EDITOR’S NOTE: Sprinkled throughout this story are pieces composed by Nate Strasser when he was in kindergarten through second grade. The full album, “Nate at Eight,” can be found at the end of the story.
Nate Strasser thought that composing his own music was the “coolest thing.” That’s when he was 5. Yes, 5 years old.
Now, just a few months shy of his 32nd birthday, he will perform his composition “Appalachian Rhapsody,” Friday, April 13, with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
He remembers that making up his own music and sharing with others was one of his favorite things to do. His first composition was “Choo Choo Train,” and “I still remember how it goes,” he said.
“Then, I think I was maybe 8 when I got the chicken pox and I wrote ‘The Chicken Pox Blues.”
But he started playing piano long before that — at the ripe, old age of 4.
Always humble, he’s grown into a respected and sought-after musician.
His dad, Bob Strasser, describes him as “authentic,” never trying to be anyone but himself, always finding “a way to make beautiful music.”
“I remember he once walked on stage, and sheets of music began falling out of his arms. I could feel the tension in the audience, but he remained unfazed and went on to perform with most of his music on the floor. I think moments like this gained him the highest respect from his fellow musicians,” Bob said.
THE EARLY YEARS
Nate wasn’t always the “perfect student,” he admits — even at the beginning. He started out in group lessons with about five or six other budding pianists, and being such a shy kid at the age of 4, he sat on his dad’s lap and wouldn’t participate. But, his dad’s “gentle encouragement” helped him to gravitate toward the keys eventually.
Nate’s mom Cathy remembers those days well with his first teacher, Kathy Rink.
“For Nate’s first two lessons, which were group classes, Nate did not want to sit at the piano, much less play it. That was fine with Kathy, which I think was the perfect response to a 4-year-old’s wishes. By the third lesson, Nate was ready to go and hasn’t stopped playing since,” Cathy said.
His second piano teacher, Elaine Young — who has taught many a student in the Ohio Valley — “may have” used the word “prodigy,” in reference to him, although a modest Strasser almost seems to blush at the term.
“I don’t know that I’m worthy of that.” (If you listen to the accompanying compositions from little Nate, you’ll believe he’s worthy of that.)
She also referred to her young student as an “old soul.”
“I was just a little kid, and I’d play Chopin and things … the sort of pieces that were beyond my years … very melancholy … the time in Chopin’s life when he was sick and very depressed … I was always able to bring that out in the music when I was 7 or 8 years old and not really had too many life experiences at that point.”
(Listen to “The Gift”)
IT TOOK A VILLAGE
There were many teachers in the Ohio Valley and beyond who influenced Strasser’s musical endeavors.
“Elaine Young was a very sweet older lady, and being that I was rather shy and in my shell, she sort of nudged me along and helped develop my piano skills at an early age. Harold Weisner was sort of the opposite, in that he worked me really hard, was pretty tough on me, but taught me so much about music theory and composition that most people wouldn’t learn until high school or college. Dr. (James) Miltonberger (a West Virginia University professor), was my first venture into jazz. He sort of opened up doors into improvisation and jazz. And Ben Podolski (Ohio County Schools strings teacher) over the years was so great — being in strings all those years, from fourth grade through high school and learning the cello, but also learning a lot about string instruments and how to write for strings.”
He took voice lessons from Dan Palimetakis and organ lessons from Bob Troeger, and he also gave props to Joyce Jingle who was the voice teacher at Triadelphia Middle School, and to Fran Schoolcraft, who headed up the theater department at Wheeling Park High School.
“I do a lot of musical theater here (in Nashville), playing the piano and working with the students at Belmont University … I found my love for musical theater working with them,” he said, referring to Jingle and Schoolcraft. Strasser was involved in the spring musicals at Triadelphia, which were directed by Jingle, and at Wheeling Park High School, he was on the award-winning speech team and performed in school theater productions. Strasser is a 2005 Park grad.
“Everybody contributed in a different way, definitely in a positive way,” he said.
And let’s not forget his dedicated parents. Bob and Cathy were always on the go with Nate, traveling to Pittsburgh and Morgantown for cello and composition lessons, taking him to competitions all over the country, and sending him to music camps every summer.
(Listen to “The March”)
Nate’s music took him to Arizona State University, where he double-majored in jazz and classical piano for two years. But his heart brought him back to West Virginia for his last two years of undergrad studies. He started dating Sarah Williams, a Wheeling Central girl, just before his sophomore year at Arizona. A year without her was apparently enough, and he decided to transfer to WVU. The two are married now and have two young sons, Simon and Leo.
Strasser headed to Nashville after he graduated from WVU, spending about four years there, getting to know the music scene there, writing songs and doing studio work. But, eventually, he felt “an itch for something new, but not exactly for what.”
“I was watching the show ‘Lost’ at the time, and it had Michael Giacchino’s music, and I just loved the music in ‘Lost’ and thought, ‘man, I wonder if I could do that. I’d love to give that a shot. So I found the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television Program at USC (University of Southern California), and I hadn’t ever had any experience writing for film or TV before but I went ahead and just wrote the best as I could, trying to emulate the different composers that I really enjoyed in that field, and used the sounds on my keyboard … trying to create the beautiful orchestral film scores, and sent those in and got accepted.”
Only 20 people from eight countries were accepted to the program that year to the graduate program. He studied with some big guns there, including Bruce Broughton who was nominated for an Oscar for the film score of “Silverado.”
Much of what he learned from Broughton, his orchestration teacher, will be heard in his composition, “Appalachian Rhapsody.”
“A lot of the orchestrations that I did on our composition ‘Appalachian Rhapsody,’ a lot of that I learned at USC, really specific things, how to write for flute and bassoon, what instruments to double, all the instrument ranges, how to get the notes out of the orchestra.”
While he loved the energy and weather of L.A., thoughts of a house, good schools and being closer to grandparents in West Virginia brought Nate, Sarah and their first son, Simon, back east in 2015, where they bought a house in Franklin, Tenn., just about 20 minutes outside of Nashville.
(Listen to “The Blizzard”)
COMPOSER, PIANIST, TEACHER, ACCOMPANIST
Nashville keeps Nate pretty busy. He’s a pianist, composer, arranger and private piano teacher, and has also performed worldwide in Scotland, Australia and China.
As an arranger, he has done music prep work for Dave Matthews and Seth MacFarlane. As a composer, Nate had a film accepted into the Cannes Film Festival in France and recently scored a national commercial.
Four days a week he works at Belmont University as a staff pianist for the musical theater program, and he serves as music director at East Brentwood Presbyterian Church.
“Nashville is such a great place for music and to raise a family. So much recording for film and video game scores is going on in Nashville, and opportunities for studio work and great universities like Belmont and Vanderbilt where I can work a couple days a week. It’s a really vibrant music city — a lot more than just country music. … It’s so much more than that now, with musical theater, film scoring, and jazz, the Nashville Symphony is great, lots of great classical music and opportunities to play gigs as a keyboardist for pop artists and indie artists. There’s a lot of great music going on.
“But at the same time, it sort of feels like a smaller town closer to what I grew up in. You can sort of get out of Nashville and feel like you’re in sort of a quiet, small town again. In L.A., you’re always in the hustle and bustle of L.A. Hard to get away from that. Nashville has the best of worlds — lots of opportunities but also more laid back of a town.”
(Listen to “Peaceful World”)
Strasser will be joined by Grand Ole Opry fiddle player Matt Combs and vocalist Chris De’Sean Lee, who is currently on tour in “Hamilton.” It will be a great night of jazz, musical theater, folk, and the Wheeling audience will be privileged to hear the West Virginia debut of “Appalachian Rhapsody.”
About a month ago, the composition was premiered by the Nashville Concerto Orchestra, to rave reviews:
“It was such a pleasure to lead such incredible soloists, who happened to also be the composers,” said Joe Lee, conductor of the Nashville Concerto Orchestra and resident conductor of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra. “I was honored to be a part of bringing this music to life. ‘Appalachian Rhapsody’ blends our American roots with the symphony orchestra. It was refreshing and so artfully done. The audience was with Matt and Nate every step of the way and certainly left the hall singing.”
And Dave Pomeroy, president of the Nashville Musicians Association, said, “‘Appalachian Rhapsody’ is an excellent composition that takes the listener on a melodic and sonic journey. Two worlds collide in a most musical way, and the contrast and interplay between the solo fiddle and the rich orchestral backing is stellar.”
“That’s when we knew we had something that we were really excited about and really proud about and excited to get it out there,” Strasser said.
“Appalachian Rhapsody” came about a few years ago, when Combs came to Strasser with the project.
“He wanted to write Appalachian-style music that displayed the different styles of fiddle playing that put it with orchestra, that creates that orchestral cinematic sound … that mixed those styles together,” Nate explained.
The piece originally was written in 2015 for fiddle and piano, “always with the intent that I would write it for orchestra,” he said.
“The piece almost wrote itself. We sat down and started improvising, and I hit record on my iPhone and sort of pieced it together. That was quite fast; there really weren’t many revisions. This was almost like a first-take sort of thing. But the orchestration, I really had to work over bit by bit for months to get it right.”
The piece was performed as a duo in several cities, including Wheeling. And when he wrote the full orchestration, he wasn’t sure it would ever get played.
“One of the most special things about the piece, usually when I take on a project … I know it will get played and I know I’ll get paid this amount for it and that it’s going to go somewhere … but this is just a project Matt came to me with, we didn’t know if it would ever get played but to have it played by the Wheeling Symphony is a really exciting thing for us.”
Combs, a Grammy nominee, is the staff fiddle player for the Grand Ole Opry, fiddle player for Reba McIntire and for actor Kevin Costner’s band, Modern West.
“He’s a highly respected musician here in Nashville, so, when he came to me with the project, I was excited to work with Matt. It’s been a lot of fun over the years.”
Another treat for the audience will be the appearance of vocalist Chris De’Sean Lee, who performed the roles of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the original Chicago cast of “Hamilton,” and now plays those roles in the national touring production of the wildly popular musical.
Lee was a sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville when Nate met him. Strasser was the pianist for his vocal coachings once a week and for a lot of his audition videos he submitted to casting directors. (Nate’s not sure if he played on his “Hamilton” audition tape.)
“It was pretty apparent from early on that he was very talented, and he was going to be a star in something … even before he was cast in Hamilton, it was pretty clear he was going to be cast in something and wouldn’t be back for his junior year.
“We hit it off well, and he thought a lot of my piano playing, and I obviously thought a lot of him. Then he got cast (in ‘Hamilton’). I’d say, a couple weeks before he began the role, we did a concert together at my church in Brentwood. He was already in Chicago, but they flew him in, and we did a concert together, and it was really fun.
“I sort of put in the back in the mind, I know he’s going to be super busy, but if an opportunity ever comes along for us to perform again together, he’s definitely on my short list of people I’d want to work with.
“When Bruce (Wheeler, WSO executive director) called about doing this concert and gave me a blank canvas and said, ‘make it what you want,’ I thought of Chris, and I thought of Matt instantly, people I get along with really well and enjoy being with and also really enjoy making music with. It was an easy decision there,” Strasser said.
At the April 13 concert, “Chris will do a lot of musical theater, some jazz. … I’ll be playing on those with Chris. Some of those will be with full orchestra, some will be just with me and some will be Chris, me and the rhythm section. … I’ll play some Gershwin. That’s the first half. The orchestra is doing a Bernstein piece as well.
“The second half is mainly Matt, me and the orchestra. He’ll do ‘Appalachia Waltz’ by Mark O’Connor. Matt and I will do some traditional fiddle music and western swing tunes … the orchestra will do a couple solo pieces, and ‘Appalachian Rhapsody’ will close the second half.”
“I think it should all flow together nicely. … There will be something for everybody,” Strasser said.
(Listen to “Theme With Six Variations in C Minor”)
What’s next for Strasser’s music career?
He will continue to “push the film music side of things,” he said, and also, he’ll put a big marketing push to get “Appalachian Rhapsody” performed by other orchestras. “It looks like we have another performance in November,” he said.
How about a Grammy? An Oscar? There could be a category that “Appalachian Rhapsody” would fit in, he noted.
But, for now, he’s very happy writing and playing music, living just outside of Nashville with his wife and sons.
“I’m thankful for the fact that I can support my family with my music. Everything else would be a bonus.”
• The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s performance, under the baton of Maestro Andre Raphel, is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 13. Prior to the concert, patrons can attend the pre-concert Party in the Alley starting at 6 p.m., featuring food and beer from Wheeling Brewing Company and music by the Marsh Wheeling String Band. Seating is limited for the party, which will take place in the alley adjacent to The Capitol Theatre. Immediately following the concert, attendees are invited to a free post-show reception with Raphel and other members of the symphony orchestra. On Thursday, April 12, Nate and Matt will present an intimate performance at the Mansion Museum complete with folk, Appalachian and jazz music, a meet-and-greet, Q&A and hors d’oeuvres. For tickets to all events, visit www.wheelingsymphony.com or call 304-232-6191.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.