Metro Weekly

Frazier’s Edge: Luke Frazier is Changing the Future of Pops Orchestras

By embracing three centuries of popular songs, Luke Frazier's American Pops Orchestra is taking orchestral music to new, diverse heights

Luke Frazier — Photo: Julian Vankim

“I love dinner parties,” says Luke Frazier. “I love entertaining.”

The conductor’s lifelong love of cooking took on a new twist after he became a vegetarian. “Now when anyone comes for dinner, I only cook vegetarian meals,” he says. “People never realize it, typically. They don’t walk away going, ‘Oh my God, I had a leaf of lettuce for dinner.'”

That attitude manifests in all aspects of Frazier’s life. He seems to derive great satisfaction in surprising people, upending expectations, and introducing them to new experiences, or things they might not have expected they’d like. In the past decade, the 32-year-old has made a name for himself surprising the music establishment as an enthusiastic, astute and young guest conductor for hire for classical ensembles around the region and, increasingly, the world.

He’s been turning even more heads with the American Pops Orchestra, an organization he began in 2015 that offers stage-directed concerts featuring top regional musicians accompanying star vocalists — everyone from Fran Drescher (The Nanny) to two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens) to Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child. This Saturday, Jan. 6, APO kicks off the new year with “Around The World in 80 Days” at Arena Stage, where it is has established a cooperative residency.

It’s all a far cry from his upbringing deep in Appalachia. Among others, Frazier credits his piano teacher at West Virginia University with helping him find his way. “She always pushed me really hard to go do things outside of the college and to do master classes with people,” he says. “That’s how I got to work with Marvin Hamlisch, who is one of the most legendary conductors in the history of pops conducting, and all kinds of famous singers and instrumentalists.”

In addition to other regular D.C. gigs, including leading the APO as the house band for the Helen Hayes Awards, Frazier also made his Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center debuts in 2017. All that, plus he moved into a massive house that had fallen on hard times in Cathedral Heights with his partner Robert Pullen, a theater producer. The three-story manse, built a century ago by a U.S. Senator from Idaho, serves as an ideal kind of home for the couple’s dinner parties and all manner of fundraising events, not to mention a perfect way to display the many fruits of Frazier’s non-musical hobby: antiquing and estate-sale collecting.

“One of the things I love about antiques and one of the things I love about what I do is getting to know the history and the story behind the things,” he says. “Almost anything in this house, I can tell you exactly where I got it, the period it comes from, and the story behind it.”

It’s also an important part of the entertaining he enjoys doing at home. Away from his busy schedule with the Pops Orchestra, the antiques bring a welcoming atmosphere to Frazier’s home life.

“One of the things I love is that it kind of fills a home with warmth, because everything is almost living,” he says. “There’s an energy to it. I love that.”

METRO WEEKLYLet’s start with how you put together this weekend’s concerts.

LUKE FRAZIER: Last year, we experimented and developed a kids show. I’m also the artist in residence with the DC Youth Orchestra. It was fun, it sold out, the kids seemed to really enjoy it, and the parents loved it. So I commissioned another work this year based on Around the World in 80 Days. We modified the book to make it more inclusive and much more politically correct. I really wanted a story about building friendships and getting to know different kinds of people, because I think right now in our country, it’s a critical thing to keep reinforcing to kids, that even though people look and sound and act differently than we do, they’re still our friends. That’s really what I wanted the message of this show to be.

But it’s all tied together with classic American songs. So Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and also songs made famous by Rosemary Clooney and Sinatra. The kids are going to enjoy it, but it’s something that the parents and the grandparents are going to enjoy as well, for different reasons. I think that’s part of the fun of it, because then when kids go home, they’re talking with their parents and grandparents about the show.

MWIt seems you’re partly motivated by the concept of paying it forward — attempting to create a musical spark in children similar to how your passion for music developed growing up in West Virginia.

FRAZIER: Well, when I was five years old, I went to this county fair — what a very West Virginia thing to say — and there was a dealer there who had a display of pianos and keyboards. I went up and I started banging around and I was like, “I want a piano.” And my grandma said, “I’ll buy you a piano if you agree to take lessons.” I threw a fit and said no. At eight, I finally said yes, and I’ve been playing ever since. That experience is one of the reasons I’ve always been an extremely adamant, vocal, outspoken supporter of public education. My parents aren’t musical at all. They aren’t in the arts at all, which is a big anomaly. A lot of kids who go on to be in the arts, their parents play an instrument or sing or took them to concerts a lot. Mine didn’t.

In April, I’m going to take Around the World in 80 Days out on a tour of underserved schools in West Virginia. A whole week-long version of that. I’m going to five different counties. I’m going to do one or two school each day. I think it’s our duty and obligation as organizations in large cities that we share what we have — not in any way preaching to other areas, or looking down on what they’re doing. It’s just giving kids opportunities.

When I was in elementary school, one of the things that really stands out to me to this day is there was a string quartet that came to our school. I remember it clear as day. I was six or seven at the time. I had never heard of an orchestra, never been to an orchestra, nothing. Our school didn’t even have orchestras. They phased out all the string programs. They still don’t have them 25 years later. The string quartet set up and they played for us. I remember the instruments, I remember the types of things they did. I thought to myself, “What if we have the opportunity to be that spark for a kid?” That’s what drives me to do that. Is it sexy? No. Is it easy? No. Is it going to make us all famous? No. But that’s not the point. It’s about changing people’s lives with music. That’s what I’m really aggressive about.

I hit school at a time where there was kind of a cohort of teachers that were very committed, high-level musicians who loved kids, who loved teaching, who loved making great music, all the way up. I kept getting encouraged by them. I took private lessons. I come from a thoroughly middle-class family — having a piano and lessons was an expense that we thought about. Again, I think so many people associate this as a cherry-on-top kind of lifestyle, but it definitely wasn’t that for me. But I was lucky that I had so many people encouraging me around it.

MW: You mention encouragement of your musical talent. What about personally? Was coming out a struggle for you?

FRAZIER: It was. It was not pleasant. It was not good. I’m in a much better relationship with my parents and family now. I definitely know what it’s like to come from a place where coming out is not easy. I didn’t come out until I was in college, my freshman year of college. But in high school I had some friends who were ostracized for being gay.

MWWhen did you realize you were gay?

FRAZIER: Oh, very young. I never dated a girl my entire life. I just didn’t. It worked out well though because I was such a driven, focused person that all my energy was channeled on music.

Even through the difficult times of coming out, the piano was such a solace because I could turn all my energy to it. I think that’s why I’m so adamant that classical music can connect so easily and so deeply with people if you allow it to. Because for me in that time, which was a very difficult time, I found solace in the music of Ravel. I found it in Beethoven. I found it in Schumann. In very specific ways, I could find a phrase of music that sounded like something to me or it immediately cast a picture in my mind in those times when I needed it most. And so the discipline of music is such a good thing, to just stay focused on something rather than get lost in the frustration or the anxiety about it.

MWWas your struggle with coming out partly due to religion?

FRAZIER: Some. I was Methodist and Baptist my whole life growing up. But in West Virginia, those denominations, we’re not talking Foundry. Then when I got to college, I [initially] was going to a small private religious college. And you couldn’t really be open about being gay. And so that was also a terrible, repressive kind of thing.

Like so many people, I refer to myself as spiritual and not religious. I’ve worked in so many different denominations, plus Catholic, and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of what a church can be. There are tremendous communities of faith that build up people, and then there are lots as well that don’t, that don’t quite understand the whole picture. And I’m very careful about what churches I support because of that.

And in the classical music world, there’s a tradition of being traditional. If you think back fifty years ago, when you look at most orchestras it was all men. No minorities, all white men. And thank God that is changing. But there was also a culture of a good old boys club. As you can imagine, being a young, not-closeted person, there are some people that like to prey on that. I’ve experienced that. And it’s been jarring because you think, “Well I’m out of that. I don’t have to be on guard anymore.”

MWCan you describe specific challenges you’ve faced in the classical world as a gay conductor?

FRAZIER: Absolutely. As a conductor you have very good hearing, and when you’re looking around a room your ears just lock in like a laser to the voices. I can remember overhearing some players make some derogatory comments about me. And it really shook me. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did proceed to go to the person in charge and say that this person will never play for me again. So that’s one thing I’ve learned — I have a kind of take-no-prisoners approach to life. I think that’s part of the Appalachian in me — I’m a very warm and loving, slow-to-anger kind of person, but once I’m disrespected for something, then I have no trouble cutting it off.

MWHow did you end up making D.C. your home?

FRAZIER: I took a conducting job at a church out in northern Virginia. And I started getting asked to guest conduct a lot once I got here. I was guest conducting at an event at the Kennedy Center, where I was asked to come in and do a last-minute thing. I was conducting Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno — and those two women to this day are like grandmothers to me. I talk to them all the time. I was texting with Rita Moreno the other night. She is one of the most hysterical, raunchy people you will ever meet. At the concert was the head of another orchestra, and they came to me and said, “Would you be interested in starting a pops program? We’re looking for someone to start this here out in northern Virginia.” So I did that and started a series with the Fairfax Symphony, and it went really well. The audiences were growing and growing and growing. I had a lot of fun, [but] what I really wanted was the freedom and flexibility to just do whatever I want. And so that’s why I started this group.

MWWhen did Broadway and pop music become a passion for you?

FRAZIER: My undergraduate degree is classical piano, and then my masters is more classically focused as well. And I still play and I practice classical music all the time. But I’ve always loved this American music. It’s not only Broadway — they say American Songbook, but I think it sounds really old fashioned. I like to think that I specialize in American popular song. That can go all the way back to the 18th century and all the way down to now. I really think that so much of this music is getting lost in a way that we don’t even realize.

I did a concert with the DC Youth Orchestra of the music of Ella Fitzgerald because it was her 100th birthday. Not a single kid in the orchestra knew of Ella Fitzgerald. These are high school kids in 2017 and not in a rural, remote area — if they don’t know Ella Fitzgerald, then have they ever heard of Judy Garland? Do they know of George Gershwin? For that matter, do they even know Carole King? I would argue they probably don’t. I just did a concert at Ohio University with college kids. I did some Joni Mitchell. None of them knew it. I thought, “This is music that really has formed our country. It’s a part of so many people’s lives.” The music itself has such great stories.

When I was a kid, I listened to music of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, because my grandmother loved it. She got me hooked on it. Then when I was going around the house and everyone else was listening to NSYNC or New Kids on The Block or whatever, I was listening to Benny Goodman and Sarah Vaughan. It’s been in my ear from a very young age. That’s why I take for granted all the time: When I’m rehearsing with young actors in town, I’ll say, “Well of course you know this song. Dean Martin made it famous. You’ve heard him sing it.” They’re like, “No.”

MW“Who’s Dean Martin?”

FRAZIER: Exactly. Then I also think back to early American Folk Song, which is American popular song like “Shenandoah” and “The Water is Wide” and all these beautiful songs that are so calming and peaceful.

MWDo you perform those?

FRAZIER: I’m going to in this coming season. I have done them on my community outreach concerts. I feel very adamant that live music, period, is in danger. I’m such a fighter by spirit and such a driven person, that once I sense that, I’m out for blood. I’m going to carry that damn banner as long as it takes until they bury me in my piano. I do have this dream that they’ll just hollow it out and roll me out. That’ll be the funeral, with sparklers.

What it all comes back to for me is listening to your audience. To me, that’s 100 percent of what I try to do: “What community am I in? What are the people here prone to like? What do I think they could connect with naturally?” Then, once you come up with that, figure out a way to tell that story to them and bring them in and make them feel welcome.

We have to tear down all the constructs around it, though. My philosophy: Why do we have to have every concert in a concert hall? Every main season for all musical organizations is housed primarily in a similar hall — same set up, same time. It doesn’t work. How many people do you know that maintain a regular schedule all the time? Almost no one.

Why don’t we make concerts shorter? I’m a huge fan of shorter concerts. That’s why with this group, we only do 90-minute concerts straight through — not broken up by an intermission, not eating up your whole evening. I’m a big believer in the philosophy of leaving people wanting more. So I think for all of these other genres — for jazz, for classical, for musical theater, for all of these things, you have to basically look at what is working, what is successful, and then you have to program in such a way that you’re looking at the things that are impeding people from enjoying what you’re doing without watering down the product.

MWOr pandering.

FRAZIER: Exactly. That is an epidemic as well. What I’ve seen a lot of, and what I’m vehemently against, is completely watering down, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Or just being such high art music for only the most educated, the most “cultured” — and yes, I put “cultured” in quotes, because my point again is that every genre of music has relevance. Hip hop, rap, R&B, pop — it’s changing people’s lives. Why aren’t we embracing that?

I think the age of sitting in a concert hall quietly applauding is done. And I think the longer it takes people to find that out the quicker they lose their audiences. That’s part of why every show is different for us. At our Aretha show, people were shouting, “Amen.” When have you ever been to an orchestra concert and people are shouting “yes” or “preach” to the people on stage? I love that. I think people are too afraid to leave the unknown.

MWDo you play or include songs that you might not like yourself, on the theory that it’ll move someone else?

FRAZIER: No, I have to have a connection to every piece I do. I get asked to guest conduct things, but even then I’m picky. I don’t conduct things I don’t like, because I can’t give my all to it. And I feel like every conductor has to find that repertoire that you can summon everything out of you. You can summon everything out of your musicians and your singers to get the desired effect.

MWI imagine you’re careful in selecting those who perform with you in APO as well.

FRAZIER: Yeah, the players are all picked not only on their musical ability but on their personalities — and coincidentally, three of my first strings are all gay. I’m very particular about having a group of people that are all watching out for each other. And we have a great time. That’s one of the other things about working with my group is that it’s a very different ethos. Our rehearsals are always fun. There’s never high anxiety. There’s never high drama. And the players are playing beautifully because they’re having fun. It’s just a very different energy. We all hug each other, which sounds like nothing, but it’s an anomaly. And I think you can hear it in the music. But I think, again, that’s a culture change. That’s the exception, not the norm.

I think that’s one of the great things about our group is that, this sounds so cliché, but it’s truly a no-judgment zone. It’s a fully union orchestra, so it’s the best players you can get. And then I audition them. Because it’s a smaller ensemble typically, we all have to get along and it has to be people who enjoy playing with those other people. We’re really careful about that.

I’m really picky about that, because, going back to my bigger point, it’s about the audience. If you’re just making music in a vacuum, in a rehearsal room, that’s one thing. But when the audience doesn’t feel like the ensemble’s having a good time doing what they’re doing, you feel that even subconsciously. I’ve felt it myself many times.

MWAny hint of disinterest or disconnect only diminishes the live experience for an audience.

FRAZIER: Exactly. I think it’s all too easy for people to go to a concert and realize, rightfully, that if I’m sitting many rows back from the stage in a really uncomfortable seat, and I could sit at home on my comfortable sofa and turn on my Sonos, what am I going to choose?

We have got to realize that [home listening] is a viable alternative. We have to make it such a special, unique experience every time, and that’s why I love doing a new show every time, a new original product, because you’re not going to sit at home and get that. You’re not going to hear these singers sing this repertoire. You’re not going to hear this, you’re not going to see this visual. I have a stage director for every single show I do. And what orchestra does that? It’s really special.

Since the orchestra was founded, I have been adamant that it’s about people, and it’s about this community. We’ve provided access tickets from the beginning — to veterans, to elderly LGBTQ via SAGE, victims of domestic violence, women from shelters. We’ve reached out to tons and tons of organizations, and we give them prime tickets to our shows. A lot of times if people get an access ticket of some sort — and every group calls it something different — it’s in the third balcony. And it’s great that they get the opportunity to come. But again my philosophy is, why should those people have to experience it from back there? Why can’t we take the financial burden of making it a priority to place people so they’re getting just as good an experience? For people that there’s no way they could afford those tickets, make them feel as valued as anyone else. That’s why we do that.

We price our tickets in such a way that it is affordable. So the highest-priced ticket to any show of ours is $75. If you look at most other places, that’s a mid-range ticket. And anyone under 30 gets a special discount. Whenever I do workshops with interns or coach young people on careers, I always use that as data-mining time for me. I ask about concerts. I’ll say, “What do you think is a fair ticket price for an orchestra concert? What would you feel comfortable paying?” And do you know what the average is, across years of doing this? Twenty five dollars is the most that they would consider paying. So it’s figuring out fundraising models that make it possible, because if we’re not building an audience, then they’re not going to buy the $55 or $75 ticket when they can.

MW: You’re certainly succeeding in building an impressive audience.

FRAZIER: The other day, someone was telling me how much they love that when you come to an APO concert, it’s one of the most diverse crowds you’ll ever see. Again, when you say orchestra, what do you expect? A sea of blue hair. That’s the common stereotype, is that you’re going to walk in, move the walker, and find your seat. I love that demographic, but there’s got to be more. We have all different ethnicities, we have all different ages, different genders, different sexualities. I feel like that’s what the arts need to be doing right now, is figuring out more ways to bring more people together in this time in our history. If we’re not banging down the door, beating the bushes, to break down walls and bring people together around this beautiful thing, then we’re not doing our job. And so for me that’s why I want to reach out to this community, I want to reach out to that community. I want to say this will mean something, there’s something for you in this. And it may not be what you expect, but you’re probably going to walk out having a great time. And our audiences have been growing.

The other thing is, I don’t really like the idea of programming one thing only for one kind of audience — I’m not going to do a show where I only know that I’m going to get a room full of gay men. I’m not going to do a show where I only know I’m going to get a room full of middle-aged white women. I think people need to understand each other better. And for me that’s one of the thrills of programming. The Aretha concert is a good example. When you think of Aretha Franklin, a lot of people have an immediate assumption of why I programmed that piece and what demographic I was going after. And what I always do is mix it up. So I cast Aretha with different kinds of people, different age demographics, different types: A white girl Canadian jazzer — who would expect that on an Aretha program? Michelle Williams, and all these musical theater people, like Ariana Debose from Hamilton on Broadway. I’m not bringing in the people you would normally expect to do that. And then my orchestra’s so diverse. When you looked around that room at Arena, the Fichandler Stage, which is our main theater, the big one in the round, you’re seeing so many different kinds of people. Extremely rich people, people that are there on a free ticket in the front row, young kids sitting with their parents dressed up for a concert, two kids in jeans who just put their phone down.

I think we should always be looking at how do we connect so many different kinds of people. This is a much harder way, I acknowledge that, and there’s not as much research into this way that I’m doing it. Take a gamble.

What’s been great is it’s had a spider-web effect, because people will come to our concert not knowing really what to expect, and then they will bring their friends the next time, and then those friends. And the cool thing, because the nucleus of our audience is so diverse, it keeps expanding in diverse ways.

MWYou referenced that the Fichandler Stage at Arena became your home base, after two seasons at GW Lisner. What inspired the move to a venue that is unknown and even unfamiliar to an orchestra such as yours?

FRAZIER: That’s who I am. I love spaces that orchestras don’t play in. And it’s a cool space because you’re entirely around the orchestra. Again, where do you go to see an orchestra and you get that experience?

MW: I can’t think of another local, in-the-round space where an orchestra performs.

FRAZIER: They had never had an orchestra play in there like that. I remember the Arena Stage staff, when they came to our rehearsal — they didn’t know anything about us until we did our Aretha show. The staff came in, and all of a sudden they’re listening: “Oh my god, this is really good. We had no idea.” They just didn’t know what to expect.

I don’t have a single complaint about Arena. Working in all these other cities around the country, sometimes you think, “Oh my god, why does it have to be so difficult?” But Arena has a culture of “Let’s make it work, let’s be creative, let’s play as a team.” I just could not be more emphatic about how much I like them.

MWWhen you think about the future, or even just five years from now, what do you envision. Do you anticipate having kids?

FRAZIER: No. I love children and I spoil children ridiculously. I actually was a preschool teacher for a while, too, which I really loved. But I just don’t think it fits into what I want with my life.

MWWhat about with work?

FRAZIER: Conducting all over the place more. I travel all the time. I’m in New York just about every week. And I’ve been guest conducting a lot all over the place. And each year it gets more and more and more.

This may sound corny or hokey, but the more I’m able to do at these levels, the more I can go and help areas that don’t get it and that are neglected artistically. And that’s something that really drives me as a person. In fact, I’m thinking about proposing to my board that we do every year a week-long tour to an underserved area — a remote, rural area, just as part of our fundamental work we do.

MWTo create a similar spark that helped drive you?

FRAZIER: Exactly. Data is great and data is helpful in so many ways, but also sometimes data is stifling, because there are so many people that would say, “Well, if you’re only going in once, that’s not really going to have a lasting effect on anyone.” I say, “You’re looking at someone that it had a lasting effect on.” So maybe in the pie chart, it doesn’t show that, but I can tell you from my life, that string quartet that I saw one time when I was a kid is why I’m here today.

If I see a thousand kids in a week and only [inspire] one of them, it’s still worth it to me. And that’s the thing, is that there are so many people that would argue against this idea. “Well, it’s not a sustained impact. It’s not a this, it’s not a that.” Well, I think you just gotta try. And you gotta make those possibilities.

The American Pops Orchestra performs “Around The World in 80 Days” on Saturday, Jan. 6, at 2 and 5 p.m. at the Kogod Cradle in Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $20 to $35. Call 202-488-3300 or visit

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.