Roxy Todd Published

W.Va. Native Bridges Country Music With Orchestral Arrangements

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West Virginia native Luke Frazier is the founder and music director of the American Pops Orchestra. PBS recently filmed an hour-long program called “One Voice, The Songs We Share,” which features the American Pops Orchestra performing in Luke’s home state. Reporter-producer Roxy Todd spoke with Frazier about how his childhood in the Mountain State helped shape his musical abilities.

***Editor’s Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Todd: Growing up in West Virginia, what was your first exposure to music?

Frazier: My first exposure to music really was in church. And I always grew up wanting to be in the choir or play the piano. And it wasn’t until I was about eight years old that I agreed to take piano lessons. And a lot of that also was because of my elementary school music teacher in Lubec, West Virginia [in Wood County]. She would play for our class, and also my first grade teacher would play piano in class. So I was surrounded from a very young age by public school teachers and church musicians that really got me excited about music.


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Luke Frazier conducts the American Pops Orchestra in a performance recorded at the Marinoff Theatre on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Frazier: For me, something I learned very young is that music is about connecting people, whether it be the students in my class, whether it be the congregation, whether it be my fellow scouts. My scout troop music always brought people together. And no matter what I do, that is the lens I look at it through. When I’m picking repertoire, I’m thinking about what do people want to hear? What would I love to share with them that maybe they’ve never heard before? And what are pieces of music that are going to start conversations? That’s the way I look at everything. So no matter whether it’s a big famous celebrity, or whether it’s a kid straight out of college that we’re giving their first chance to perform. It’s always through a lens of connecting people.

And the other thing I firmly believe is that if an orchestra or any ensemble is not as passionate about connecting with the audience, as they are as passionate about making the music, then that’s a critical gap. And so whenever I work with an orchestra, whenever I put together a group, I always want to make sure that that passion to be with the audience and to have a sense of serving the audience, is there at all times.

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Opera singer Amber Merritt performing with the American Pops Orchestra in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Todd: Can you talk a little bit about the mission of the American Pops Orchestra and how you feel like it bridges music to audiences?

Frazier: I started the orchestra six years ago, and I started the orchestra for a couple reasons. One, I saw that orchestra audiences were in decline, which is no mystery to most listeners out there. And unfortunately, that’s the case all across the country. The numbers have not been steadily going up in years and years on the whole. And so that was concern No. 1, as someone who cares deeply about orchestra and orchestral music.

The other thing that was critical to me is that so much music I find is getting lost. And it’s not just popular music. Yes, we’re called the American Pops Orchestra. And we spend a lot of our time on classic American popular repertoire. But we also play a lot of classical music as well.

I wanted to create an orchestra that could honor all types of music. And again, make sure that we keep certain types of music alive– music that is quickly becoming forgotten. Recently, I was guest-conducting a high school orchestra and a series of master classes. And I was talking about a piece of music by Ella Fitzgerald. And would you believe that out of 90 high school students in that orchestra, not a single one when asked if they knew who Ella Fitzgerald was, could say that they knew. And we’re not talking about, you know, Johann Sebastian Bach and knowing the music of Bach, we’re talking about an artist who was alive not that long ago, and created music that their parents and grandparents listened to, and we still hear all the time in our regular life, but it’s, it’s getting lost. And so the players in the orchestra and from my place in the position of selecting the music and designing the programs, I put all of this thought into these concerts. And that’s how I choose what I do. And that’s what fires me up every day to get this music back into people’s ears, and to get them excited about it.

Todd: Can you talk about a particular song that’s featured in the PBS special that you think resonates with listeners of all ages?

Frazier: Absolutely. In the “American Roots” episode we open with an artist I’ve always wanted to work with. Her name is Jacqueline Schwab. Most people would know her from the music she did for the Ken Burns’ documentaries on PBS, “The Civil War,” “Mark Twain,” “Baseball.” She’s the beautiful piano music in the background.

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Jacqueline Schwab performs “Danny Boy” in “One Voice-American Roots.”

And so for the concert we open American Roots, by the way, filmed in West Virginia over in Shepherdstown. Shepherd University, because how appropriate to have a show about American Roots and to have it actually happen in the state where my roots are, in my home state of West Virginia. So we open with music of a lot of the early settlers of West Virginia, music of that heritage and tradition, with the piece “Danny Boy.” It’s a beautiful piece that’s connected so many people through so many generations. And I can’t wait for everybody to hear it in that episode with Jacqueline playing so beautifully with the orchestra.

Todd: Well, Luke, thank you so much and I look forward to watching more of this. 

Frazier: Roxy I’m so glad to be on and thanks so much.

You can watch the hourlong program Frazier conducted on PBS Passport. The program is called “One Voice, The Songs We Share,” featuring the American Pops Orchestra.