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Tombonistically speaking, in the key of Bernstein

Photograph of Nick Platoff by Terrance McCarthy

Photograph of Nick Platoff by Terrence McCarthy


Nick Platoff moved here a year ago to join the San Francisco Symphony’s acclaimed brass section, in which he is associate principal trombonist. Only 25, he helps kick off the fall arts season this month, performing in the symphony’s opening night gala on September 14, followed from September 22 to 24 by “Celebrating Bernstein,” four pieces by Leonard Bernstein to honor the centennial of the master conductor and composer’s birth.

Some of Bernstein’s compositions call for more brass than works by other composers — especially his most famous work, which you’ll perform as “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.”

West Side Story is my favorite of his works, a piece I grew up with. The main solo instruments are violin and trumpet, but it has a few little trombone solos, a couple of little interjections. The thing that’s fun trombonistically is getting to play all this jazzy stuff. He incorporates the big band sound into the orchestra and swings really hard. There’s great variety; it couldn’t have been written without the influences of Schoenberg and Webern. It’s very satisfying music for a trombone player. That should be an amazing program.

A huge part of Bernstein was his Judaism, and the Jewish musical tradition shows up in all kinds of ways in his music, with lots of klezmer-sounding parts. Chichester Psalms is a completely different sound world from West Side Story.

How did you come to play the trombone?

I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and when I heard the local high school band playing some kind of James Bond medley, I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I was fortunate that my elementary school had a band program. I was a pretty big kid, pretty tall, and I knew my arms would be long enough to reach the fully extended position with the slide. I don’t think every 8-year-old would be able to do it.

When did you know you wanted to stick with it?

I did experiment with other instruments; I played trumpet, and I sang in some rock bands in high school. I got more serious when I was part of a music festival in North Carolina. I was an average 16-year-old kid, interested in lots of things, but when I got to play Mahler’s First Symphony — it is really heavy-duty, extremely passionate, emotional — it was utterly life changing. At that point, I felt I wanted to fully pursue a career as a musician.

Before coming to San Francisco, you played with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony in Miami.

Yes, Michael is music director in both places. This is the first city I’ve lived in with strong intentions to stay.

When you rented your place here, did you have to worry about neighbors complaining when you practice?

Rehearsing is an important part of apartment hunting. I made sure to be very upfront with potential landlords: “I’m a professional musician and I need to live in a place where I can practice.” We generally work at night, so my practice is typically 9 to 5, and I signed a lease with a landlord who said it’s never been an issue. But I wrote a letter to all my neighbors and said: “I just moved here; if noise is ever an issue for you, let me know and we’ll work it out.” I’ve had friends who play brass instruments in New York, and the neighbors have called the cops. Thankfully, my neighbors have been really great about it.

When you have time to relax, what are some of your favorite neighborhood places?

Dosa has some of the best Indian food I’ve had in San Francisco. The restaurant is beautiful and smells like heaven, if heaven served Indian food — and I hope it does. The Boom Boom Room is a killer spot. People on the dance floor can get up close and personal with the band. And one of the best things I’ve done this year is attend a concert at the Fillmore; I heard Feist. It’s always fun to spend time in a space where your heroes used to stand. I feel that way every time I play Carnegie Hall, and I felt it when I entered the Fillmore. Maybe I’ll get to play there one day.