Rob Mathes performs annual Christmas concerts: Rockin’ around the Christmas stage

For most of the year, composer, arranger and self-proclaimed “musical mutt” Rob Mathes is busy arranging songs for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Sting, but for one weekend each December, the spotlight is on him.

The Greenwich-based musician, who won an Emmy earlier this year for his musical direction of the Kennedy Center Honors, is currently preparing for his 19th annual Christmas concert weekend, once again taking place at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, on Dec. 21 and 22. The show is a benefit concert for the nonprofit organizations International Education Exchange and the Cross Cultural Thresholds, and holds a special place in Mr. Mathes’ heart.

“I’m such a Christmas baby,” he told the Post in an interview this week. “I just love the holidays so much and always loved the themes of the holiday — innocence and grace and peace and hope.” Even agnostics can find something touching in the story of Christmas, he added.

Once he became a songwriter, Mr. Mathes said, he “tried to encapsulate these feelings about the holiday and all of those themes in music form,” writing original Christmas music that wasn’t like many of the “cheesy” holiday songs other artists advertised, but rather “songs of love and grace” that came from the heart. Eventually, the music inspired the establishment of Mr. Mathes’ annual Christmas concerts, where many artists, such as Vanessa Williams, heard his holiday arrangements and later worked with him to record them. Country music singer Kathy Mattea even won a Grammy award for her recording of Mr. Mathes’ holiday tune Good News.

“Music … was the only thing I ever really cared about. I woke up with music in my head and went to bed with music in my dreams,” Mr. Mathes said of his musical beginnings.

And as his Christmas concerts gained in popularity, the shows evolved, becoming “grittier” with the addition of the Late Show With David Letterman’s bass player Will Lee, Saturday Night Live drummer Shawn Pelton and horn players from the Rolling Stones, Mr. Mathes said.

“It became this musical playground,” he said.

From a Duke Ellington-style arrangement of The Dreidel Song to a “funky Bob Marley take on Deck the Halls,” the shows have become characterized by their fusion of musical genres, Mr. Mathes said. This merging of styles, however, is nothing new for the musician.

Growing up with parents who practiced classical music and an uncle who was a first-rate jazz composer and listening to his father’s favorite rock bands, Mr. Mathes said, his music has always drawn from and combined a variety of influences. And with a track record of working with artists that range from Eric Clapton to Luciano Pavarotti, it seems Mr. Mathes really does like to mix it up.

The Christmas concerts have become “a tradition for a lot of people and for these extraordinary musicians I work with. It’s all-encompassing for them, too, now,” he said.

Calling the shows “totally a musical playground for the musicians,” Mr. Mathes said, “We are just having the most fun in the world up there experimenting with these genres,” which couldn’t be done without the overwhelming support of attendees each year.

“It’s a crazy, hectic time, but I always look forward to the grounding and the fun of the Christmas concerts. It’s a reunion of sorts.”

Additionally, he said, “the concert has become more, kind of, ecumenical and open from a spiritual standpoint than the early days,” which more closely resembled a musical Mass. Attendees with all manner of belief systems enjoy the show in a more “open environment,” he said.

This year’s shows will feature some of Mr. Mathes’ new music, including at least one track from his soon-to-be-released record Flesh and Spirit, a hard-driving rock album unlike any of his past works, which will be available for sale at the concerts, he said. The shows will also feature holiday originals and reworked classics, performed by Mr. Mathes and his all-star band, along with a nearly 50-person choir.

The most exciting aspect of this year’s concerts for Mr. Mathes, however, is the return of vocalist Vaneese Thomas, who has been busy with her own tour in recent years and unable to participate in the event. Ms. Thomas’s reappearance will allow Mr. Mathes the opportunity to sing one of his older original songs, My Mother’s Prayer, which he wrote for Ms. Thomas many years ago, he said.

The concept of the song was taken from a scene in a play in which a man travels to his mother’s unmarked grave and reflects on what he would do if he could hear her pray one more time, Mr. Mathes said. One of the musician’s fondest memories, he said, was when both he and Ms. Thomas performed the tune in the late 90s at one of the Christmas concerts, while actor Ossie Davis acted the scene out on stage beside them.

It was “one of the most moving events of my life. … I remember looking at the floor and literally saying, ‘Do not forget this moment,’” he said. He cannot wait to perform the song again, he added.

Another highlight of this year’s shows is the inclusion of two drummers in the band, which has not been done in past concerts. Percussionist Joe Bonadio, who has played the Christmas shows for the last four years and is a close friend of Mr. Mathes, will be one of the performers. Mr. Bonadio will be joined by Mr. Pelton, who formerly served as drummer before being required to play during late holiday episodes of Saturday Night Live, which took place at the same time as the Christmas shows.

The use of two drummers will be challenging but fun, Mr. Mathes said, and he has planned a number of conference calls with the pair to ensure a smooth sound come concert time.

This year’s attendees can be sure “we’ll rock out again,” he said.

The holiday concerts take place Friday, Dec. 21, and Saturday, Dec. 22, at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College.

Tickets are $35, $45, $60, and $75 and are available online at Artscenter.org. Box office and phone orders are available by calling 914-251-6200.

For more information on Rob Mathes, visit robmathes.com.

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