Kimmel Center Presents 2005-2006 Season:
A Conversation with Mervon Mehta, Vice President for Programming and Education Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
April 3, 2005
Mervon Mehta, Vice President for Programming and Education
When did you come to the Kimmel Center?
February 11, 2002, the day after my birthday! I had been the Director of Programming at the Ravinia Festival. I started there as a Talent Coordinator, then Concert Producer, then eventually became Director of Programming and Production. In all, I was there for 8 years, 7 performance seasons.
What do you listen to when you’re at home?
Right now, I tend to listen to more world music than anything. It’s where my ear is at the moment: Latin jazz, Cuban music, Afro-pop, Afro-jazz.
What did your first season of programming here at the Kimmel Center look like?
Well, since I came in mid-season, in February 2002, that season of programming was done. The upcoming 2002-2003 season had about 50 or 60 dates programmed and we added about 20-30 to complete it. The 2003-2004 season was really my first fully programmed season.
How do you approach programming the series here in Philadelphia?
Well, it’s more than just programming the biggest names that will sell the most tickets. We’ve had to turn down a number of really very fine artists, sometimes because they just didn’t happen to fit our aesthetic for a particular season or series as it was being shaped. We do have to keep a careful eye on the budget, but I also try to balance a ratio of world and pop and jazz and classical concerts. I could easily book 20 great orchestras on tour for next season for example, but I have to ask, is there a market for that many, is that how we want to shape or blend the programming mix here. It’s never just a question of budget or artistic quality or audience demographic or ticket sales.
How has your programming evolved then over these past 3-4 seasons?
I think we’ve come to understand our audience more and more these past few years. We’ve tried to very carefully balance what we think they want to hear with what might be new. For example, it was very important, we think, for Philadelphia audiences to hear someone like Ben Heppner last season. This coming season, we have the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The Kimmel Center audience hasn’t had the chance to hear him in recital. He has performed at the Met Opera for years, all over Europe, a huge name in the opera world, but not very well known here in Philadelphia.
You program an extremely wide range of artists here in the halls at the Kimmel Center.
I think what we’ve been able to do, no matter what genre you like as a listener, is to bring the best of the best to the Kimmel Center. Los Lobos or Mavis Staples for example are great musicians. Not to everyone’s taste certainly, but great artists in their genres.
We have a responsibility by being the best building in town, we think, of presenting artists that live up to the venue and its mission. So we have to make some decisions, we’re not going to please everybody, but there will be something for everybody: jazz, pop, world, classical, family, education.
What kind of experience do you want the audience here in Philadelphia to have when they attend concerts at the Kimmel Center?
Simply, I want them to walk in here and be blown away every single night. By the artists they hear, by the sound of the hall, by both the beauty and comfort of the hall, by the restaurant, by the ticket takers and the ushers, by their experience at the parking lot. All of these things play into their aesthetic of enjoying the show, it has to be a complete experience for them. Look, if someone has bought two tickets at $60-$70 each, plus the cost of a baby-sitter, cost of parking the car, and the cost of dinner, they’ve spent a couple hundred dollars. They can’t go away saying “eh, that was ok, what’s going on tomorrow elsewhere…” They have to come away feeling as though they’ve come to something special, whether it’s the Boston Symphony or Danilo Pérez or the Geator. It has to have been a “WOW” night all across the board for them!
Jazz programming here is very strong. Could you talk about that?
How did you come to work with Danilo Pérez for example? I first heard Danilo at the Chicago Jazz Festival and he had just come out with that great album “Panamonk.” As an artist he has something to say. He had just started teaching at New England Conservatory at the time. I asked him to do a master class before a concert at Ravinia, which was terrific and an extremely unusual experience. Usually what happens at a jazz master class is “the master” plays a little something, talks about his life in music, works with a couple students, not really teaching them much or pushing them to a higher level, they’re sometimes afraid to be impolite. Danilo on the other hand, I don’t think he played for more than 30 seconds in the whole class. Not only did he really engage the students, he engaged the audience as well! He decided he was going to talk about Latin rhythms and wanted to make sure people understood that meringue, salsa and cha-cha-cha was not Latin jazz. He talked about the influence American jazz musicians had in Cuba and Panama and Puerto Rico, his experience as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band and he started talking about clave rhythms. He was so energized, he had the audience of 200-300 people clapping very complex rhythms and participating and learning.
All his programs take place in the Perelman Theater?
Yes, the Perelman Theater presents a wonderful opportunity for jazz performance. It’s a good size hall, intimate and with wonderful acoustics. It’s a place where artists can experiment and put together something that says something artistically. I wanted someone here who had a lot to say, could connect with audiences, and who was very versatile in what he could play. Someone who could teach, give master classes, connect with students. Danilo, it seemed to me, was exactly that person.
Did he have a vision of what he wanted to see take place here?
I proposed the idea of a series to him, and when he came to see the hall, he walked in and said, “Wow, you mean this could be my home? Where I could play, invite my friends to come and play and make music, a place to create and shape a jazz series?” He played the brand new piano, which he loved, and he loved the acoustics and the versatility of the hall. At a meeting to plan the series, I brought two or three ideas that I thought would work programmatically and that I felt good about. Danilo on the other hand brought with him three pages of ideas! He wanted to do them all in that first season! My job then was to help him give shape and focus to that flood of musical genius. What grew out of that was a celebration of Dizzy Gillespie, who discovered him in Panama and put him in his band on tour. Every single person he wanted to have play with him in that first season said, “yes, absolutely, I would love to work in that hall with Danilo,” – Jon Faddis, Claudio Roditti, Kenny Barron, David Sanchez, Paquito D’Rivera, all major artists with very busy schedules at other major halls on tours. They all wanted to work with Danilo, have the ability to explore some new things musically that they can’t normally do with their own bands, to explore the music of John Coltrane through the eyes of Argentinean tango or through the prism of Brazilian bossa nova, created some great musical experiences here this year.
You and Danilo have put together the “One Nation Under Jazz” series for next year, what is that going to be like?
In the past we’ve focused on Dizzy and Coltrane and Latin American musicians, and yet there are so many other elder American jazz masters that are not celebrated enough as performers or creators around the country--they have not gotten their due. The questions we asked were, for example, “What was the contribution of Chicago, for example, to American jazz?” and Von Freeman came to the surface right away. He has been a teacher to scores of younger artists. Now, I’ve spent my life going to jazz concerts, and I had never heard him play! He doesn’t get the gigs he should, he’s never been in a major touring band as others of his generation have, yet he has been responsible for helping to shape the playing and artistry of many younger artists. And we’ve done that with other cities as well for next season, including Ellis Marsalis in New Orleans; Roy Haynes in Boston; Geri Allen in Detroit, great artists, all of whom have made important contributions to the jazz art form but are not widely enough known to mainstream audiences.
It’s a concept I grew up with, that jazz has as much right to be on major stages as classical music. It’s a music that grew out of our collective experiences, an original American voice.
Philadelphia too has a very strong jazz tradition.
Correct. Coltrane spent the formative years of his life, right here in Philadelphia. Dizzy Gillespie spent a lot of time learning music and playing here. Billie Holiday lived a block away from the Kimmel Center for a number of years. And there are scores of others who lived and learned and worked here because of Philadelphia’s proximity to New York. So much has grown out of that tradition and heritage and we want to celebrate it on our stages here at the Kimmel.
Opening night at the Kimmel in the fall will be a big night. Have you worked with Tony Bennett before?
In fact yes, at Ravinia he was on the series twice each year. Chicago loved Tony. I think he always felt appreciative that Chicago had dates for him every year, especially during some of his lean years. I’m delighted he’s playing here in Verizon and especially opening the series this year. When I last saw him, he told me he had heard about Verizon Hall and asked “When am I going to play there, I’ve heard such great things about it!” I’m very happy he accepted our offer to come here, it makes for a great opening night and he’s without a doubt one of the true gentlemen of the business. He’s 78 and can really sing his tail off! And, he’s one of the last of a generation, and his strength is and has always been that of the American Songbook tradition. He does it better than anyone else living and doesn’t shy away from it—Jerome Kern, Sammy Kahn, Harold Arlen. He’s got a great band, too, that he’s extremely loyal to and has been with him for years and years. No big light show, no fireworks, just a great quintet with a great singer, which makes it about “the song.”
The rest of the jazz series looks great too.
In fact this season of jazz we’ll have 11 jazz artists making their debuts with us this year. I’m sure next year we’ll find more as well! We are also very proud to present our 3rd Annual Philly All-Star Night with Michael Brecker and Christian McBride.
On the classical series, there are many orchestras these days on top of their game so to speak, Boston Symphony for example.
Usually when these great orchestras are on tour, we don’t have a lot of say over what the programs are. With Boston, when I saw what the program was, I thought this was exceptional. What a great way to show off both the talents and the great tradition of the BSO. Of course Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is a work that this orchestra has virtually specialized in over the years, with a wonderful recording dating back to the Erich Leinsdorf days, and Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel is a virtuoso showcase vehicle for any orchestra. The program has another wonderful treasure–Peter Lieberson’s brand new piece, his Neruda Songs, with soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. All in all, one of the highlights of the season I think!
And of course five programs to celebrate the Mozart anniversary year?
Yes, Daniel Barenboim returns. This year we have the Chicago Symphony with Barenboim, but next year he comes with his other band, the Berlin Staatskapelle playing and conducting as well. The city of Berlin has so many orchestras and such a rich tradition, we’ve had the Berlin Philharmonic here, and now the Staatskapelle makes its Philadelphia debut. It’s amazing to me, too, that someone like Barenboim is both one of the world’s great conductors and one of the world’s great pianists at the same time! We get to hear both playing Mozart. Heaven!
And the New York Philharmonic returns for the third time with yet a third conductor.
Yes, Lorin Maazel was here this last time, and Masur the time before. This coming season the orchestra returns with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos in a program of Schumann, de Falla, and with André Watts performing the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2. De Burgos is an exceptionally fine conductor. Philadelphia and Boston have their annual Carnegie Hall visits several times each year, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to hear the same orchestra return each year like this. I think the audience builds a relationship with visiting artists this way. The orchestra loves coming here, and Maestro Maazel loves conducting in Verizon.
Over to the Master Musicians series, so many once-young artists seem to have come of age.
Yes, Hilary Hahn is on the series this year, and of course she’s no longer the young prodigy she once was, she’s grown into a mature and extremely thoughtful musician. And as Joshua Bell did with the movie The Red Violin, she has exposed countless young and non-traditional audiences to her playing. She recorded the soundtrack to the recent wonderful film The Village by M. Night Shyamalan.
And Gil Shaham of course is venturing into new waters by both conducting and playing.
Yes, this year he comes with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, making their Philadelphia debut. And I think too this will be a great pairing as the Academy is one of those virtuoso ensembles that can turn on a dime and I think their warm and rich sound is a good match for Gil as well. He is one of those very very serious musicians who has the great gift of not taking himself so seriously. His warmth and personality comes across on stage, and when matched with the warmth of the Academy I think it will be a fine concert.
Are you tailoring the series to buying or listening habits?
One of the things I did when I first got here was to somewhat re-organize the recital series, splitting it into String, Piano and Vocal segments. Ticket buyers of course can pick and choose what they want, but typically there isn’t a lot of crossover between series and this gives people a chance to hear a whole batch of great violinists for example, or three great pianists. Some well-known names, and some not so well known names. Andsnes is a very fine young pianist with a very unique style, and he too is venturing into new waters, this year coming with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, also both as a performer and conductor.
And of course our dear friend Lang Lang just continues to thrill and excite audiences with his playing style and strong connection to listeners. Among other pieces on his musically demanding program, I look forward to hearing his performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata.
The Vocal Series has in many ways been shaped into an international series this coming season.
Yes. And the series has never had a baritone before believe it or not–this year we somehow ended up with two! Thomas Hampson, one of the great American voices of our time, is doing a program that’s very close to his heart–an all-American program with works by Ned Rorem, Duke, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. We’ve hoped to present him here on the series in past years, but for one reason or another, it just has never worked out due to scheduling or whatnot. This year it did, and we’re delighted!
And of course the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is on tour next year. And the interesting thing is, two distinctly different voices, yet both big rich voices, I think it’s going to be wonderful to hear them both in the warmth of Verizon Hall.
Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman touring together as a duo recital team?
I believe they’ve done this once or twice before together, and it’s always a lot of fun, both for the audience and for them. They work together once in a while as duo-violinists with various orchestras, but this is really an opportunity for them to just have a musical-ball so to speak. It’s hard to envision any two other musicians having as much serious fun as they do on stage with these programs. They grew up together, musically and personally, and on these tours, I know they like eating and telling stories as much as playing. They are both technically formidable musicians, and again, very serious musicians not taking themselves personally too seriously, just enjoying the music they play.
They’re presumably playing the eastern seaboard on this short tour?
Yes. New York, New Jersey and Washington, plus another stop or two, and us here at the Kimmel Center. And it’s interesting now, when these tour projects come up, we’re one of the first performing arts centers that artist managers call to book dates for these tours.
So Verizon in a few short years has become a musical destination, for both audiences and artists?
Yes, these artists want to play in this hall, and the same thing applies to Tori Amos, and to Tony Bennett and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hilary Hahn and to Gary Burton. The east-coast tour route now, in one direction or the other north or south, includes Kennedy Center, Kimmel, NJPAC, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston. The entire east coast is very fertile ground for the performing arts, and I, and many others, think the Kimmel Center has rightfully taken its place now among those other great and storied venues. The Kimmel Center has changed the face of performing arts presentations in Philadelphia and how cool is it to be involved from the beginning!
Copyright, Kimmel Center for the Arts, 2005
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