer, and it was incredible.  That’s what I’ve tried to emulate.

BD:   You get things from recordings, but I hope you get most of your information from the score.

Platt:   From a score, and then from the experiences of staging it.  I ask myself,
What are we trying to do here?  What are we trying to express?  It’s really a three-legged stool.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   As a member of an opera administration, what should the opera company be trying to do?

Platt:   I think they should be doing exactly what they’re doing now.  What COT is doing is so fantastic.  Every season that Brian [Dickie] puts together has an obscure work that is a rarity, or has never been done in Chicago, like Death in Venice, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Britten, or even Erwartung of Schoenberg.  Then there is something that’s a little more standard.


Brian Dickie was born in England in 1941 and joined Glyndebourne Festival as an administrative assistant in the Music and Planning Departments in 1962. As assistant to the Head of Music Staff, Jani Strasser, he worked closely with Günther Rennert, Carl Ebert, John Pritchard and Vittorio Gui.

From 1967 to 1973 he was Artistic Director of the Wexford Festival and simultaneously the first Administrator of Glyndebourne Touring Opera where a high proportion of leading British singers begin their careers. From 1973 to 1984 he was Artistic Adviser successively to the theatres in Angers, Nancy and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. In 1981 he became General Administrator of Glyndebourne Festival Opera where he continued to work with many distinguished Directors and Conductors including Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Bernard Haitink, Simon Rattle, and Andrew Davis.

After 27 years with Glyndebourne, he went to Toronto as General Director of Canadian Opera Company in 1989 where he remained for 5 years leading the company to major successes. In 1994 he became Artistic Adviser of Opéra de Nice and in 1997-98 was General Director of the European Union Opera, sponsored by the European Commission in Brussels.

From 1999-2012, he was general director of the Chicago Opera Theater.

One of the particular highlights of last season was the revival of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio that Jane Glover so brilliantly conducted.  That was a production where everything was in German, even the spoken dialogue, and it was just magical.  I think everything this company does is fantastic.  I just wish we did more than three shows a year.

BD:   How can we get a fourth or fifth show?

Platt:   I know that this is going to come as a shock, but it’s about something called money.  [Both laugh]  It’s not as if New York is superior in this way.  Indeed, the New York City Opera is perpetually in financial challenge.  The major American cities have to decide whether they really want a truly international situation in which there are not one but two opera companies.  The second, of course, will be smaller, but it can do equally interesting and compelling work.

BD:   Probably the ideal is London, with Covent Garden and the English National Opera.

Platt:   Right, or Berlin, with the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper, which does very daring things on a smaller budget.  There’s also the Deutsche Oper, which is the old West Berlin Opera.  That is the model, but every city has their problems, and those cities have lots of operatic travails.

BD:   I do miss the fact that the COT doesn’t do opera in English anymore.  I used to look forward to those productions.
Platt:   That worked when we were in smaller rooms.  The Harris Theater [home of the COT beginning in 2004] is an intimate space, and you do have a connection to what’s going on even though it has 1,560 seats.  But it’s very hard to convey English so dependably there.  [Three photos of the Harris Theater can be seen HERE.]  I’m also a believer in opera in English.  One of the great opera experiences I’ve ever had was as an audience member.  When I was a graduate student at Cambridge, I went to the English National Opera and heard Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande.  Because it was the ENO, it was in English.  Everything they do is in English, and I’ll never forget Willard White, the great American singer, singing Golaud.  I was up in the first or second balcony, and understood every single word.  But I remember it because it was the exception to the rule.  It’s almost impossible to do that, so if we were still in a space like our old home, the Athenaeum [shown at right], that might make more sense.  But at the Harris it’s different.  There’s a great joy of doing opera in the original language.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Platt:   I’m as optimistic about the future of opera as I am about any kind of what we used to call ‘high culture’ in this country.  Culture doesn’t seem to be our books and music anymore.  It’s more like food, wine, shopping, restaurants, clothes, cars, homes, vacation homes, travel, professional sports, high technology, and the internet.  That seems to be where culture is.  It’s not that there’s less culture.  We should remind ourselves that in the so-called ‘good old days’, when Carol Fox was running the Lyric Opera in the 1950s, they had a six- or seven-week season.  Now the Lyric has a six- or seven-month season.  We shouldn’t get too nostalgic about those days.  I don’t think that there’s less high culture.  In fact, in many ways there’s a lot more high culture.  The problem is that it’s being so completely swamped by globalized media entertainment, and conspicuous consumption.  I worry about my generation, people who should be more involved in companies like COT, or the Art Institute, but instead seem to be more obsessed with having a weekend house in Michigan.  It’s great to have one, and I wish I had such a thing, but there’s more to life than a weekend house in Michigan.

BD:   Looking ahead to our advancing technology, does opera belong on the internet?

Platt:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m not sure.  I don’t know if you can communicate what makes opera so special via the internet.

BD:   Should we try to put Wagner on an iPod, or should we try to write new operas that are geared specifically for the iPod?

Platt:   I think we should try to put Wagner on the iPod, and also do new operas for it.  I’m slated in two years to do a new opera by Tod Machover, who is a brilliant composer, and who is frankly obsessed with high technology.  He writes for what he calls ‘hyper-instruments’, which are electronically and technologically enhanced instruments.  If there’s anything going to be for the iPod, it would be that, so I’m ambidextrous on that score.

BD:   What about videos and DVDs?

Platt:   I don’t know... I just wonder if there are many people out there of my generation who go out and buy a DVD of the Verdi Don Carlos from the Metropolitan, or a Mozart opera, or Der Rosenkavalier of Strauss from the Salzburg Festival.

BD:   That would be for your sixty-five-inch plasma screen in your weekend house in Michigan!

Platt:   Right, but I don’t have a weekend house in Michigan.  I hope so, but I just think my generation is somewhat lazy about that.  When I think of what my parents went through, and what my grandparents went through in America, my generation of middle-class people have never had it so good.  It’s just very easy to get complacent, although we should remember that when Fritz Reiner was conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1953-63), it was for a much shorter season than we have today.  The rank and file of the CSO had to spend the rest of the year selling encyclopedias door-to-door, so we shouldn’t get too nostalgic.  [Actually, many of them taught privately, and/or at various universities.]  I have some colleagues who think that we are going to go back to the way things were in the 1930s, where there was a handful of people at the top of the profession who made obscenely large sums of money, and then everybody else had to struggle.  But it is true that for everyone who’s not on the A-list, fees have not increased.  In real terms, they’ve gotten much smaller, and it’s a question every freelance musician asks himself
to what extent is it worth doing?  For me, COT makes it worth doing.  To have experiences like what I’m doing now is irreplaceable.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask perhaps a dangerous question.  What is the purpose of music?

Platt:   I think the purpose of music is to connect people with the deep emotions that they’re not feeling anywhere else, especially in modern life.

BD:   Does that change as we move now into the twenty-first century, the new millennium?

Platt:   I don’t think so, no.  The question is are we going to have a population that is interested in feeling those deep emotions?  That I don’t know, and again we shouldn’t get overly nostalgic.  Great classical music has been used phenomenally to the most noble and beautiful ends in humanity, but it also has been used to the most ignorable ends of humanity.  Think about how classical music was used during the Third Reich.  The Beethoven symphonies that Toscanini would conduct in America would also be conducted in front of Adolf Hitler.

BD:   Is there a lot of difference between that and using classical music to sell laundry detergent?

Platt:   There’s a famous Daniel Barenboim lecture where he was apparently offended that he heard the Beethoven Violin Concerto in elevators.  I don’t worry about that.  The more the great music is out there, the better.  I don’t see how that’s harmful.
BD:   The great music can survive any assault like that?

Platt:   That’s why we call it Classical Music.  [Both laugh]  Whether it’s being used in an elevator, or if it’s just an incredibly bad performance, it’ll survive.

BD:   Despite all of this, what advice do you have for younger conductors coming along?

Platt:   They have to ask themselves how much they really want to do this.  Fifty years ago, There were very few people in this country who wanted to be conductors.  There were two or three graduate programs in conducting.  There was the Fellowship program at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony, and the Ford Foundation would do a yearly round of auditions for some grants for people.  Other than that, there was nothing going on.

BD:   Musicians wanted to be pianists or violinists?

Platt:   Yes, but Classical Music had not yet grown so exponentially.  We forget that there was a reason why Leonard Bernstein was the first great American conductor.  It was just assumed that conductors would be brought over from Europe.  Nowadays, everybody wants to be a conductor.  I don’t think there is one major university in America that does not have a Doctor of Musical Arts degree program in conducting.  We’re just churning out all these people.

BD:   What are they going to do?

Platt:   I have this theory that fifty or a hundred years ago, the people went into mainstream Protestant ministry.  Now, they become conductors.  [Both laugh]  No, think about it!  These people, fifty or a hundred years ago, were well-educated and were cultured.  They were ‘spiritual’ or ‘aesthetic’.  They wanted to think deep thoughts, and convey them to large numbers of people.  Most of those people, fifty or a hundred years ago, would go and do high-class Protestant ministry, and they are now conductors.

BD:   Do you feel that your conducting podium is a pulpit of any kind?

Platt:   I think it should be, sometimes.  But I worry...  I get very uncomfortable when so many American, or non-American conductors of my generation are working in America, and they love to go on about how this is all about our community’s values.  The conducting profession, from its earliest days, has been rife with the most shameless self-promotion.  I get nauseated when people say they are part of the community, and yet they fly in from 3,000 miles away.  Excuse me!  I’ve actually been part of the community.  I had an apartment in Racine Wisconsin!  I walked the walk, and it was not something I advertised a lot.  I get very upset when people use that language so glibly, but we live in a glib age.  We’re all supposed to get up there and be on The Oprah Winfrey Show.  It’s all about how well you talk now.

BD:   Would you like to be on The Oprah Winfrey Show, or Dr. Phil?

Platt:   Neither!  If I have a public figure whom I admire right now, it would probably the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  I’m an Episcopalian, and the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Church is in such turmoil right now, and I really admire him for the way he speaks.  He doesn’t say a lot, and when he does speak, it is the result of a lot of deep consideration.  He’s a such a brilliant and gifted man.  He is really in a leadership position because he’s called to be there, and not there because of ambition.  I really look up to him.  I don’t know him.  I’ve never met him.  I never will, but I really look up to him as a model of leadership.  He’s a person who truly has everybody’s respect.  He is trying to find a way between the liberal and conservative positions, which are so incredibly divergent, and I think his quiet leadership is going to carry everyone through.

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BD:   We were talking about opera, and you mentioned musicals.  Does the musical theater belong on the operatic stage?

Platt:   Of course.  I’m a big fan of the whole people’s-opera tradition.  Ken Cazan and I weren’t joking when we were at the end of these exhausting rehearsals, and we opined if only some day we could do West Side Story together.  When you think of those classic American musicals, they are our great popular operas.  If you can do Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow, you can certainly do a Richard Rodgers musical.  It’s great music.  I came to that repertoire really late.  I was not spending my teenage years memorizing the original cast album of Oklahoma.  I was up all night with my headphones, listening to Elgar and Sibelius.  I just remember a lot of British music and Scandinavian music, and French music.

BD:   Orchestral music or string quartets?

Platt:   Orchestral music, but nowadays I only listen to chamber music.  Maybe it’s just that I
m getting older.  Chamber music is something that you grow into later as you get older.

BD:   Perhaps it’s just that you have gotten so much orchestral music that you want something different.

Platt:   Right, or maybe as I get older, I want less and less noise in my life.  Or maybe it’s because I spent so much energy in my life making those big sounds of orchestras and operas, that when I’m at home I need to listen to Mozart Quartets.

BD:   You mentioned that you would like to get a directorship some place.  Are you basically pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Platt:   [Laughs]  I’m not, not-pleased.  I’m incredibly content and I feel lucky with what I’ve done at COT over these seven years.  Brian didn’t have to hire me.  I heard that he was running COT, and I just innocently sent him my CV, and in a letter I told him I’d love to meet him.  So we went out for lunch, and we discussed all the people we knew back in Great Britain, because, I had spent three years at Cambridge doing a lot of ambitious opera work.  Then he basically offered me a job, and I think it’s gone pretty well.

BD:   Will you be back in coming seasons?

Platt:   Yes, but I’m taking a year off.  I am spending all next season just doing a lot of orchestral concerts.  It’s what I need to do for a variety of reasons.  I’m guest conducting some wonderful regional orchestras, like the Flagstaff Symphony in Arizona, and the Lexington Philharmonic in Kentucky.  Then I’m going back to Florida for two concerts in Boca Raton.  We’ve had a great time down there.  I’m also making my debut with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which will be my New York debut.  So, a lot of really good things.  It’s going to be a great year, and then I come back.

BD:   Wasn’t Lukas Foss with the Brooklyn Philharmonic?

Platt:   Yes, he was their long-time music director (1971-90).  [He was followed by Dennis Russell Davies (1991-96), and Robert Spano (1996-2004)].  They now have Michael Christie (2005-10), who’s one of the up-and-coming American conductors.

BD:   [Feigning amazement]  So, there are up-and-coming American conductors!

Platt:   There are, yes!  Certainly, there are more now than there ever have been... for good or ill.  [Much laughter]

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

Platt:   Thank you very much, Bruce.

Noted for his elegant programming, communicative abilities, and passionate performances, Alexander Platt enjoys a unique career spanning the worlds of symphony, chamber music, and opera.  He is the Music Director of the La Crosse Symphony, the Waukegan Symphony, and the Wisconsin Philharmonic Orchestras.  He spends his summers as the sixth Music Director of the Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, New York, the oldest summer chamber-music festival in America. 

Born in New York City, Platt grew up in Westport, Connecticut, then at its zenith as a middle-class haven for actors, writers, artists and musicians.  His early mentors were the pianist Natalie Ryshna, a student of Olga Samaroff-Stokowski, whose recording of the Balakirev Piano Sonata was for several years the only one available in the West; the actor Alvin Epstein, who had created roles for Samuel Beckett, Richard Rodgers, and Orson Welles; the celebrated New York City Opera soprano Brenda Lewis, who had created roles for Barber, Blitzstein and Jack Beeson; and Frank Brieff, conductor of the New Haven Symphony, pupil of Nadia Boulanger, violist in the NBC Symphony, and a protege of Toscanini.

Trained as a violinist and violist, as well as a chorister in the Episcopal church, Platt was a Younger Scholars Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities before he entered college.  He was educated in Berkeley College, Yale University, where for three years he directed the Berkeley Chamber Players and started an acclaimed concert series at the Yale Center for British Art.  Platt came under the mentorship of historians Duncan Robinson, Paul Kennedy, Jane Stevens and Robin Winks, and studied 18th-century performance practice with Jaap Schroeder, the concertmaster of the Academy of Ancient Music.  He graduated winning the Bach Society Prize and the Sudler Prize, the University's highest undergraduate award in the arts. 

Platt then spent three years at King's College, Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar, where as a student of 19th-century music and performance practice he reconstructed the lost Vienna chamber version of the Gustav Mahler Fourth Symphony, on commission from the Benjamin Britten Estate; it has since gone on to be a classic of the repertoire, with many recordings to its credit.  While at Cambridge he was the first American to be awarded the coveted post of Assistant Conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society, and also served as Conductor of the Cambridge University Opera Society, where his revival of Britten's neglected opera Owen Wingrave earned high praise in the London press.  Platt also served as the student member of the King's College building committee, and even found time to deputize in its legendary Chapel Choir.

Following conducting fellowships at both Aspen and Tanglewood (where his teachers were Murry Sidlin, Gustav Meier, Seiji Ozawa, and Simon Rattle), in 1991 Platt was made the first Apprentice Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Minnesota Opera, in a unique program funded by the University of Minnesota during the heyday of the Twin Cities' cultural scene.  His conducting at the Opera of Colin Graham's production of Madama Butterfly met with particular acclaim.

Alexander then secured his first music directorship in nearby Wisconsin, leading the Racine Symphony Orchestra from 1993 to 2005 and transforming it from an orchestra on the brink of closure to a thriving institution.  During his twelve years in Racine, the RSO vastly expanded its symphonic, pops and chamber music offerings, started an extensive program to bring music to all third-grade students in Racine County, and established a fund for free private music lessons for needy children.  Moreover, for the first time, the orchestra recorded one of its concerts for Wisconsin Public Radio.  

Throughout these years Platt also spent a great deal of time conducting choral societies in Milwaukee, leading over several seasons a complete cycle of the late Haydn Masses; his 1997 performance of Haydn's Mass in Time of War with ensemble Musical Offering earned him high acclaim in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, as did his conducting debut at that city's beloved Skylight Opera Theatre, in the John Mortimer version of Die Fledermaus.

By the time of his 2005 recording of Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy with Rachel Barton Pine and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Cedille Records, Alexander Platt was already in the midst of a decade's worth of projects on the international scene.  Making his debut with Chicago Opera Theater in 1997 conducting Charles Newell's production of Don Giovanni, Platt was appointed its Resident Conductor and Music Advisor in 2001, serving twelve years in that capacity during what is widely regarded as the company's golden age under general director Brian Dickie.  During this period, he led the Chicago premieres of both Britten's Death in Venice (earning a 5-star review in the London Financial Times) and of John Adams' Nixon in China, generally seen as the most successful production in the history of the company.  Platt also conducted the first full Chicago staging of Schoenberg's Erwartung, the world-premiere of the Tony Kushner/Maurice Sendak version of Hans Krasa's epic Brundibar, the world-premiere recording of Kurka's The Good Soldier Schweik, and the Chicago premieres of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, his own version for young people of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, and of La Tragedie de Carmen -- all to high praise in Opera NewsThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and both the great Chicago papers.  In 2012 Platt led the Chicago premiere of the Shostakovich Moscow Paradise, to unanimous acclaim. 

Having made his professional conducting debut in England at the legendary Aldeburgh Festival, and his London debut at the Wigmore Hall, Alexander also spent these years guest-conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, the Freiburg Philharmonic in Germany, Camerata Chicago, and for three seasons the Aalborg Symphony in Denmark, as well as the Houston, Charlotte, and Indianapolis Symphonies.  

In 2007 Platt made his debut at the Banff Festival in Canada, with his work being singled out for praise in Opera Canada magazine.  That year he also made his New York debut conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic in Central Park, the first of several successful appearances with the orchestra.  Likewise, he spent three seasons as Principal Conductor of the Boca Raton Symphonia (2007-10), making his debut on 48 hours’ notice to replace an ailing James Galway and being appointed to the post soon after.  Leading the orchestra (in the opinion of The Palm Beach Post) to being the finest of the ensembles to emerge from the collapse of the Florida Philharmonic, he shared the podium with maestros Phillippe Entremont, James Judd, and Gerard Schwarz, remaining a musician and audience favorite.  

In 2013 Platt made his debut at the Ravinia Festival, leading his own chamber-orchestra version of Leonard Bernstein's Songfest with members of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, to acclaim in the Chicago Tribune.

A true journeyman conductor, Alexander Platt served as music director of both the Grand Forks Symphony in North Dakota (2010-15), and the Marion, Indiana Philharmonic (1996-2017).  Yet, for much of the last quarter-century his work has been in Wisconsin.  Since his appointment as Music Director of the La Crosse Symphony in 2010, the Orchestra has enjoyed a complete revival, going from the brink of closure to now holding $1.5 million in assets and serving as a cornerstone in the community's emergence as one of America's finest smaller cities in which to live (  In recent years the LSO has enjoyed sold-out houses, added performances, hitherto-unknown artistic standards, and numerous successful collaborations with the city's youth orchestras and dance companies.  The Orchestra has also become noted for its performances of the French repertoire, from standard masterworks to rarities from the Romantic era.  

Platt has conducted the Wisconsin Philharmonic since 1997, helping to lead the long-admired ensemble (whose previous music directors include the legendary pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller) out of the financial crisis of 2008.  Forging new partnerships with a variety of venues and ensembles throughout Southeast Wisconsin, recently Alexander led the Philharmonic in its debut at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and this coming season, the Philharmonic will enjoy a mew residency at the Oconomowoc Arts Center. 

For the 2023-24 season – the LSO's 125th anniversary – the La Crosse Symphony will add three additional programs to its season, fully joining the ranks of the Upper Midwest's regional orchestras with ten symphony, pops, and chamber-orchestra programs to the Driftless Region.  In celebration of its milestone year, the LSO has commissioned two extraordinary new orchestrations from two of America's most prominent living composers:  Wisconsin native Daren Hagen's rendering of the Johannes Brahms Sonata for Two Pianos – the "Symphony No.0" – and from Jonathan Bailey Holland, Madrigal Divine:  an orchestral suite drawn from the many solo piano works of the still-neglected African-American virtuoso, Robert Nathaniel Dett.

Since 2003 Alexander Platt has spent his summers in the Hudson Valley as Music Director of the Maverick Concerts, founded in Woodstock, New York in 1915 and since led by such celebrated musicians as Georges Barrère, William Kroll, and Leon Barzin.  Under his direction the Maverick has become a busy, thriving festival of world, jazz, folk and classical music, regularly hosting many of the world's finest string quartets and being the recipient of repeated grants from, among others, the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. A signal success for the Maverick during Platt's tenure was his creation and conducting of the chamber-orchestra version of David Del Tredici's masterwork Final Alice (1976).  Produced in 2007 under a grant from The New York State Music Fund, The New York Times praised Mr. Platt's traversal of Del Tredici's notoriously difficult score.

An entrepreneurial conductor and curator from the beginning of his career – recently he completed three seasons hosting occasional live webcasts of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra – Platt has continued to create unique, original musical projects, to international attention and community acclaim.  In April 2018, in its program Inspirational Women at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center, Mr. Platt led the Wisconsin Philharmonic in the area premiere of Libby Larsen's Symphony No.1, Water Music, in the presence of both the composer and Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker.  In February 2020 he led the same forces in the area premiere of her Third Symphony, Lyric, in celebration of Wisconsin's leading the nation in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919.  

In October 2018, in a performance underwritten by a grant from Chicago's famous Poetry Foundation, he created and conducted Mahler's 'Wunderhorn' - A Soldier's Tale, a unique montage of new orchestrations of Mahler's Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with the actor and Iraq War veteran Benjamin Busch reading both famous and forgotten poems from the World War I era.  Raising all needed additional funds for the project himself, Alexander led the performance to a full house at the Grainger Ballroom at Orchestra Hall, earning praise in the Chicago Classical Review as one of the more notable celebrations of the centennial of the Armistice that ended “the war to end all wars.”  And again, with the generous support of the Poetry Foundation, this past summer Alexander brought the final iteration of his chamber version of Bernstein's Songfest back to the Ravinia Festival, with the Caroga Arts Collective and singers from Ravinia's Steans Institute, in a performance broadcast on WFMT in its concluding festivities for the Bernstein centennial.

From 2015 through 2022, Platt served as the Concert Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Westport, Connecticut, adding his efforts to the great traditions of his hometown.  Curating and hosting programs with some of the finest names in Classical and Jazz – including Bill Charlap, Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch, and the Danish, Escher, and Juilliard String Quartets – Alexander, working with the MoCA staff, brought an acclaimed series of outdoor concerts to Westport during the COVID pandemic, utilizing unexpected opportunities at the Museum’s Martha Stewart production campus.  He also oversaw the purchase and restoration of a vintage Hamburg “D” Steinway grand piano, for permanent installation at the MoCA galleries, and participated in the revival of the dormant Heida Hermanns International Competition for young artists.

Through all these years Alexander Platt has done his part as an advocate for the music of our time, conducting the US premieres of works by Britten, Shostakovich, Ned Rorem, Colin Matthews, Daron Hagen, Harold Metlzer, Joseph Schwantner, Libby Larsen, Joan Tower, William Neil, Eric Ewazen, Judith Weir, and Simon Holt – as well as his brother Russell Platt, former classical music editor at The New Yorker magazine.  His work has been recorded by Minnesota Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Radio, National Public Radio, the South-West German Radio, and the BBC.

Winter 2023

© 2007 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in the office suite of the Chicago Opera Theater on May 11, 2007.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following day.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.