Philharmonic to Honor First Chairman with Memorial Concert
By Linda Sickler / Savannah Morning News; featured in the DO
Read the original article here
Richard “Dick” Platt was passionate about music.
Platt, who died in April at age 80, was instrumental in the creation of the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and served as its first chairman.
“He was as handsome as a movie star,” current board chair Melissa Emery says. “He was tall and impressive looking, a perfect image of a chairman of the board of a philharmonic orchestra.
“He was an old-style gentleman, always polite but very firm in his views,” she says. “He didn’t compromise.
“He was a very thoughtful person in that he didn’t make rash judgements,” Emery says. “He thought things through carefully.”
Platt was involved in several other community organizations, including the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the Davenport House Museum, the Savannah Benevolent Society, Christ Church Episcopal and more, but it was his involvement with the philharmonic that is particularly significant.
In 2008, Platt met with Peter Shannon, then the conductor of the Savannah Choral Society. Immediately impressed, Platt made a personal donation to the chorus and joined the chorus board.
Later that year, the decision was made to create the philharmonic. Platt was one of four people present at the meeting.
“When I came to Savannah, I thought the motivation was so high to have a good symphony orchestra,” Shannon says.
“But when I went into the community, what I thought was fertile ground turned out to be burnt out.
“The previous organization hadn’t respected what the community wanted or had fiscal reliability. When you are going to make a big ask to a potential donor, it has to be chaired by someone who is respected in the community, somebody whose integrity was unquestioned, and that was Dick Platt.
“I liked him the first time I met him. I was invited to his 75th birthday, which turned out to be close family and friends. We had met two or three days earlier, but he asked me to speak at his birthday and I jumped at the chance.”
While most choruses are founded by orchestras, the Savannah Philharmonic did it the other way around. The chorus made its debut in October 2008, while the orchestra made its debut the following January.
“He was someone who was very driven,” Shannon says. “Even at 80, he would regularly get into discussions, arguments even, but there was never any doubt behind his arguments and passion.
“He wasn’t just passionate, it was fueled by a sense of doing what was right. The word integrity keeps coming up with Dick’s name.
“You have to respect someone if they have integrity,” Shannon says. “You couldn’t get away from the sense this guy meant what he was saying.”
In addition to being an inspiring leader, Platt was a charming man.
“He was very amicable, the perfect Southern gentleman,” Shannon says.
“You felt at the center of attention all the time he was talking to you. He was an impressive person on so many different levels.”
Platt always cleared the air, Shannon says. “In a difficult discussion, a high-powered executive meeting, he started off by saying, ‘We may disagree and we should disagree, but everybody should say what they want to say and at the end, we’ll all shake hands and still be friends.’ That was a very, very powerful thing.
“He definitely will be missed for all those reasons and more. There was something very particular about that man.”
When Platt was named chairman of the philharmonic board, he insisted there be several overriding principles:
• Don’t spend money you don’t have.
• Form a new board beyond the existing chorus board to serve as the fundraising arm of the organization.
• Nurture Shannon and provide the moral and financial support needed to keep him in Savannah.
• Convince community leaders this is a new and different organization from the previous symphony and worthy of their support.
• Make sure the musicians are satisfied with the new organization and the way it will be run.
“He met with various people and promised right from the beginning he would never spend a dollar we didn’t have,” Emery says.
“Dick was there, reinforcing that message. It was part of his leadership that gave us that determination to stay out of debt.”
To save money, Platt and other original board members created a fee-per-service model to pay the musicians, because not every instrument is needed to perform every piece of music, and the numbers of specific instruments may vary by repertoire. That gave the philharmonic room to grow by avoiding unnecessary expenditures.
In addition to organizational skills, Platt also promoted the orchestra to potential donors, convincing them to provide financial support. Although hiring an executive director to run the daily operations and raise funds was a risk because the funds weren’t immediately available, he realized such a person was necessary for the philharmonic to survive and grow. Platt helped select David Pratt for the position of executive director. Pratt has helped the organization increase its audience numbers, donations and corporate support and has produced annual surpluses above targets, even while introducing new programs and events.
“Dick was absolutely instrumental in the formation of the orchestra and getting it up and running,” Pratt says. “He was a real champion for the orchestra right up until he passed.
“He helped us access the people who were willing to give to the orchestra,” Pratt says. “He loved Savannah, and was one of our biggest supporters in the community, someone people trusted.”
Platt was instrumental in getting Pratt hired for his position.
“He was one of my biggest supporters, but apart from that, I’ll miss him on a personal level,” Pratt says.
For the past three years, the organization has exceeded its targets every year.
“The most concerns I heard from the community were about financial stability and what happened with the previous orchestra,” Pratt says.
“I’ve been fastidious in making sure we’re building up our financial base,” he says. “We still have a long way to go along the path, but every year, we’ve exceeded ticket sales targets.
“When you’re building from ground zero, you need to ensure that buffer,” Pratt says.
“It’s a very different business operation than the previous orchestra, a very lean organization, because the money needs to go in the artistic side of the program and we need to ensure we are saving, as well.”
As a result, the philharmonic is growing.
“A lot of orchestras in the United States are struggling,” Pratt says. “The ones that tend to do well don’t have a big budget overhead and are in touch with the community.
“They tend to have smaller budgets,” he says. “They really engage with the local community. Savannah should be proud, because this is one of those organizations.”
Since its inception, the Savannah Philharmonic has operated in the black, even in difficult economic times. Every year, the orchestra has had an operating surplus and attendance, unearned and earned income have all risen steadily.
Most concerts consistently sell out. About 94 percent of all available seats were sold during the last season.
The number of individual donors has increased, and subscriptions and corporate support tripled over the previous season. When a minimum donation was requested of each board member, Platt gave 10 times that amount.
Just two days before he died, Platt attended his last board meeting, asking the board to study each step before taking it, and to be sure before reaching any decisions.
In appreciation for all Platt did, the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus performed at his memorial service and Shannon spoke about him. The philharmonic’s October concert will be dedicated to Platt.
Even at the end of his life, Platt was conducting orchestra business.
“I had two meetings with him that week,” Shannon says. “He made some of the most valuable comments I’d heard him say since I’d known him at those two meetings.”
Platt seemed as vital as usual, Shannon says.
“I distinctly remember joking with him, ‘I don’t know what you’re on, but I want some of those tablets,’” Shannon says. “Three days later, he was dead.
“He was 80 years old, but something about Dick was so young,” he says. “With him, it was more than a shock. He was almost in his prime. There was nothing old or doddery about him.”