Susan Platts wouldn’t be living in Evanston if it wasn’t for the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO). In 2014, the well-known soprano was invited to Chicago to sing a Mahler program with the CPO, and at an afterparty she was seated next to Neil Kimel, a member of the orchestra.
The two started chatting and learned they shared similar interests, especially the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, the famed romanticist. They also discovered each was a fan of lime chicken. After the party, Platts and Kimel stayed in touch, eventually fell in love, and married.
“I’m known for my performances of Mahler. My husband plays first horn in the orchestra, and he was playing the concert that I was singing,” Platts says. “We went to Siam Splendour afterword and the executive director was going to be sitting to my left but at the very last minute he asked Neil to sit there. I like to say we’re together because of Mahler and lime chicken.”
For the first time since her initial performance with the CPO, Platts will sing a program of Mahler with the orchestra at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on February 4. She’s eager for the opportunity.
“The Philharmonic has always been near and dear to my heart and without it I never would’ve met Neil,” Platts says. “I feel lucky and it’s a treat to be going back to performing with them and to be performing Mahler’s music.”
Platts says her admiration for Mahler derives from how he puts the reality of human emotions into his music. He encompasses everything from the happiest moments experienced in life to the saddest moments and everything in between. She says she herself is an upbeat, happy person but there’s something about how Mahler addresses the ups and downs of life.
“He really speaks to me. I know that some people say, ‘Mahler, he’s so depressing’, but he often manages to see in his work the light that is at the end of the stumbles we go through,” Platts says. “There are few people in life from the moment they are born to the moment they die who are nothing but happy, so we go through these emotions, and we all handle them in different ways, and he just puts it out there in his music.”
Born in England, raised in Western Canada, and now living in the Midwest, it took a while for Platts to realize music was her true calling. She discovered music provides a unique form of expression.
“I’ve always loved the arts and growing up in highs school I took an art class. My teacher saw me going into graphic design and that’s kind of what I thought,” says Platt. “I started music really late, not until grade 11 in high school when I joined the choir, and the choir teacher told me I had a pretty voice.”
Encouraged by her choir teacher, Platts began to take private voice lessons and the rest, she says, is history.
“There was a way to express through singing that was like storytelling for me—to stand on a stage and tell stories from the music that had been written how many years ago,” she says. “I stand in front of an audience today and pass along the message that that composer put on paper 50, or 100, or 150 years before.”
One of her first breaks was being selected by the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Through the initiative, she was mentored by Jessye Norman, the world-renowned opera singer and recitalist.
“I had ten or 15 years of being a friend and having her as a mentor and learning from her,” Platts says. “Even though I didn’t go the traditional university route I had some amazing opportunities and I feel lucky to have a job in the arts because it can be tough. But it’s always been my only job so I definitely feel lucky.”
Scott Speck is the conductor of the CPO and says the decision to invite Platts to be part of the program on February 4 was an easy one due to her familiarity with and love for Mahler.
“I conduct a number of orchestras and I’ve hired Susan to sing at all of them. She has a stunning, beautiful quality of voice and just what I like in a singer,” Speck says. “I like a singer that has a warmth without one of those bravados that drives you crazy. She maintains a purity that I truly appreciate, and I think all of the musicians appreciate about her.”
Speck says the Chicago Philharmonic, unlike most orchestras in the world, is a musician-governed organization. It’s not a top-down structure. The musicians you see on stage by and large have a stake in the outcome because they help to create the event.
“We were having an Artistic Committee meeting and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have Susan Platts again and what would Susan love to sing’,” he says. “So, she gave us a number of works that she would enjoy singing and tops on the list was Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer.”
Other members of the committee chimed in with ideas and eventually they added Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (Mahler was heavily influenced by Schumann) and a contemporary piece called Deep Summer by Libby Larson to the program.
“In a somewhat cheeky way, we selected her piece called Deep Summer Music, which is warm and liquid and very tonal and gives you solace,” Speck says. “It’s peaceful and has absolutely no angst in it, unlike Mahler and to a certain extent Schumann. It’s almost diametrically opposed to the world of Mahler with one exception in that Mahler and Libby Larson share a deep-seated love for nature.”
The Chicago Philharmonic plays music of all kinds. Speck says If you take a look at its season, you’ll see everything from world premieres—it has three composers in residence—to the music of Queen, The Godfather, Ghostbusters, and the Black Panther to the American premier of Tan Dun’s Guitar Concerto.
“We also feel it’s important as part of our mission to highlight the masterpieces that have survived the test of time, specifically because they are so great,” Speck says. “Another example of that is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which we’re playing just a few weeks after the Skokie concert.”
For those who would consider attending the CPO’s performance on February 4, Speck says what they’ll witness is an experience that is felt deeply not just by the audience but the musicians as well.
“This is a concert of tried-and-true masterworks, and truth be told there’s a strong contingent of the Chicago Philharmonic whose spiritual sustenance comes from playing music like this,” he says. “These musicians have a way to express themselves that is closest to their own souls.”
The Chicago Philharmonic and soprano Susan Platts will perform Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer on February 4 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. For more information or to purchase tickets visit chicagophilharmonic.org.