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Music Haven brings the world to Schenectady

Music Haven brings the world to Schenectady

Mona Golub's vision and dedication have made the free summer series — now in its 30th year — a continuing success. A profile of the energetic leader.
Music Haven brings the world to Schenectady
Clockwise from top left: The Music Haven facility; Ruth Pelham, left, and Mona Golub in 2012; the Roches perform in 2007.
Photographer: photos provided

Though it’s not in her job title, Mona Golub is a conductor of sorts. 

“I think about Mona as the orchestra leader and her arms just embrace all of us and create what I think of as Music Haven,” said Ruth Pelham. She ran the Music Mobile for nearly 40 years, bringing music to children across the Capital Region, and is a longtime friend of Golub’s. For about a decade, she brought the Music Mobile to Music Haven and has been attending the concert series since it began. 

“Those Sunday nights are an oasis because [there are] people of all ages, people of all backgrounds and because the music is so diverse,” Pelham said. 

It’s the 30th year of the Music Haven concert series, which has brought dozens of top-notch musicians from all over the world to Schenectady's Central Park. It started out as a seemingly small idea from a woman trying to find her place in the Capital Region’s music community. 

Growing up, Golub was always involved in music, playing piano, saxophone and bass clarinet. 

When she got to Bowdoin College in Maine, majoring in English and romance languages, she continued to perform, but she also tried her hand at directing. 

“I directed the stage band my sophomore year at college and it tested some different muscles for me,” Golub said. 

In her senior year, she completed her honors thesis on musical direction and production, which led her to musically direct three shows at the college, including one with a 22-piece orchestra. 

“One hand was conducting the vocalists and one hand was conducting the orchestra,” Golub said. 

After graduation in 1986, she returned to the Capital Region, taking a merchandising position at Price Chopper and growing into her family’s company.

However, she had no plans to stop being involved with music. 

“I got back here and wondered, ''How am I going to fit into the music scene?’ ” Golub said. 

Her own space

In the ensuing years, she didn’t so much fit in as she created her own space in the landscape, producing shows for local bands and artists, including Jim Gaudet. 

“I was just breaking in [and] trying to get exposure,” Gaudet said, “It was really a thrill for me.”

The first show was in 1990 at Proctors II, where Villa Italia is today. The venue held around 300 people. Gaudet opened for a local band called Begonia. 

“The building was very old. In the middle of Begonia’s set, all the lights went off. But they went off almost choreographed with a downbeat and by the time I felt my way across the wall to the fuse box and pushed the one big glass fuse and the lights went back on, people clapped because they thought it was part of the show,” Golub said. 

Though everything didn’t go according to plan, it helped Golub break into her role as a presenter/producer. 

“We created our own space, down to the refreshments that we sold that night, the artwork on the walls, the tickets sold and the way we promoted it. It was [a] grassroots effort,” Golub said. 

It was the start of a seemingly endless list of shows she began to present and organize, from coffee house shows to larger concerts. She produced many of the shows under Second Wind Productions, a not-for-profit. 

“That was an expression that my mother used. She used to say ‘Come on Mona Jill, let’s get our second wind.’ She was a school teacher and [when] we had errands to run after school we’d get what she referred to as our second wind, that extra bit of energy that gets you through the things that you need to get done,” Golub said.

Starting in 1990, that included organizing the Music Haven concert series in Central Park, on top of working her full-time job at Price Chopper. Then, three years later, she began producing shows on Monday evenings at the Lakehouse Theatre in Albany’s Washington Park. 

“She was booking some really exotic stuff. There was always an African band, there was usually a South American band, some ethnic European band, some niche Americana band. What was incredible was very, very quickly, her shows were packed. Mainly because people trusted Mona’s curatorial abilities,” Paul Rapp said. 
Rapp is perhaps better known on the local music scene as F. Lee Harvey Blotto. He went to many of the Washington Park shows over the years and volunteered at a few. 

“It didn’t matter if you hadn’t heard of the band or if you hadn’t heard of the kind of music they were playing or sometimes you hadn’t even heard of the country these bands were coming from. People would show up because they knew it was going to be an enlightening and a high-quality show. Her shows always are. People just trust her judgment and for good reason,” Rapp said. 

Blotto reunion

It was Golub’s impeccable judgment that brought Blotto back together in the early 1990s.

“We hadn’t played in a few years and it wasn’t clear whether we were ever going to play again and then Mona called and said ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Rapp said.

While some of the band members begrudgingly agreed to perform, it ended up being a great show, Rapp recalled. 

“I remember Sarge, who was the most hesitant about playing again, he looked at me and he goes ‘You know what? That was really fun.' So we continued playing a couple of times a year from then on.”

The band has played Music Haven in previous years as well since Golub had to stop organizing the Washington Park series in 2004. She was taking on more responsibilities at Price Chopper, where she is currently the vice president of public relations and consumer services, and she wanted to focus on her family, raising her young son, Ira Abraham. 

“It was a difficult decision to let the Washington Park series go because we were flying high. Our final season, with the likes of Los Lobos and Suzanne Vega, [we] killed it. Monday nights really were electric in Albany,” Golub said. 

Many improvements

However, she was able to bring that energy to Music Haven. 

In 1999, she spearheaded a $1.2 million stage renovation project that took the original Music Haven trailer stage (circa 1950s) and turned it into the Agnes Macdonald Music Haven Stage that bands from all over the globe have come to call home.  Just a few years ago, further improvements were made to the venue, with permanent seating and a security gate among other changes. 

That was in part thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the New York State Assembly, which went to improving Schenectady’s Central Park, said Assemblyman Phil Steck. The renovations were completed last year, adding another layer to the summer series. Steck said that while Schenectady is known for its philanthropy, Golub stands out. 

“It’s really incredible. I can’t think of any single person who has done as much,” Steck said. 

And, of course, she’s kept concerts free by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through corporate donations and foundational support, along with some grants. 

“She has a very deep and abiding passion for the music she presents. She’s made Schenectady and the Capital Region an international tour stop,” said Michael Eck, the assistant producer of the series. He’s worked with Golub for many years, helping with publicity for Music Haven, as well as working his day job as senior communications and public relations leader at Proctors. Over the years, he’s seen a family of sorts join together at Music Haven on Sundays to enjoy music they may not be familiar with but they know will be good. 

“It’s very much curated; she takes the theme ‘traveling the world one concert at a time, very seriously,” Eck said. 

Golub has her finger on the pulse of international music, working with agents and managers from around the world. However, it wasn’t always like that. 

“When I started the series I wasn’t necessarily thinking that our focus would be on international music. But I knew that I was traveling outside of the region to see other artists who weren’t playing here,” Golub said. 

Realizing that the Capital Region was being underserved, she went about trying to change that, bringing artists like King Sunny Ade & His African Beats and Ojo de Brujo of Barcelona. 

'Sees beyond the work'

Maria Zemantauski opened for the latter in 2005 when they visited Music Haven. The flamenco-influenced guitarist is also the coordinator of cultural affairs and an instructor at Hudson Valley Community College. She’s known and worked with Golub for nearly two decades. 

“Part of the fun we have together is bouncing ideas off of one another. We get excited about the possibilities of what we could make happen,” Zemantauski said. 

In her day job, she understands, perhaps more than most, the challenges of producing shows and organizing cultural events, from funding to scheduling.

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of things have to fall into place,” Zemantauski said. 

However, she’s noticed that Golub sees beyond the work; she sees a network forming and helps to foster it. 

“She is all about trying to sew a thread that connects everyone in the arts community,” Zemantauski said. 

With the line-up this season, including Will Kempe’s Players' “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation,” and other non-Sunday events, that thread is evident. 

Her shows also bring the global together with the local. 

“It gets at what music does best, it breaks down barriers,” Zemantauski said. 

“It’s an opportunity [for] people to come together that often don’t come together,” Pelham said, adding, “In these times, even more than five years ago, [it’s important] that people can gather and see different ethnicities in the same place, where we’re the farthest thing from enemies. We’re the farthest thing from strangers.”

From Pelham’s perspective, Golub’s work builds upon her mother’s work. Jane Golub, who recently passed away, started A World of Difference campaign several decades ago. The education and media-driven programs taught against prejudice and bias. It was used throughout schools in New York state and has grown into the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute. 

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Pelham said.  

For eleven years, starting in 1999, Music Haven and Price Chopper brought Music Mobile into the Music Haven mix, sponsoring "Music Mobile In Central Park," according to Pelham. It brought kids and adults together at a time when there really wasn't a lot of other family programs like it, said Pelham. Sometimes crowds of nearly 200 people would come, joining in to sing along or just to listen to messages of unity and empowerment. 

“Music Mobile was never about teaching music. It was about using music to teach everything else,” Pelham said. 

Now, some of the kids that used to go to the Music Mobile summer program attend Music Haven concerts. 

Family of volunteers

That’s thanks to Golub’s continuation of the series, as well as the Music Haven family of volunteers and coordinators, like Betsy Sandberg. 

She’s been the volunteer coordinator essentially since 1998, though she volunteered even before that. Back when the series first started, they only had a handful of people passing out programs, helping to set up for the shows and to clean up afterward. These days, they have a steady group of around 35-40 volunteers, Golub is there at every show helping out.

“She never asks somebody to do something that she’s not willing to do herself,” Sandberg said. 

From picking up litter to making sure the band has what they need, Golub is willing and ready to do what it takes to make the shows run smoothly.

Sandberg is always amazed by how much work Golub puts into each and every season.

“What other free series does a program with bios and info about each of the performers? What other concert series tries to have ethnic food corresponding to each of the concerts?” Sandberg said.  

Creating tours

Carefully curating each show has really helped to make the region stand out in the world music industry, and over the years, Golub has managed to book bands for their first United States shows.

“I’m not glomming onto existing tours, I’m beginning to create them with agents,” Golub said. 

Thus, she always thinks of the Music Haven season as a trip around the globe and asks herself, “Where are we going this year?”

This time around, she’s bringing bands from India, Detroit, Ireland, the Caribbean and Colombia. 

Next year, the itinerary will be completely different.  

“I just want to make sure that I shake it up each year and that I bring in a band or two from a place we haven’t visited before,” Golub said. 

According to Chris Wienk, vice president/program director at WEXT, what Golub has been able to do is nothing short of incredible. He’s worked with Golub to present various Music Haven shows of the last few years and said that without her, these bands would not have come to the Capital Region. 

“What she’s doing is remarkable because she’s carving out a specific niche. It’s really something that’s missing in many music scenes,” Wienk said. 

Music Haven, which won a Thomas Edison Music Award for Concert Series of the Year, has been a part of a growing landscape in the Capital Region. Golub has seen the change first hand. Over two decades ago, she began creating and organizing concert guides. Many have probably seen them at Price Chopper or businesses throughout the Capital Region. Each one provides a comprehensive look at the offerings through the summer season. 

“When I started that concert guide 26 years ago, it was a third of the size of what it is now,” Golub said. 

She attributes the growth to local artists, as well as, municipalities that recognize the importance of the arts. But according to politicians like New York State Senator Jim Tedisco, it has a lot to do with Golub. 

“Mona Golub has been a tremendous advocate and powerful champion for the arts and the rejuvenation of the Music Haven in Schenectady. Through her dedicated efforts with Music Haven and in other programs, Mona has helped bring the arts to people of all ages including children and families who otherwise might not have an opportunity to enjoy them. The positive impact that Mona and the Golub family have made in Schenectady and across the Capital Region is deep and wide and our region is a better place for their philanthropy, time and energy,” Tedisco said. 

In April, Golub won a Thomas Edison Music Award for promoter/presenter of the year and it’s clear that she only plans to add to the offerings of the Music Haven series in the coming years. 

“Adding more makes it a challenge every year. Producing 16 shows versus six or 12, having them be connected to different community partners, [there’s] a lot of different touch points. I continue to involve people to figure out which pieces of the grand puzzle others can help me carry so that I can continue to add bells and whistles to broaden the perspective of what Music Haven is,” Golub said. 

When she announced the 2019 season earlier this year, Golub also unveiled a new logo, one that focuses on the venue.  

“I hope [it] entices performing and presenting organizations across the region to look at Music Haven and ponder what they might bring,” Golub said. 

'More global voices'

This welcoming spirit drew in Sarah Craig, the executive director of Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs a few years ago. 

“I remember having a conversation with her not too long after Caffe Lena opened following its renovations when we were starting to look at expanding the scope of music that we were covering at the Caffe. Among the styles of music that we wanted to present more was world music, which is really Mona’s specialty,” Craig said.
She went to Mona for guidance and came away with a partnership to boot. Two years ago, Caffe Lena brought new interpretations of American roots music to the Music Haven series. 

Craig has noticed that over the years, people like Golub and Elizabeth Sobol, the president and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, have been bringing in more world music to the Capital Region. 

“Between SPAC and Caffe Lena, the Sanctuary for Independent Media and Music Haven, with its summer and winter programming, I think the Capital Region is seeing more global voices. In today’s world, that is taking a stand for peace and diversity and international understanding that I think good people everywhere are very hungry for,” Craig said. 

It’s led to collaborations between arts venues as well, strengthening ties and the local arts network. 

“With the shows being free at the park and being so consistently excellent, she has cultivated an audience. That audience, at other times of the year, has been hungry to go out and find other sources for those kinds of music experiences. So that is a gift not only to those people sitting on the hillside but it’s a gift to all of the artists and venues who want to be working together presenting global music all year long,” Craig said. 

That all stems from the excellence of the summer concert series at Music Haven. 

“In the summertime, there are many, many communities that have free concerts in the park. You see that everywhere you go. But this is the Olympic gold medal version of that. The quality of performances that happen at Music Haven are unparalleled in this region,” Craig said, adding, “She does an amazing job in a very humble and sleeves-rolled-up kind of way.”

When the Music Haven season kicks off on Sunday, July 7, Golub will probably be one of the first people there, with her sleeves rolled up ready to bring the global to the local. 

2019 Music Haven season

Here’s a look at the season ahead, co-presented by The Schenectady Foundation and Price Chopper/Market 32, which are series sponsors. All shows start at 7 p.m. Rain site is Proctors for all shows, except for Aug. 10, 11 and 18, when the Niskayuna High School Auditorium will be the rain site. For more info visit musichavenstage.org. 

Sunday, July 7—Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café featuring special guests Crossroads—Jay Gandhi & Yacouba Sissoko
Sunday, July 14—Casuarina with special guests Eduardo de Carvalho e Forró de Bom
Wednesday, July 17—The Turbans 
Thursday, July 18—Hamiltunes: An American Singalong
Sunday, July 21—Garifuna Collective with special guests Bodoma Garifuna Culture Band
Thursday, July 25—Huntertones
Friday and Saturday, July 26–27—Will Kempe’s Players: A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Shakespeare in the park
Sunday, July 28—Seamus Egan Project with special guest Kevin McKrell
Wednesday, July 31—A Tribute to Nick Brignola 
Friday, Aug. 2—Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation — Premiere screening of new PBS Documentary
Sunday, Aug. 4—Thornetta Davis with Tas Cru
Friday, Aug. 9—School of the Performing Arts at Proctors
Saturday, Aug. 10—The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, Aug. 11—Cimarrón with special guests Sten & Maria Z.     
Sunday, Aug. 18—Jupiter & Okwess with special guests Nkumu Katalay

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