When COVID threw its proverbial wrench at performance companies in 2020, Maestro Luke Frazier took a deep breath. He then sat down to map a way through the pandemic for the American Pops Orchestra, the DC-based orchestra he founded in 2015. Performing indoors was out of the question, but with proper distancing and other safety protocols, Frazier found a way to coordinate two outdoor concerts. His orchestra gathered on the grounds of Meridian House, a lush, historic home designed by architect John Russell Pope, situated between the White House and Embassy Row. There, Frazier presented a concert called Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, based on the songs of Ella Fitzgerald and featuring a star-studded slate of singers including Norm Lewis and Vanessa Williams. PBS caught wind of the project.
“PBS was excited that we were creating new content at a time when few companies were,” Frazier recalls. “Especially a show featuring Ella Fitzgerald with such mass appeal.” So they asked if they could film it. In spite of COVID and a limited budget, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas became a hit for PBS, garnering more television viewers, Frazier says, than that year’s Kennedy Center Honors.
The experiment led to a string of collaborations between the American Pops Orchestra and PBS. Over 14 APO productions have aired on PBS since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. These include a New Year’s Eve broadcast on the lawn of Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall and Wicked in Concert, which reunited Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth to discuss the roles that made them stars. Frazier says Wicked in Concert got more viewers than any PBS show other than Downton Abbey.
Next up is the kickoff to a new collaboration: the PBS Broadway in Concert series. Episode one — currently streaming and airing this weekend (March 5 to 6, 2022) on PBS channels around the country — will feature the music of Lerner and Loewe, whose Broadway classics include Camelot, My Fair Lady, and Brigadoon. Theater favorites including Jenn Colella (Come From Away), Aisha Jackson (Frozen), and Jose Llana (Rent) will perform arrangements crafted by Frazier and played by the APO.
Throughout its history, the American Pops Orchestra concerts have felt different from traditional orchestra performances. You are likely to see a variety of big-name performers accompany the group. Everyone from Kelli O’Hara to Wynton Marsalis to Joshua Bell has made appearances. Rather than limit the orchestra to one genre of music, Frazier thrives on variety, staging orchestral versions of classical, pop, country, Broadway, spirituals, and more. “The old school belief is to do one thing with orchestras,” Frazier notes. “But how many of us watch only one kind of show when we are watching TV? So why would we in the arts world silo ourselves when we can do so many things?” Frazier says APO audiences are just as loyal and excited about the classical pieces as they are about pop, jazz, or Broadway. “Because it’s about putting them together in a way that makes sense,” he stresses. “A lot of our programs feature many kinds of music, but I am very careful how I pick it so it makes sense together.” He refers to a recent PBS special called One Voice: American Roots that combined Native American music, spirituals, opera, rap, folk music, Latin music, and more. “I wanted to highlight that American music is comprised of many traditions and that our art unites us in a common future.”
Frazier himself is a fascinating combination of well-heeled and down-to-earth. He collects antiques and counts some of the nation’s most well-known performers (think Morgan Fairchild, Renée Fleming, or Chita Rivera) as collaborators and personal friends. He is also one of the most approachable people you will ever meet and is doggedly focused on reaching people of all backgrounds with his music. “Unless we engage people, get them in the door and let them know that they are valued, how do we ever hope to have future audiences? How do we hope to get people excited by music?”
Frazier founded the American Pops Orchestra in 2015 when he was just under 30 years old as a community-based nonprofit designed to “connect with people where they are and how they think.” Frazier sees himself as a bridge between the orchestra and the audience, both of which he wants to be as diverse and joyful as possible. The orchestra is funded almost exclusively by individual donors who are, as Frazier describes them, “extremely committed.” Frazier takes no salary for his work (instead, as Metro Weekly reported, he earns his living through Nouveau Productions, which he and his husband run), and he is committed to operating APO with prudent fiscal management and zero debt. Eight years in and the result has been a resounding success. “Our budget went up by 50 percent during COVID,” he notes. “And that is without a single federal or district grant or PPP loan.”
Reaching people where they are is something of a mantra for Frazier. The orchestra spends part of each year performing concerts in elementary schools. This effort actually blossomed under COVID thanks to Zoom: The APO streamed live concerts to schools in 46 states, most in areas that lack access to live orchestras. Frazier credits the APO’s large donor base with enabling the orchestra to provide these concerts at no cost to schools. “And these are pretty elaborate performances,” he notes, stressing that everyone involved is paid, from the performers to the scriptwriters, the camera crew, the sound technician, the costume and prop designers. “One of my fondest memories from a recent kids tour is one little girl in an elementary school who held a sheet of paper up to the camera that said, ‘I love this!’”
Frazier attributes his philanthropic inclinations to his upbringing in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where professional arts groups were few and far between. “I learned so much of my connection with people by sitting in church, outside of ice cream socials, or at county fairs seeing people respond to music because the music was meant for them,” he says. “It was classical music, popular music, sacred, bluegrass. My whole life has been about listening and thinking about what music is going to connect people on a very personal level.”
In addition to leading his own orchestra, Frazier was also recently named the inaugural principal pops conductor of the National Philharmonic (which performs in Maryland’s Strathmore Center), and he also holds a musical residency in Palm Beach, Florida. “I am a person who laughs at the idea of life/work balance,” Frazier laughs. “My art is my life and my life is my art.”
In the past year alone, Frazier estimates that he has conducted over 500 pieces of music, each of which he personally crafted with a unique arrangement or orchestration. Frazier eschews the cookie-cutter approach to music in which a music director performs the same show over and over. “Nothing excites me more than sitting down with the leadership of an organization to ask, ‘What makes sense? What is going to excite you?’ and then pairing that with what excites me. That is how I find the time, the energy, the drive.”
This extends to Frazier’s work with PBS. For every PBS show that the APO has been involved with, Frazier has hand-picked the venue, the performers, the songs, and the arrangements. His commitment to fiscal prudence also extends to every aspect of the production. Frazier offers a hint: look for the large antique rug used in the production. “It actually comes from my house. So when I say we stretch the budget, we really stretch the budget!”
For the Lerner and Loewe concert, Frazier chose to combine the very traditional setting of DC’s Meridian House (think of a classic interior like Mount Vernon or Monticello) with very out-of-the-box casting. “I made a list of the top ten people you would imagine singing Lerner and Loewe songs and then crossed them all off my list,” he says of his casting process. Instead, he brought together a group of talented performers who typically wouldn’t be considered to sing these songs — performers like Come From Away’s Jenn Colella, who sings “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and Aisha Jackson, the first African American performer to play Elsa in Broadway’s Frozen, who sings songs from Camelot. “With this juxtaposition of different voices and people against a very traditional background, I was saying that the past is not stuck in the past,” Frazier says. “It’s a melding of past and future.”
Jackson, for whom Frazier arranged a lesser-known Aretha Franklin version of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” appreciated having the freedom to make the song her own. “Luke worked with me to choose the best keys for my voice and get me comfortable with the new arrangements,” she recalls. “His precision, attention to detail, passion, and ability to brilliantly rearrange these classic songs make him the wonderful conductor that he is.”
An Evening with Lerner and Loewe: Broadway in Concert (available below) will air on PBS around the nation. Check local PBS listings for exact information. Maryland Public Television will broadcast Broadway in Concert: Lerner and Loewe on Saturday, March 5, 2022, at 5:00 PM; Sunday, March 6, at 6:30 PM; and Saturday, March 12, at 4:00 PM. The show is now streaming for free on PBS.org.
Past American Pops Orchestra performances on PBS are available on Passport, the PBS streaming service.