SF Symphony trombonist Nick Platoff on finding his voice in a pandemic, the departure of Michael Tilson Thomas

Nick Platoff, San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony

Nick Platoff of the San Francisco Symphony, Courtesy.

By March 15, Nick Platoff had concluded the lease on his San Francisco apartment and had completely moved out. That day, he, along with dozens of other members of the San Francisco Symphony were to leave for a European tour. But the tour had just been canceled due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. The next day, the Bay Area went into a mandated shelter-in-place order.

The only problem was that Platoff, a trombonist, had no home. So he crashed at a large rental house with 13 friends in the South Bay. A week went by; then a month of San Francisco Symphony shows was canceled, and then the entire summer. It wasn’t until the symphony canceled the rest of its performances through the end of 2020 that the Connecticut native decided to return home to stay with his parents.

While the symphony has scattered through the end of the year, Platoff, who, at 23, was the youngest member of the organization when he joined in 2016, hasn’t wasted a bit of time. Instead, he’s focused on his solo music, much of which has leaned in a poppier or more experimental direction. Perhaps that’s surprising for a musician specializing in a genre that Platoff himself says has built up a stuffy reputation. But it shouldn’t be, coming from a musician who takes as much delight from street busking, mixing the trombone with electronica and simultaneously dancing at SF Pride, and even playing classical music at Burning Man.

“Since our season was canceled, it felt like kind of a golden opportunity for me to spend this extra time just working on that,” Platoff said in a late June video call. “Once I was settled in that group house in Silicon Valley, I did a songwriting challenge in April where I wrote a song every single day for the month. I filmed a music video with my roommates there. … Over the rest of the summer, the plan is just to keep working towards the goal of my debut album of less-classical side of me, which for me feels very new and exciting.”

Platoff grew up appreciating music of all kinds. His father, musicologist John Platoff, introduced him not only to classical music but pop, rock and music from around the world.

“My dad; he’s a lover of music, period,” Platoff said. “His work is mostly in classical music, but he’s also published tons of scholarly work on the Beatles. The Beatles were—as much as Mozart and other classical music—the soundtrack of my childhood. And I played a lot of jazz growing up; I sang in some rock bands with friends. All different kinds of music have always been a big part of my life.”

Platoff has been playing the trombone since the fourth grade but decided to pursue classical music at 16 after discovering the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.

After graduating from the music program at Northwestern University, where he founded a 40-person ensemble and was its conductor and artistic director, Platoff moved to Miami Beach and began a fellowship with a New World Symphony. That’s where he met SF Symphony’s acclaimed outgoing Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, who was also involved in that organization.

He said that being able to build a relationship with Tilson Thomas has been a special experience, and while the music director is leaving his full-time role with the San Francisco Symphony after 25 years, he and the other members know it’s not a permanent goodbye. He will remain music director laureate, which will allow him to direct four to five weeks of performances each year.

“I consider Michael to be an important mentor in my life since I started to play in the New World Symphony in 2014,” he said. “Working with Michael is always really special and really unpredictable. … Friday night is never the same as Thursday night. There’s an energy to the spontaneity of the music-making that happens in these concerts with Michael. …There are sometimes moments that are terrifying.”

Playing with an orchestra, Platoff and the other musicians find direction from multiple sources. There’s the conductor, but there are also the musicians directly surrounding him and the orchestra as a whole. In the end, it’s the conductor’s job to define where the musicians should be, but it’s not always so easy or predictable.

“If things aren’t exactly locked in, you need to make a choice of, ‘Am I going with the conductor? Am I going with the strings?’” he said. “This is different from if you’re playing with a rock band. There are fewer people on stage and, especially if there’s a good drummer or a good bass player, the groove is defined, and it’s not really going to move as often. The thing that gets exciting with Michael is when we get to that cadence and he’s stretching the time out a little bit. … He’s living, and we all sort of live music together. There’s just, like, a thrill of ‘What’s gonna happen? I don’t know!’ … Concerts with Michael are unpredictable and some of the best concerts I’ve ever played in my life. It’s absolutely thrilling.”

COVID-19 decimated what would have been Michael Tilson Thomas’ farewell, as well as the spring, summer and fall schedule of the San Francisco Symphony. By early March, Platoff had heard of the coronavirus scare overseas, but he was still hopeful it wouldn’t affect the European tour. Once the shelter-in-place order kicked in, it still didn’t sink in. He figured he’d get a month off, and then performances would resume.

Only when the rest of the season was canceled in late June did Platoff feel the full severity. But at the same time, for him and the other musicians, at least it provided some closure. They didn’t have to wait, not knowing what would happen next.

“I think that it’ll be really fun to get back together when we finally can do that. Who knows when that will be,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s taking what he calls the jazz musician’s approach to life by rolling with the punches and playing with the hand he’s been dealt. For jazz musicians, a wrong note is only a wrong note if she or he reacts negatively. If the musician plays through, it’s a “creative decision.”

“I’m doing my best to accept the reality that I’m not going to be at work with my colleagues,” he said.

Nick Platoff, San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony

Nick Platoff performs with the San Francisco Symphony, Courtesy: SF Symphony.

The freedom has also accelerated Platoff’s pursuits for his own solo music. Besides writing a song a day for a month straight—some of which are available to stream on his Soundcloud—he collaborated with friend Marques Jerrell Ruff, an operatic singer, on a multi-track cover of spiritual “Deep River” for Juneteenth and has been writing music as a looping artist.

He got into looping shortly after moving to San Francisco. At that point he’d achieved his goal of getting a full-time symphony job. That, as well as a relationship that was ending, created more time for him. That winter, he discovered artists Jacob Collier and Louis Cole, both of whom also use looping in their intricate arrangements, and their music inspired him to pursue it himself. He saw looping as a way to be able to perform complete music by himself on the street, in the subway or at parties.

“This stuffiness associated with classical music has really very little to do with the art form itself, so that’s one of the reasons why I’m especially down for … connect[ing] with audiences in places outside of the concert hall,” he said. “It also feels like a small victory to me every time I perform with an orchestra in Black Rock City at Burning Man to kind of destroy this notion about that.”

In a concert hall, there’s a distance between the musicians and the audience—as well as a social construct: the performer and the listener. But when he’s busking, or playing in a club for fun, it’s a different experience entirely.

That’s why he often travels with his instrument and doesn’t shy away from new experiences and situations. A couple of years ago, while on vacation in Morocco with friends, he found himself on stage at an underground club, playing his trombone alongside a DJ.

More recently, while in Miami to perform with the New Deco Ensemble, he and other musicians walked in a nearby bar with their instruments while a blues band was playing.

“I’m definitely that guy who is not going to be like, ‘Oh no, I’m tired,’” he said. “I jumped right in with them. I feel pretty down for anything.”

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter

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