Expert Testimony: The Mind of a Musical Director

By 

Rob Mathes (left) and Sting

Given by Rob Mathes ’84 to Mark Small

Since the mid-1990s, Rob Mathes has been in demand as a music director, record producer, orchestrator, arranger, and accompanist. His talents as a music director (MD) and bandleader, plus his appetite for hard work, have prompted producers of several high-profile, large-scale musical productions to seek his services. In addition to copious musical abilities, Mathes has the leadership skills to marshal whatever musical forces are at hand to consistently deliver great results despite the pressure of the situation.

Mathes has a foundation in classical and jazz music as well as the full spectrum of popular music styles. He has released five full albums and one EP featuring his vocals, piano and guitar playing, and arrangements on original songs that showcase his depth in orchestral, r&b, rock, folk, blues, and pop settings. Artists such as Rascal Flatts, Bonnie Raitt, Vanessa Williams, and others have covered songs he’s cowritten. He’s penned arrangements for dozens of artists as diverse as Rod Stewart, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti, Vanessa Carlton, and Just Blaze. At the other end of the spectrum, Mathes has been commissioned by famed conductor Leonard Slatkin to write concert works.

For the past several years, Mathes has worked closely with Sting on three albums, live appearances, and on Sting’s original Broadway musical The Last Ship. Collaborating with Sting, director Joe Mantello, and others, Mathes served as music supervisor, orchestrator, and music director for the show during its run of 105 performances on Broadway during the 2014-2015 season.

His music direction for TV specials such as Kennedy Center Honors, Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards, MusiCares Person of the Year Tributes, and others have found him working with such luminaries as U2, Beyoncé, James Taylor, John Legend, and more. Below, Mathes shares insights about his work.

How did you start working as a music director (MD) for TV specials?

I can trace most everything that’s happened in my career back to Phil Ramone. I started working with him on big projects in 1996, the year of the first Pavarotti and Friends show. I did the rhythm charts and orchestrations for it. I did all of those shows until Pavarotti died in 2007. I was also MD for Phil Ramone’s Songwriters Hall of Fame shows starting in 1998.

Phil later did a show called The Score, a show about film music and I was MD for that. The talent booker was Allie Gifford who later became the wife of [late TV and movie producer] Michael Stevens. She introduced me to Michael and recommended me to be MD for the Kennedy Center Honors. [KCH is a show broadcast annually from the Kennedy Center celebrating performing artists who have made significant contributions to American culture].

With Michael, I did 12 Kennedy Center Honors programs, and became the MD of Christmas in Washington for a few years. I also scored two movies Michael did for HBO, and we did the Obama Inauguration together. He was a chief collaborator from 2003 through 2015, and it was a major loss when he died last October.

What are your responsibilities as the MD for large musical productions?

I deal with the artists, lead the band, and write the charts. Some music directors will outsource the charts to arrangers, but for me, it’s all about having my hands in the dirt. For shows like Pavarotti and Friends, I would transcribe the songs if the artist didn’t have charts. I’d write a rhythm chart out for the band and if there were extra musicians, I’d write a string chart. For the Kennedy Center Honors shows, often well-known artists were covering songs by the honoree. Some artists would want to do the song like the record. Some just let me arrange the songs however I want. Bruce Springsteen sang “I Hung My Head” in the show honoring Sting. Bruce just told me the key he wanted to sing it in and said that we’d talk it down when he came in for rehearsal. The work is different with each artist.

How much time is there for you to put it all together?

There is not a ton of time. All of the artists live in this crazy world where they are flying in from a tour. In the best of cases you get them the day before for a rehearsal. For the Songwriters Hall of Fame shows, we’d generally have 45 minutes to rehearse the song with each artist the day before the show and then do a run-through on the day of the show.

I have the band members listen to the existing version of the song in advance and e-mail them my thoughts about how we might treat each song. Some artists, like Jackson Browne or Marc Cohn, are very particular about the music being exact. Some artists, like Prince, will bring their own people, but there is a surprising number of artists, including superstars like Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen who want to come and work with the band.

The main thing I want the artists to know is that they are not inheriting a “house band.” They are getting a group of musicians that, individually, are worthy of playing on any record that these artists have made. The musicians are committed to making the artist look as good as humanly possible. And it’s not a matter of us just learning the song and playing it well. We are really trying to get the vibe of the artist. These band members play the songs as if their lives depended on it.

How many songs will a tribute show typically have?

It varies. For a music-heavy show there may be 15 to 18 songs. If it’s an evening where there are speakers, there may be half as many songs. For the Songwriters Hall of Fame there may be 12 or 15 songs. The Kennedy Center Honors has two segments with four or five songs in each. For the [November 2015] David Lynch Foundation show at Carnegie Hall, we did one song each with Jim James and Angélique Kidjo, and four with Sting. Katy Perry did her part with her own MD. This was a simpler show, not a lot of music. I have an upcoming event at Carnegie Hall with Bono, and that will have four artists who will sing two songs apiece.

Have you had to deal with larger-than-life artists who were dug in about some musical aspect?

You need to be a peacemaker and sometimes a little bossy, but the artist is always in charge. When Bruce Springsteen comes into the room, you listen to him: He’s a giant. If the MD leads with strength, love, and positivity, it helps the artist.

Do certain personalities fare best in this kind of job?

I think every MD probably does things in their own way. When the artist comes in, the band members want to meet them and may want to take pictures with them backstage. But I generally don’t ask the artists for pictures and I don’t schmooze. Some MDs err on the side of making it a party atmosphere. I let the artists know that I am no-nonsense, that I am there to do the work. Getting together with an artist for an hour to try to get a transcendent performance on a song they may never have sung before with musicians they’ve never played with before is a lot.

I treat the artists with respect, and I don’t try to become their friend or ingratiate myself to them hoping that they will hire me for something else. I let them know that I am honored to be working with them, that I have done my homework, and the band is prepared.

What do you feel prepared you to be an arranger, producer, and MD?

I think it helps that I spent a lot of years in blues bands, that I play guitar and piano, and that I write my own songs. The artists know that I think of the song first and am in the grit of the music. Sometimes people look at an arranger as being a bit of a square. They know you can orchestrate, but when they see you playing guitar or leading the band from the piano, then they know you are also on their side of the fence. That’s my hook. I am a multi-style music director who plays with the band and orchestrates. I’m not just a genre hopper.

Last year you were the musical director for Sting’s show The Last Ship on Broadway. Will you work with that show in other cities?

There have been London producers who want to take it on, but the original director, Joe Mantello, wants to do it again as he originally thought of it, as a small, intimate piece. When Sting started writing songs, Joe envisioned doing it in a pub setting with the band onstage. But then the show Once happened. It was all staged in a pub. Sting’s musical is about the north of England. I think we will do it again in the next two or three years. That will mean that I’ll have to get a work permit and go over there for a couple months at a time. I’ll probably be the orchestrator and musical supervisor and hire some great London musicians.

What is your role with Sting currently?

Sting is in a transitional period now. He gave five years of his life to The Last Ship. We worked very closely on that show. I don’t think I’ve been closer to an artist in my career. We’ll be doing a Symphonicity gig at Carnegie Hall with the St. Luke’s Orchestra and I will be part of his team for the foreseeable future. But I do not push myself on him. If Sting wants to go to someone else, he knows he can call me and just let me know. I don’t want him to feel like I am a barnacle. I have a life outside of what I am doing with him. That has always been my attitude. I agree with the people who think you have to be your own mouthpiece, give out your card, and get yourself out there. But in my work, I want people to see me as someone who is not overly needy or clingy. I want them to know that I am good at what I do and that I just want to make music with them.