This isn’t your grandfather’s orchestra. With a focus on American popular music spanning from the Revolutionary War era to today, conductor Luke Frazier brings new life to a dying art with American Pops Orchestra.
On May 19, APO will perform its latest show, Let’s Misbehave: Cole Porter After Dark, featuring Australian pop-singer Betty Who, at Arena Stage. Frazier says this show will focus on the greatest hits from Cole Porter, a famous American composer from the 1920s-40s.
“What I’m trying to do with this show is say that Cole Porter’s music is as relevant today as it was seventy, eighty or ninety years ago,” Frazier says. “It is timeless music, and it’s not just something for old folks to listen to.”
Frazier notes that Porter was known for being naughty and edgy during his time, writing songs with titles like “I’m a Gigolo” and “You’re the Top.” With this show, Frazier wants to tie themes from Porter’s music in with messaging from dating apps to show younger audiences that this music isn’t just for their grandparents.
Frazier also plans to connect with a younger crowd by including some of Betty Who’s own music in the program alongside Porter. The singer, born Jessica Anne Newham, attended Berklee College of Music and has played cello since she was only four years old, unbeknownst to many of her fans. For her, the chance to perform with an orchestra is “a dream come true.”
“It’s my dream one day to perform at the Hollywood Ball with an orchestra performing some of my music,” she says. “I thought it was such a pipe dream so far down the line, and to be able to do it a little sooner is the coolest thing in the world.”
Frazier started American Pops Orchestra in 2015 after realizing how many orchestras were dying, and wondering what he could do to change that. He compared himself to David and Goliath with undertaking this task, but so far, it seems to really be working.
According to Orchestra Facts: 2006-2014, a report commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, orchestra audiences declined by 10.5% between 2010 and 2014, with 60% of the 65 League member orchestras reporting a drop in overall attendance in these same years.
On the other hand, Frazier reports that APO’s audience is actually growing—they’re even expanding their 2018-2019 season, which will be released on the eve of the Cole Porter show, at a time when most orchestras are shrinking their programs. Frazier attributes his success to the unique experience that each APO show offers its audience.
“I decided that I wanted to start my own group focused on American popular music because so many people connect with it on such an emotional and visceral level; it’s part of so many people’s lives,” he says. “I wanted to do it in a way that’s not the normal pops orchestra way.”
To Frazier, the normal pops orchestra way is to walk into a performance, sit 50 rows back from the stage full of musicians in tuxedos, and listen to a show that’s been done time and time again. With American Pops Orchestra, he hopes to give audiences a fresh take on a classic form of entertainment.
“I wanted to assemble a group that includes extremely high caliber musicians, and creates new shows all based on American pop music, but every single show is brand new and hasn’t been performed anywhere else,” he says. “This way, the audience can have a truly unique experience.”
Let’s Misbehave: Cole Porter After Dark: 8 p.m. Tickets from $20-$110; theamericanpops.org. Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org