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Arts & Culture

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Matt Jackfert And His Music Are Taking That Trip

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Matt Jackfert is known to many of our listeners as our beloved classical music and also news host. But in his off time, the Charleston native is also an accomplished musician, composer and arranger. This holiday season he's hitting a milestone in his musical life that most can only dream about.

Andrea Billups sat down to talk about his new work on a classic seasonal tune, "I Saw Three Ships."

Billups: Tell us a little bit about “I Saw Three Ships.” 

Composer Matt Jackfert
Classical Music host Matt Jackfert in the WVPB studios.

Jackfert: That's the traditional Christmas carol that you hear. And what I've done is take that melody and transform it into something else. It is its own standalone, almost original piece that just takes that melody, and turns it into a symphonic arrangement that's different from what you would normally hear.

Billups: How did you get started in classical music composing? 

Jackfert: I didn't really write until the end of high school. My band director loaned me his copy of the music software “Finale,” and I started just making up songs with it and just playing around and having fun. I went to college as a biology major for the first two years, and was just writing so much that I decided to give composition a shot as a major. So I switched my major in my sophomore year to music composition so I could be doing it all the time. Because that's what I wanted to do. I was skipping biology homework to write pieces of music.

It just kept snowballing. Eventually, it was played by the ensembles at West Virginia University, and then won a reading with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. And from there I went to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin and everything has just taken off since then.

Billups: So what is it like to know that other orchestras would take up your arrangements? How does it feel to listen to something like that?

Jackfert: It feels awesome. It's great to be able to have your music played back to you when it's not on a computer, by live musicians and the whole works. You spend so much time on it, and you're not really sure exactly how it's gonna sound. And then when it gets played back to you, and it sounds really good, it's a really satisfying experience.

Some great orchestras have taken up this arrangement, including the Cleveland Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The West Virginia Symphony has played it, too. And the National Symphony and then now the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall.

Billups: Tell our audience who is going to play it this season.

Jackfert:

So it's been picked up by three different orchestras this season. And the first is the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. They're going to be playing it at the Kennedy Center. And then the New York Pops is going to be playing it at Carnegie Hall. And then there's one more orchestra in Canada that's going to be playing it — the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa. They just recently picked it up, too. So the ships are sailing internationally now.

Billups: You mentioned your high school band director. Talk a little bit about how you got into music, and how that became important to you.

Jackfert: I hadn't really planned on making music a big part of my life. I actually was in sixth grade, and I remember I asked my mom “Am I going to do band?” She's like, “Yes, you're doing band.” And so I ended up taking a trumpet and learning trumpet in sixth grade, and seventh grade. And then I eventually switched to tuba in eighth grade. And then ninth grade came around and the tuba was too big. I don't feel like carrying that. So I switched to baritone. At George Washington High School, I started playing baritone, and euphonium, which was the Goldilocks instrument for me.

I still never really thought I would make music a big part of my life until I started writing it, my senior year, and then in undergrad, and then it just became a huge part of my life. It was just so satisfying to be able to create these new works on my own. The act of creation was so satisfying to me.

Billups: Our listeners hear you every day with classical programming, and we know folks are very devoted to that. How do you get a greater audience or even maybe a younger audience? You're a young man. And you're fascinated by this type of music. How do we cultivate that here in West Virginia?

Jackfert: It's definitely not easy. What I like to do on my show is play more contemporary music. So it's more relatable to the sounds of today. I also like to highlight different kinds of music, like film scores, for instance. A big part of my show is Film Score Friday where we break down soundtracks from different films. And I think people are really interested in that, because when you get a picture of classical music, it's easier to understand and relate to, because a lot of times, for the lay listener, classical may be a little complex.

Billups: Anything else that you would share with us about this piece of music?

Jackfert: It's been a really cool experience to be able to write something that's has been picked up by a lot of different orchestras. And, you know, it's been nice to be able to have conductors take these pieces up and spread them all across the country. I'm just really grateful for the opportunity that these conductors and orchestras have given me.

It's a pretty rare experience to be able to be played in some of these amazing halls. So I'm looking forward to going up to Carnegie Hall and actually taking a listen to it.

Billups: So you're actually going to go? 

Jackfert: I've bought the plane tickets. I've got the tickets to the hall, and I'm ready to go sit down in Carnegie Hall and listen to this piece.

Billups: Is that a big moment for your musical life especially?

Jackfert: Two years ago, I was at the Kennedy Center, and they were playing it with the National Symphony, and I thought “How can I improve? How can I get better? What's the next step?” And I thought “What if I got to Carnegie Hall?” At that point I was like, “That's never gonna happen.”

Here I am two years later and I bought plane tickets to go up to see my piece getting played at Carnegie Hall. So I guess anything's possible.

Jackfert's arrangement of "I Saw Three Ships" can be heard at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 10-11 with the National Symphony Orchestra. And on Dec. 17, when the New York Pops performs it at Carnegie Hall.


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