Alexander Platt: The symphony's traveling conductor

When Alexander Platt isn't in North Dakota working with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, chances are he's on the road again at a rate that would impress Willie Nelson himself.

Alexander Platt
Alexander Platt is the musical director and conductor of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, whic h will present its final concert of the season Saturday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

When Alexander Platt isn't in North Dakota working with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, chances are he's on the road again at a rate that would impress Willie Nelson himself.

That's because -- in addition to being the musical director and conductor of the orchestra in Grand Forks -- Platt has the same role with three more orchestras: The Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Philharmonic, the La Crosse (Wis.) Symphony and the Marion Philharmonic in Marion, Ind.

Platt laughs heartily when it's suggested that (since he spends so much time on the road) he should share his best travel tips as part of this story.

"I'm having the time of my life," Platt said. "I've been a conductor for 30 years now. I started when I was 17, and I finally feel like I know what I'm doing."

Platt, 47, will conduct the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Empire Arts Center for its final concert of the season.


Sunday, he'll drive 13 hours to his home in Chicago, and then, after 48 hours to pull himself together (his words), he'll drive to Woodstock, N.Y., for a planning meeting for the summer Maverick Concerts. He's the musical director for the Maverick Concerts, the oldest summer chamber music festival in America.

"I don't go there to be the maestro," Platt said. "I go there to be the host and to have this intimate contact with the best string quartets in America. I can't tell you how it charges my batteries."

'The Romantic'

Platt is about to wrap his third season with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, a season that was devoted largely (but not exclusively) to works by German composers.

Saturday night's program will include Symphony No. 2, "The Romantic," by Howard Hanson (1896-1981), who was born in Wahoo, Neb., to Swedish immigrants. For 40 years, Hanson was the director of the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and his "Romantic" has been called an American masterpiece.

Works by Germans Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) also will be featured. The symphony's Alejandro Drago, a violinist and faculty member at UND, will be the soloist on Brahms' Violin Concerto. The symphony also will perform the Good Friday Spell from the opera "Parsifal" by Wagner, a great composer who also was an anti-Semite, which after his death made Adolf Hitler one of his biggest fans.

Still, the Good Friday Spell is beautiful, Platt said, "in a way that is removed from the Wagner that gives us heartburn, musically speaking."

"As a musician, I can say without a doubt, Wagner was THE composer of the 19th century," Platt said. "He's the ultimate composer, but not a great person." And he was hardly the only talent who could be described in that way.


"There were great artists who were horrible people in other ways," he said. "They may have been terrible husbands, or parents. They were complicated people. The complication for the classical musician is that we get up in the morning and work because we think classical music plays an important part in our collective morality."

That level of commitment comes from believing that classical music and the symphony are among the cultural cornerstones in any community, he said.

Family of talent

Platt was born in 1965 in Fairfield County, Conn., in what he called "a solid middle class community in that golden age of post-war America that cared about education and the arts."

Neither of his parents were musicians, but Alexander and his twin brother, Russell, grew up in an environment where music was everywhere, whether they were singing in church or playing in school. Alexander's first time as a conductor was with his high school choir.

Platt's twin, Russell, a musician and composer, is an award-winning writer and the classical music editor at The New Yorker magazine. Even so, Alexander said, the really talented sibling in their family is their kid brother, photojournalist Spencer Platt. He joined Getty Images in 2001 and won the World Press Photo of the Year Award in 2006 for a photo he took in Beirut.

Alexander Platt is hardly a slacker himself. He is a graduate of Yale College, King's College Cambridge (where he was a Marshall Scholar) and conducting fellowships at both Aspen and Tanglewood. He has been a sought-after guest conductor, and has recorded for Minnesota Public Radio and other radio networks.

"If I have one gift as a conductor, it seems to be being able to bring people together and to galvanize them into a great performance," Platt said. "Forgive me for boasting, but I am really good at that."


Before his current work, he spent 12 years as music director for the Racine (Wis.) Symphony Orchestra, three seasons as principal conductor of the Boca Raton (Fla.) Symphonia. He was apprentice conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera.

'A baby Minneapolis'

Today, when music lovers can stream performances from orchestral performances around the world, seeing and hearing musicians performing live is as important as ever -- at least important enough for him to drive for hours to work with multiple symphonies, he said.

"North Dakota is becoming famous for a lot of things today and I want to do my part in making Grand Forks a great place to live, a great place to raise a family and a great place for culture," he said.

Platt compares Grand Forks with "a baby Minneapolis" with its restaurants, arts organizations and culture. When he's in Grand Forks, Platt works the orchestra hard, he said, and that hard work shows itself in performances like the recent Classic Pops concert, which included the music of George Gershwin and "Roses from the South" waltz by Johann Strauss.

"It was a truly nuanced performance of that Strauss waltz," he said. "I mean, who could ask for more? It was magic. Why else would I drive all the way from Chicago? Because I love being here. The concerts we do here are as beautiful as concerts anywhere else."

If you go

• What: "Brahms Violin Concerto," Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, the final performance of the orchestra's 104th season.


• When and where: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Empire Arts Center.

• Conductor: Alexander Platt, with Alejandro Drago, violin.

• Program: Good Friday Music from "Parsifal," Richard Wagner; Symphony No. 2, Howard Hanson; Violin concerto, Johannes Brahms, with soloist Alejandro Drago.

• Tickets: Adults, $15; students, $10; available in advance at

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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