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'This is what I was built for'

Music | From his work on a pre-inaugural concert to his style as a church music leader, Rob Mathes is proving to be not just a jack of many musical styles, but a master of them

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

As a young musician Rob Mathes formed a passion for Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony and Leonard Bernstein's conducting of it. He sat in on every one of Bernstein's open rehearsals of Mahler's Third, taking meticulous notes on the score, and then followed the symphony around the world to hear every performance-all the way to Israel, where Bernstein played Mahler under the stars. Bernstein got to know the young musician and called him "my little rock and roller."

Bernstein's "rock and roller" took that obsession for musical excellence and built a career as a composer, producer, and director with a repertoire spanning classical to jazz to R&B, and a list of credits that includes stars from Celine Dion to Jon Bon Jovi to Luciano Pavarotti. Mathes, now 38, may be the twice-Emmy-nominated musician who directs the Kennedy Center Honors and the band that backed the pre-inaugural concert, but he also leads the music at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Conn. He composes music for his church and writes what he calls his "own little brand" of bluesy, spiritual pop with soul-searching lyrics.

Some 500,000 people came to the January pre-inaugural concert, including President Barack Obama and his family, to see everyone from Beyoncé to Bono to Garth Brooks to Shakira to Stevie Wonder to Bruce Springsteen. Mathes had just two weeks to create a concert with artists as diverse as crooner Josh Groban and R&B artist Usher. He chose all of the band members backing the artists, accompanied them for rehearsals, wrote most of the orchestral arrangements, and was deeply involved in all of the discussions about the choice of artists, the pairings of the duets, and the songs sung.

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He had to unite musical styles into one cohesive concert that exemplified the concert theme, "We Are One ." Fortunately the purpose was clear, he said-to communicate "American ideals, purpose, challenge, courage in hard times, hope, joy, fortitude." He and the producers wanted to create a musical celebration that united: "It was perfect in that you had Garth Brooks representing that part of the country, and Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen representing the other part, in a way; red states and blue states coming together."

He was part of a historical moment but didn't have the luxury of dwelling on it. He just had to work-sometimes 24 hours a day, like when he worked all night on the orchestral score for Beyoncé's performance of "America the Beautiful" (a starkly beautiful rendition that ended with the other performers joining her onstage) and then rehearsed for Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers all the next day. "But," he said, "this is what I was built for."

Few acclaimed musicians are as comfortable working with a group of musicians that diverse, but Mathes grew up with musical variety. With parents who were classical musicians and an uncle who played jazz, Mathes grew up listening to The Beatles, The Who, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Miles Davis, along with Bernstein and Mahler later on. "In many ways that makes me able to lead a Rock and R&B band, and yet orchestrate for Renée Fleming and Beyoncé," Mathes said.

This background enables Mathes to write classical compositions on commission for the Nashville Symphony, and also produce for bands like Panic at the Disco. His website tosses names as diverse as Lenny Kravitz, Jay-Z, Avril Lavigne, Tony Bennett, and Sting. Mathes also leads his own band of acclaimed musicians, including a drummer from Saturday Night Live and a bassist from David Letterman's show.

Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement and WORLD's 2005 "Daniel of the Year," created the album artwork for Mathes' latest album, Orchestral Songs. Fujimura said, "These are beautiful songs about relationships . . . and they really are some of the best music you hear." Mathes recorded it at the Beatles' Abbey Road Studios-a humorous twist considering what a major label said when they wanted to sign Mathes years ago. "They basically told him he was more talented than Paul McCartney but he's not as handsome," Fujimura said, adding that Mathes composed the song "Fatman" in response.

Fujimura called Mathes' personal compositions "sophisticated" and not easily marketed: "It's not something that you'll find in a Christian book store. . . . His music falls in between the culture at large and the church. It falls somewhere in the gap." Mathes participated in IAM's annual conference in 2006 and 2007 and also judged their juried music competition.

Mathes' pastor, Ian Cron, who has known him for 35 years and counts him among his closest friends, described Mathes' style as a church music leader: "It's effusive, it's fun, it's dramatic, it's at times very subtle." Cron called Mathes a "consummate performer" who can work on a composition for days only to throw it out and start over again: "He can go from classical to rock to pop to jazz and it's unbelievable to watch him do this. That's why the finest musicians in the world just love to play with him because his vocabulary is so wide."

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