With just a few days to go until arranger, composer, producer, director, and musician extraordinaire Rob Mathes returns to The Purchase PAC to rock the house with his annual holiday concert, we caught up with him to chat about the event. Read the interview here, and don’t forget to secure your seats to experience this truly special celebration of the season.
This is the 30th anniversary of your annual Holiday Concert – congrats! How did the concerts start? What was the first one like?
I used to write Christmas songs for my church every year in my teens. The themes of the holiday, innocence entering a harsh world and changing it, hope, faith, darkness, light, a manger, a child, love, sadness…. everything is contained in the Christmas Story and the Hanukkah Story. By the time I had turned 24, I started writing larger and more intense Pop song cycles around the holidays. Grammy Winning Country Artist Kathy Mattea recorded one of my songs, as did BJ Thomas (of “Rainbows Keep Falling on My Head”). Kathy won another Grammy for her album “Good News” which featured my song “Good News.” Vanessa Williams met me through my Christmas songs and recorded a few of them on her albums. In 1993, I performed a bunch of these songs with great musicians from the area at the big church on the hill in Greenwich, Connecticut (Second Congregation Church.) That concert was filmed and aired on Channel 13-WNET. We then moved the annual concert to the PepsiCo Theater at The Performing Arts Center in 1995 and have given a concert every year there, except during COVID, when we filmed them for YouTube at a local church. In the ensuing years, some of the illustrious people I work with dropped by, Vanessa Williams, chief among them, but also the great Alto Sax legend David Sanborn, African American icon Ossie Davis, Michael McDonald, and even Sting for our 25th Anniversary. Usually, it is just my team of miracle workers, unsung heroes from the NYC studio scene like Will Lee from the Letterman Show on Bass, Vaneese Thomas, and D-Train on Vocals, all with hits of their own. Add to this a 30-voice choir and a six-piece horn section filled with NY legends and you have quite a tradition.
How has the concert evolved over the years?
It began as an almost church-influenced event with Choral music and more devout Christian themes. A Rabbi became a fan of the concert and I started writing Hanukkah songs because the existing ones were so awful. He loved them and came every year. We changed the Rob Mathes Christmas Concert to the Rob Mathes Holiday Concert because of Rabbi Mark Golub. I then started working on some great projects in the city for producer Phil Ramone, including records by Natalie Cole, George Michael, and Tony Bennett. Then I started musically directing the Kennedy Center Honors and met Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Lou Reed, and so many other great people. I did the version of Stairway to Heaven for Heart in honor of Led Zeppelin which garnered many millions of YouTube views and more and more people started coming because of the level of musicians I was able to get in the band. I started doing funk and swing versions of carols, for instance, a Duke Ellington take on the Dreidel Song, and a Prince groove on We Three Kings. It became more universal musically and I put out several Pop records and we started incorporating that original material. About 2000 people came every year and now here we are at 30 years!!! Incredible.
This year’s concerts are in honor and memory of your friend and fan, Rabbi Mark Golub, whom you mentioned above. Can you tell us a bit more about him?
Below is his wiki page’s first paragraph. It’s accurate, but his daughter Darah Golub studied piano with my mother Joan Mathes and he became a dear family friend. At the end of our big PBS filming in 1997, which went deep into the night because of retakes, Rabbi Golub stood up at the back and yelled, “We want more. We’re not tired! I could listen all night!!” Everyone got the color back in their face, laughed, and gave me a standing ovation thanks to Rabbi Golub’s enthusiasm and endorsement after what was a LONG evening.
I went to visit him and told him I wanted to do a nice arrangement of a good Hanukkah song but frankly couldn’t find any!!!!! Many of the great Christmas songs are written by Jewish composers, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Silver and Gold, The Christmas Song and White Christmas among them. Why didn’t these giants write more Hanukkah songs? Rabbi Golub said, “Why don’t you write one? I’ll teach you about the Maccabees, Judah, and the Menorah, and you can write a song.” I ended up writing him a handful and even performed one on his TV show. He was an absolute giant of a man. He won a Tony Award as a Broadway producer and was an actor himself. An influential and wondrous man, he deserves all the honoring we can give him. He honored us with his presence every year.
From Wiki: Mark S. Golub (1945 – January 31, 2023) was an American rabbi, media entrepreneur, television personality and educator. He created the television channel Jewish Broadcasting Service and the first Russian-language television channel produced in America, RTN (The Russian Television Network of America). Golub was the rabbi of Chavurah Aytz Chayim (Stamford, CT), and the host of L’Chayim, a talk show he created in 1979 in which he interviewed prominent Jewish figures.
Your holiday concerts always have a charity component, and this year the beneficiary is Food Rescue US / Fairfield County. How did you choose this particular charity? What is the work that they do?
A few years ago, I was completely unaware of this local charity that so many of my audience supported. Food Rescue US-Fairfield County is dedicated to helping food insecurity and feeding those in need by rescuing tons of healthy and good food that would normally go to landfills, and getting it to local service organizations in need. In the last 10 years, millions and millions of meals have been rescued and provided to those who need it the most. Food from local restaurants and grocery stores is donated and volunteers take part in “rescues,” bringing that food to so many of the nonprofit organizations all over the state. It is amazing.
Many of the concerts over the past 30 years have taken place here at The Purchase PAC. What is it about this venue that keeps you coming back?
The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College is as great a concert venue as I have ever seen. The crew, the staff there, the beauty of the theaters, how well it is run; all of it is top-tier. It has been my holiday home for a long, long time. Some fans have suggested I bring the concert to Carnegie Hall and I have performed in New York City a number of times, but I ADORE The PAC and plan to do it there as long as I can do it.
And, finally – what is your favorite holiday song to perform? Will we get to hear it this year?
The audience normally comes expecting to hear my song “William The Angel,” which I have performed all over the country, once on a tour with The Boston Pops. We always do it. I tried to cut it one year to allow for some other music, but my fans were NOT happy, so we will be doing it for sure! I couldn’t pick any others. So many of them mean so much to me. Many say their favorite song we play is “Wake Up, It’s Christmas Morning.”
Rob Mathes and friends will be performing the Holiday Concert next weekend at The Purchase PAC. There will be three shows, so no excuses! Friday, December 15, and Saturday, December 16 at 8pm and Sunday, December 17 at 3pm. We cannot wait!
Get tickets online at https://www.artscenter.org/events/the-rob-mathes-holiday-concert/.