Cathy Cahill Revives Mann Center's Music
By Kristin Detterline-Munro
For nearly a decade, Cathy Cahill was completely content as president and CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and as an influential advocate for the arts in New York City. But when she received word that The Mann Center for the Performing Arts was on the hunt for a new president in late 2007, she knew that fate had come calling.
In 1976, as a freshman at Temple University, the aspiring cellist would bike from campus to the Mann, then known as Robin Hood Dell West, for concerts by The Philadelphia Orchestra. One night, sitting beneath the stars on the sprawling lawn during a performance by the American Ballet Theatre, the swirl of string instruments gave way to Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Sleeping Beauty. Cahill was immediately taken back to her childhood.
“I would listen to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty on my record player as a little girl,” she says, adding that her passion for classical music began with opera, thanks to the many records her mother, an opera singer, had collected. “I had no idea it was the same music. It was such a transformational moment for me.”
Fast-forward to the night of June 1, 2008, Cahill’s first official day on the job. A packed house of 14,000 fans was awaiting a concert by James Taylor, and Cahill was preparing to say a few words before the show during a private event. By chance she happened to glance down at the podium’s brass plaque, inscribed with the name EUGENE ORMANDY—the conductor who had led The Philadelphia Orchestra on those unforgettable nights Cahill spent on the lawn. “That’s when I knew I was in the right place at the right time and this was meant to be,” she says.
Cahill, who resides in Center City, spent plenty of time onstage as a young musician, but it’s her work behind the scenes that has proven the most gratifying. The Mann Center’s fifth season under Cahill’s careful supervision is underway, on the heels of a banner year in 2011—and not a moment too soon. Over time the Mann’s robust schedule of classical music had become a blessing and a curse: Tickets were still moving, but the venue itself had fallen into a symphonic slump. Opened in the early 1930s as the Robin Hood Dell, the vast open-air amphitheater had hosted some of music’s greatest names in its heyday: Judy Garland, Marian Anderson, Benny Goodman. In 1948 the Dell fell on hard times, until businessman Fredric R. Mann (whose name would later adorn the new pavilion, constructed in 1976, that we know today) revived the venue with a crafty free concert ticket plan and programming that featured emerging performers.
In many ways, Cahill is following in his innovative footsteps. Last year’s lineup was a cross-section of musical genres, from iconic rocker Roger Daltrey to indie-cool My Morning Jacket to hip-hop heavyweight Kid Cudi. There were Mann firsts, too, like Cirque de la Symphonie, which paired the Russian National Orchestra with Cirque du Soleil alumni for what Cahill called “the best of both worlds.” Social media initiatives shifted into high gear, allowing concertgoers to text their votes for encores. And The Philadelphia Orchestra’s ode to The Beatles’ iconic final album, Down the Abbey Road, gave birth to the Mann’s first-ever Tweetcert, a live forum for the audience and orchestra members to interact in real time. “Part of our strategy is to build audience loyalty,” says Cahill. “That comes from the talent you put on stage, but you have to marry that with communication and personalization for that particular audience, and make sure the experience is second to none.”
With another season in full swing at the Mann—Sigur Rós, Chris Botti, and Jill Scott are a few of the scheduled performers—and major upgrades on the horizon, including new state-of-the-art video screens, a lawn expansion, and the debut of a secondary performance space called the Skyline Stage, Cahill’s schedule is pulling her in every possible direction. But she always comes back to classical music, despite retiring her cello years ago.
“It’s sitting in a corner in my room,” she laughs. “I’ll play it again someday.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL PERSICO