Metro Weekly

Luke Frazier and the American Pops Orchestra make the season merry and bright

APO offers three superstar-packed specials celebrating drag queens, Ella Fitzgerald, and America

american pops orchestra, luke frazier, drag out the holly, apo, music
American Pops Orchestra: Drag Out the Holly — Photo: DuHon Photography

“I like turning things on their head,” says Luke Frazier. The maestro behind Washington, D.C.’s venerable American Pops Orchestra has long been an advocate of innovation and finding new ways to bring music to the masses far and wide. It’s more than a passion for Frazier, it’s a life’s calling. The joy he has for music, lodged deeply in his soul, was forged early in his youth growing up in West Virginia’s Appalachian region, where, he says, becoming a conductor was not necessarily a career option.

“I started playing in my church at age 13, and it was completely by accident,” he recalls. “I had been taking piano lessons for five years, and one day I was in Sunday school, and my preacher pulled me out of class and said, ‘Luke, our church pianist is out today. There’s been a flood and she can’t get out of her house. Would you be willing to play for the service?’ I was a little terrified, but I said, ‘Yes.’ Since then, I have never had a job outside of music. It was mostly always church music before going into the professional world. But I had that bug.”

Five years ago, Frazier put his passions on the front burner by founding the American Pops Orchestra. The orchestra carries an iron-clad credo that no performance will ever be repeated, that every concert is its own unique, special event. APO has achieved a national profile not least because of Frazier’s boundless imagination and energy, but because of his ability to draw huge celebrity names, as well as give rise to superb local vocalists (Nova Payton comes to mind) who deserve a spotlight all their own. To experience an APO concert is to be entertained, enthralled, and enlightened.

Frazier’s mission is to bring music to the masses, in the most unique ways possible. Even the COVID-19 virus, which first reared its deadly head in March, could not stop the extremely driven 35-year-old. Rather than put his season on hold, Frazier adapted. Last Spring’s Next Gen vocal competition was brilliantly recast as an online event, ultimately drawing a staggering 10,000 viewers.

Emboldened, he went a step further and, over the summer, filmed a show celebrating Ella Fitzgerald’s most popular album of all time, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. The concert, co-hosted by Vanessa Willams (see pg. xx), was originally intended for APO’s YouTube channel — until PBS got wind of it. The network decided it was so good, it had to have it, and arranged to broadcast it nationally. It airs this Tuesday, Dec. 15.

Hot on the heels of that special, on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 9 p.m., comes “Drag Out the Holly,” filmed live at D.C.’s Meridian International Center in the manner of an old-fashioned, Dean Martin-style variety show. The lavish, “technicolor-bright” evening stars RuPaul Drag Race alums Lagoona Bloo, Jujubee, Peppermint, and Alexis Michelle, who co-hosts. The evening is a one-time-only affair and can only be watched while it’s broadcast. While free, donations are encouraged and will benefit APO and its many partners. (Metro Weekly is among the beneficiaries when you use the code MW2020 upon registering.)

The show will include a “fatherly” armchair reading of “The Night Before Christmas” from popular Pennsylvania Representative Brian Sims, as well as a live intro-outro DJ session by pop sensation Bright Light Bright Light.

The season is capped off in a dazzling fashion on New Year’s Eve with “United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America,” filmed at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The PBS special boasts both the APO and the National Symphony Orchestra, as well as an assortment of some of the greatest musicians and richest voices of our time, including violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Broadway superstars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, and the iconic and irrepressible Patti LaBelle.

“Since March, APO has done over eighty performances of different shapes, sizes, varieties,” says Frazier. “We’ve employed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of musicians, crew, graphic designers, social media consultants. We did not have to lay off or cut the pay of our two full-time staff, and we also made no pay reduction in our orchestra payroll or guest artists fees.” Frazier takes no salary for heading APO, instead earning his living through Nouveau Productions, which he runs with his husband, producer Robert Pullen. The pair recently celebrated their tenth anniversary as a couple, and in November 2019 were married by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom they consider a close friend.

“Life with Luke is an incredible journey,” says Pullen who, like his husband, exudes an abundance of warmth. “We both are very passionate about the arts and about our business and about music. It’s exciting to share a home and an office with someone whose vision I just truly admire so much.”

The upcoming shows were produced with the strictest COVID-proof measures in place. “We had a COVID officer that was certified through a government program to be on site with us at all times for all three of the filmings that we did of the three different shows,” says Pullen. “A lot of people were very, very apprehensive about coming out and being in-person for something. We had to really walk through every single one of the procedures that we were taking on to ensure that they were safe.”

“We followed every CDC guideline,” adds Frazier. “Then we put other restrictions on top of that. So even though we were spaced and outdoors, we still required masks of everyone. We opened all the windows in Meridian House for anyone that had to go in for wardrobe or had to go into the bathroom. We put in HEPA filters. We did COVID screening every day. So not only did we observe CDC and the city guidelines, but we worked harder to even create more safety protocols.

“They know they can trust me and they knew we’d make a safe performance space for them,” he continues. “And it’s a blast. I’m very fortunate that as I work with different celebrities, my focus is on making them feel, sound, look the best. I never try to force a guest artist into a box. I invite them to do my shows because I trust them and I want their unique spin.”

American Pops Orchestra: Luke Frazier — Photo: DuHon Photography

METRO WEEKLY: I’d like to start with a very specific question. Do you remember the very first music you ever heard?

LUKE FRAZIER: It was old-time church music. I grew up in a country Methodist church, so something like “Amazing Grace,” or “Love Lifted Me.” Those were the songs I really liked as a kid. Music has always just stuck in my mind. And my ear wasn’t only tuned to kid’s music. It was all music. My mom’s mom loved Patsy Cline and we would listen to it when she was driving. My dad’s mom was a different generation, and we would listen to Glenn Miller. It’s this hodgepodge of music that all just kind of mixes together in my mind.

MW: When we are young, how important is the kind of music we hear, the kind of music we’re exposed to?

FRAZIER: I think it’s critical. One of the biggest common understandings is that people underestimate the sophistication of children. Kids’ ears are open to anything. I think what’s important for children is to hear a great variety of music constantly, because kids don’t know that they don’t like something until they listen to it. And so you immerse them in all different kinds of music from the get-go.

That’s what starts building a cultural social bridge because you’re not just listening to music that maybe your parents listen to, or the community in which you live. Wouldn’t it be great if kids in D.C. were listening to bluegrass? Wouldn’t it be great if kids in Appalachia were listening to hip hop? I think too often you see people and organizations just giving kids music that’s most common in their area. If organizations said, “Wait a minute, that’s probably what they’re hearing at home anyway. What if we started exposing them to music they’re not used to hearing?” It starts opening up questions and discussions about where does this music come from? Who writes this music? Who most commonly listens to this music? I think that’s a huge lost opportunity.

MW: Don’t you do that with the orchestra?

FRAZIER: Yes. That’s what our kids’ tours are all about. Every kids’ show we take out, whether it be live, or the virtual tour we just completed, employs every kind of music imaginable. Again, these are all classic songs that most people’s parents, or grandparents, or great grandparents know, but we put them in a kids’ show, and kids don’t know the difference. That flies in the face of conventional philosophy, but I like turning things on their head.

MW: You mentioned Appalachia. That’s where you were raised.

FRAZIER: Yes. Parkersburg, which is right on the Ohio River. I’m a huge advocate, basically, for rural America, and Appalachia in particular. I credit so much of who I am to Appalacian culture. One of the biggest misconceptions is that Appalachia is “A bunch of backward yokels who don’t really understand how the world works.” What I found growing up there is that it’s a hotbed of extremely resilient people. It’s an area where the culture is a very “overcome the odds” culture. Are they as wealthy as other areas, or do they have all the resources? No.

And that’s one of the things I advocate for — exporting Appalachian culture and resilience, but also sharing the wealth by bringing development to the area. One of the things about Appalachia — and I think this drives me when I’m building partnerships, when I’m giving back — is that Appalachians are a culture of “we take care of our own.” It’s very much communal. It goes back historically to that Scots-Irish clan mentality. And it’s still very much alive and well and prevalent in Appalachian culture. I spend so much of my time in urban and cosmopolitan areas, and the mindset is like “What can we do to get ahead?” That’s a pervasive thought in these areas, instead of, as in Appalachia, what can we do together to move everyone ahead? That’s a very undervalued historic tradition in Appalachia.

Bright Light, Bright Light: Rod Thomas — Photo: DuHon Photography

MW: What was it that prompted you to gravitate toward music as a career?

FRAZIER: I’ve always been a very curious person, and I love exploring. One of the things about music is that it’s an endless font of different things, styles, areas to explore. I was always humming. I was always singing. I loved music class in elementary school. That was one of my very favorite things. It’s just this intense curiosity that I’ve had. It’s such an anomaly for people from Appalachia to go into this career. You don’t even see it as an option because those sorts of jobs don’t exist.

For me, it was even more curious and more exotic because it seemed impossible. I lean into those things. Even as a kid I was very, very driven. That is my life energy. I never had — or have — to be prompted to act on things. It’s just who I am. So once I got started into music and interested in it, it was like I’m going to do this all the way, and that’s what I went on to do.

MW: This may sound like an odd question, but I’m curious as to what your answer will be. What exactly does a conductor do?

FRAZIER: I have a funny anecdote about that. I was lucky enough to have dinner with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and she asked me the same question. And, by the way, it was a surreal dinner. It was at a table of eight — Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Ginsburg, and two other leading attorneys were there in this group of eight. And Sandra Day O’Connor said, “I don’t understand. There’s no need for a conductor. Why are there conductors?” And anyone that knows the history, legacy, and the personality of Sandra Day O’Connor, knows that fits right into her mold. She asked me this when I was 26 years old, so I’m terrified.

I thought for a moment and said, “Imagine you’ve got 75 judges in a room, and you had to get them all to agree on why Roe v. Wade is correct. That’s what a conductor does. You have all these different opinions, all these different philosophies of how a piece of music is supposed to go, and you have to be the great compromiser, and you have to not only compromise and get [all the musicians] on board, but then you have to get them to understand what your vision of the piece is. Your goal is to get everybody swimming in the same direction.” And she said, “Oh.” Didn’t refute it, which was nice. I count that as my first case argued in front of the Supreme Court.

But to answer more directly: Gesture, obviously, and shaping in the moment, and the other thing is that accidents happen. There’s never been a single performance in the history of music that went completely flawlessly. Ever. Period. End of discussion. Getting all of the opinions on the same page, and getting everybody to a shared vision is step one. Step two is interacting in real-time in the moment when either accidents happen, or more so when you’re responding in real-time to how you’re feeling that music differently.

I can always tell when pieces are machine-rehearsed, and that that conductor is just getting through the piece. They’ve rehearsed it a million hours, they’re just going through it, and it’s not in real-time. It’s not right there with you, live in the moment. You can also tell when musicians are tuned out.

And so, part of that conductor’s job is to get everyone to live in the moment, which is incredibly difficult, because every musician is having something going on in their life. Their kid just did this in school, or they’re struggling. They just got their credit card bill and it’s too high, or they don’t have enough gigs to make it work and they’re stressed out and having a hard time focusing. They just had a car accident, a family member died. Everybody comes to the stage with something different in their life, and what you’ve got to do is not only be there musically for them, you’re psychologically there with them, too, saying, “This is a safe place to create. This is a place where we’re building community, but we’re also going to create something magical, and what it takes to create something magical is for all of us to be here in this moment right now.”

American Pops Orchestra: Luke Frazier — Photo: Kevin Parisi

MW: When you’re conducting, how does it make you feel?

FRAZIER: Alive. The most alive. It’s electricity, because if I’m doing my job to the utmost, it’s like a lightning rod of musical energy. Again, it’s building and living off the energy of all my musicians. There’s this intense electricity in the space, and that’s why I’m always exhausted after being done.

MW: Back in March your season, which had been breaking records, was suddenly halted by the pandemic. How did you deal with it?

FRAZIER: Well, here’s the thing. I did not for a minute give myself the mental space — or our organization the space — to just say, “Cancel, pause, hold.” Two central themes of APO are preserving classic American music, and doing it in innovative ways. So no two APO shows look, feel, or sound the same. So, what I thought is, “Isn’t this a golden opportunity for APO to yet again put things on their head?” And so, I started thinking about what we could do.

The other thing was the commitment to my musicians, to my singers, to my crew, to keep providing jobs. The easiest decision is to cancel and hold. The easiest part being that you save a lot of money because you’re not hiring anyone. And so, you can immediately batten down the hatches and shut it down, and I do not like going that way. I am a fighter until the end.

We don’t have a huge tech department, a huge media department, a social media department. I have two full-time employees plus me, and I don’t take a salary. My point being is that I didn’t have an in-house team that I could go to, and I could immediately start having meetings on how to transform ourselves. It was a careful introspection, dreaming period.

So I said, “The bottom line is this. I’m not going to be one of those groups that recycles content and keeps putting it out there and saying, ‘Oh, we shot this show in 2014, and let’s re-air that and hope people give donations.’ No. The magic of APO is that everything’s unique.” I didn’t want to give up our brand because it’s the simplest path. So, we started doing all sorts of things. We did this series called APO United, and the reason I named it that is because it was united with our artists and our audiences, and I gave all these people jobs to sing, to do different performances. We had some dance, we had kids’ features, and it was united in that we’re going to keep creating art. Eventually, we got into bigger shows, like concerts shot and streamed live from my front porch. We started doing Name That Tune Live, and every week, we would partner with a different nonprofit, and give half the money that came in to them.

MW: You’re fearless.

FRAZIER: Believe me, I’ve been fearful. Believe me, I’ve been stressed. Believe me, we’ve struggled to make it work. And am I out of the woods? I’m so far from out of the woods. But I am so grateful and reliant on my donors and supporters who have stuck with us. We don’t have an endowment. We have zero dollars in endowment. We are a five-year-old organization, and we have to hustle every day. That’s something I think is important for people to know. I’m not coming at this from a place of “I’m sitting on a pile of resources, or I have a huge board of paying donors.” I do have a paying board, but compared to large organizations, it’s negligible.

So, the money we brought in to pay for all this is because of the belief of donors, and we need them now more than ever to keep up this work. But they’ve stepped up, and they’ve done it, and we’re grateful. We kept creating things. Then I said, “Well, let’s do our full shows,” and Meridian gave us the space, so we did. We shot the Ella special, and we shot another series of shows that, by the way, will be coming out in the spring. We shot the drag show. Then David Rubinstein [the Chairman of the Kennedy Center] approached our company about doing this large New Year’s Eve concert, which was originally supposed to happen in another venue.

That big New Year’s Eve show was supposed to be shot in July, and it was going to be canceled, and all these artists were going to be unemployed, and the National Symphony was supposed to play for it, and they were all not going to get the job. All the crew were not going to get jobs. And I said to Robert, “Why don’t we move it outdoors? Mount Vernon would be perfect. It’s completely safe outdoors, we can space everyone, because the grounds are beautiful.”

Mount Vernon was so excited, David was excited, and we were able to employ hundreds of people for that one concert. So, again, it’s one of these things I put my faith out there that if we’re committed to innovation, and we’re committed to keep making art and connecting with people, then the support will come. And so, that luckily, gratefully, humbly has been the case.

MW: Let’s briefly break down each one of the upcoming three shows. The first one comes up December 15 on PBS.

FRAZIER: It’s a replica of Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 album, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. The album is Ella’s highest-selling album of all time. Her foundation trusted us to do a full replica of it, but with different instrumentation and with a great lineup of all different types of singers. Vanessa Williams co-hosts with me and sings. And then we have Norm Lewis. One of the things that’s really special is this was the first time Vanessa and Norm had sung with an orchestra live since March. Neither one of them had done anything. So it was really special and emotional for all of us.

We also have Carmen Ruby Floyd, who has the distinction of being the first African-American to play Dolly Levi [in Hello, Dolly]. She was the understudy for Bette Midler on Broadway. Then we have Morgan James. And Nova Payton, D.C.’s sweetheart. It’s a really fun one-hour special. PBS found out about the show and said, we want to air this. And so they are broadcasting it on national TV for us. It’s going to be fabulous.

American Pops Orchestra: Drag Out the Holly — Photo: DuHon Photography

MW: The show after that is a drag-oriented holiday celebration.

FRAZIER: “Drag Out the Holly,” on December 19th. So, here’s the thing — we’re all about preserving classic American music in innovative ways. And APO has developed a strong LGBTQ following. So I started thinking what if we take all this classic American music and all these classic versions of these popular American songs and do it in a style of one of those old Dean Martin or Andy Williams, holiday specials, which I love, but all the performers are drag queens who sing really well. It reaches a whole different audience.

The other idea I had for this is what if we make this something that we get broadcast partners and we reach out to organizations in every single state as well as national organizations and say, “Hey, if your fans tune in and you share the word about the show, then any donation that comes in, we’ll give you 50 percent of it back.” And so it was not only just about creating a fun twist on a nostalgic holiday show, but it also became an opportunity for APO to bring people together and make an all-boats-rise effort. None of those organizations have to pay anything. It’s just a free opportunity for them to raise money. It’s APO’s gift to the LGBTQ community.

I actually host the show with Alexis. I interview all the drag queens about holiday traditions, their coming out stories, about parts of their life beyond just being on stage and knowing them just as a drag queen. I’m also excited to say that Peppermint is the first trans performer to appear with APO, which is a big deal for us.

MW: Can you reveal some of the songs we’ll hear?

FRAZIER: We did “My Favorite Things,” which, of course, has become a Christmas classic. “Santa Baby” is in there, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” — Peppermint sings that, and does a little monologue at the beginning, which is a little naughty and I love it! I was laughing. You hear it in the video, me laughing hysterically when she’s improvising this little obscene monologue.

MW: Do people need to tune into this show exactly when it’s happening?

FRAZIER: Yes, on Dec. 19 at 9 p.m. It’s a one-time broadcast and will not stream after that.

MW: Let’s talk about the New Year’s Eve extravaganza, “United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America.”

FRAZIER: That’s going to be airing twice, at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on national PBS. It was shot at Mount Vernon. The hosts are Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald. And the script is written in a way to highlight how America can come together. It is about unity and celebrating diversity. There’s an entire segment that we very strongly felt about including that’s on the history of slavery at Mount Vernon. And we talk about the struggle of African-Americans from then to now. We had Anna Deavere Smith come in and write and narrate that whole segment. And then it cuts to an amazing performance live from the slave cemetery, which is, I would argue, the most powerful moment of the whole show.

I did the majority of picking all of the repertoire for the show. And it is varied. Different styles. We have opera, we have classical music, we have Broadway, we have pop music. It’s a huge lineup of singers and musicians. We have Brian Stokes Mitchell, Joshua Bell plays with us, Patti LaBelle, Jamie Barton, Juanes, Denyce Graves, and Josh Groban with the APO. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Solomon Howard, and Yo-Yo Ma play with the NSO. And JoAnn Falletta conducted the National Symphony Orchestra. She’s just incredible.

What I love about it is that everybody who tunes in will have something to enjoy. It’s such, such variety, all performed at the top level, because every performer in this show is at the very top of their game of interpretation and style. And beyond that, we get to use APO and the National Symphony Orchestra, which is amazing. So not one, but two orchestras are employed. It was so much fun and moving to film.

MW: I want to move to your personal life, which I know you don’t often get into, but your husband, Robert Pullen, is not only your partner in life but in business. What does Robert mean to you?

FRAZIER: Robert is someone that is a boundless source of support and encouragement. Just when I doubt I can do something or I’m insecure about something, he’s always the first to say, “Of course you can do it.” He encourages my sense of limitlessness and is always there, the good, the bad, the ugly, the struggle.

When you’re married but you’re in business together, [it] adds another level to our relationship. For some, that can be hard. For us, it has worked out because we respect each other immensely, and we know how to disagree. We know how to have healthy conversations, and it just keeps getting better.

 
American Pops Orchestra — Photo: DuHon Photography

MW: You seem to compliment one another in terms of skill sets.

FRAZIER: Robert is one-hundred percent extrovert, and I am not. And that’s one of the big misconceptions about people that see me perform or see me socially is I chat with people, and I’m out and about, and talking with this person and that person, but actually, I’m an extroverted introvert. Robert loves entertaining, and loves having people over, and could go out every night to a dinner with friends, or this, or that, or the other. And what’s so interesting is that we balance each other that way, too.

MW: He seems like such a warm, giving person.

FRAZIER: Extremely compassionate. He would give you the clothes off his back. That’s who Robert is. And boundless, boundless love for family and friends. And that is the thing. And that’s what also sets him apart as a producer, and then, I think, sets our company apart — there’s a common conception about the word producer that usually, it just means somebody, all they care about is money and not people. And Robert is always people first.

MW: Can you see an end to all this, to a time we will all feel good about congregating again and watching a performance live together?

FRAZIER: I think there will never be a future without components of virtual included in every performing arts organization from now forward. I think the idea that all of us are going to suddenly go back to just in person is a complete fallacy. I do not subscribe to that, and that’s not what I feel we’ll be doing.

I can imagine it going back to where it was, but my belief is that we can’t go back to the same way we were doing it because we have to understand that culture has changed in this year. And by the way, as we get vaccinated, realize that every bit of medical research says that the majority of the country is not even going to be done being vaccinated until the end of next year.

So, let’s say this entire coming year, we’re not going to have full capacity anywhere. That could be daunting for a lot of folks. But for me, what it tells me is to keep innovating. And I’m going to just keep doing that. In fact, as the first of the year begins, we’re going to be announcing our entire next six months. And I can assure you, there won’t be any cancellations. We’ve got a whole slate of things we’re going to be announcing, and I’m excited about them. But I’m even considering announcing some of our shows for the fall, which would make us an extreme outlier. I think it’s important, just like we did in March. I never want to be the group that says, “Oh, are they going to make it? Oh, what are we going to do?”

I want everyone that supports us, that tunes in, whether financially or just a viewer, to know we’re not going to stop. We’re not going to pull that emergency brake. We’re going to keep going. And does it mean that I can’t have a huge orchestra in one space altogether? Of course it does, because that’s COVID. But does that make art less important, or less relevant, or APO less of an orchestra? Not in the slightest.

For me, I say, as long as I’m employing artists, and as long as I’m creating music, and as long as I’m reaching out to audiences, then I’m proud of what I’m doing. It may not be what everyone else thinks I should be doing, or thinks that’s what an orchestra is, but you know what? I’ve made it five years by doing it our way.

“Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams,” produced in partnership with the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, premieres Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. ET. Check local PBS listings or visit www.PBS.org or download the PBS Video App.

“Drag Out the Holly” will be presented virtually one time only, on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 9 p.m. Free to watch, but donations are appreciated. Registration is required. Use code MW2020 when registering. Visit www.theamericanpops.org or click this blurb.

“United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America” premieres Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. and repeats at 9:30 p.m. ET. Check local PBS listings or visit www.PBS.org or download the PBS Video App.

For more information on the American Pops Orchestra, visit www.theamericanpops.org. Follow them on Instagram at @theamericanpops.

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