Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Mervon Mehta | Vice President of Programming and Education at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

Interview :: Mervon Mehta
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 May 2006

This month's Creative Personality is Mervon Mehta, Vice President of Programming and Education at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

The Kimmel Center opened in December 2001. It incorporates several major venues: Verizon Hall, a 2,500-seat concert hall and Perelman Theater, a 650-seat recital theater; and the 2,900-seat Academy of Music. The Kimmel Center is host to eight resident performing arts companies: The Philadelphia Orchestra, Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, PHILADANCO, The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, American Theater Arts for Youth, Opera Company of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Beginning May 11, 2006, the Kimmel Center celebrates the installation of its brand new organ, The Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, the largest concert hall organ in the United States, with two weeks of inaugural concerts, beginning with the Philadelphia Orchestra and ending with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

For more information about the Kimmel Center, go to

PCG: If the Avenue of the Arts was a shopping mall, the Kimmel Center would be the big box anchor store. That is, if you morphed Saks, Nordstroms and Macy's all into one. This place is a cultural behemoth!

MM: The biggest message I'd like to get out is that we're not the big, stuffy performing arts center on the hill. We're a full-service entertainment and cultural center. Yet, after nearly 5 years in operation, there are still some people who think we're just only about the orchestra. That's not all we do here. We also book jazz, world music, pop, local performers, and have classes and educational events for school groups and the public. We open our doors every day at 10am. This is a great place and a great space for the public to come.

PCG: What fuels and determines your programming and educational decisions?

MM: No matter what the musical genre, first and foremost at the heart of all our programming decisions is that it be high quality. I've found Philadelphia to be a conservative town artistically. Sometimes people walk in or walk by and they aren't entirely familiar with some of the performers or genres we offer. However, they've come to trust us and our programming decisions enough to come in and give a listen. They know that whoever or whatever is on the bill will always be high-caliber entertainment, and that's what we strive to deliver, each and every time for our audiences.

"We've been open since December 2001, and have become the go-to place for world-class performers to play."

PCG: This is a facility like no other. Do performers seek you out to get booked here, or do you reach out to them?

MM: A little of both, actually. Sometimes performers contact us, and sometimes we seek them out. The process all starts out with a wish list of sorts. We see who's touring on the road, what two artists we can put on the bill together so we can have a terrific opening and closing act. We work with artists, managers and agents. We book top notch talent from around the world, or showcase up-and-coming local performers. We've been open since December 2001, and have become the go-to place for world-class performers to play. Our programming consists of about one-third classical, one-third jazz, and one-third dance, world music and special attractions. Our challenge and our joy is having to program so much. People may not realize the Kimmel Center hosts nearly 1000 events every year. That's a lot of programming!

The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

PCG: Speaking of wish lists, what's on your programming and educational radar these days?

MM: With a facility like this, there are just so many possibilities to do such great work, to bring in artists from around the world, and to deliver to the local community a truly world-class performing arts venue. Future plans are to collaborate more with other arts and performing groups, such as the new World Café. We'd like to make more inroads with the rock/pop world. However, we can't book big name acts that typically sell-out the Wachovia Center because those kinds of acts command too much per performance. We don't have as many seats, and our ticket prices would be too prohibitive.

PCG: The Kimmel Center is architecturally and acoustically jaw-dropping. Audience reaction has been favorable. What kind of feedback have you received from the world-caliber artists and performers who've graced your stages in the nearly 5 years since you've been open?

MM: Funny you should bring that up. The kind of entertainers and performing arts groups we book don't think of this place as just another venue to do a gig in. First off, the Kimmel Center is a building that's just breathtaking. I've been here for 4 years now and even I'm in awe when I come here everyday. The audience-performer intimacy makes them feel like they're in a big but comfortable living room. Our facility evokes a respectful, sometimes reverential response from the artists. Heck, even the road crews are polite and curb their language. The people who perform here have sometimes performed all over the world, and though they could, they rarely pull diva fits.

Dobson Pipe Organ Builders working on the complex installation of the new Verizon Hall organ

PCG: You clearly love what you do, and I respect and admire the passion, devotion and vision you bring to your work. How do you unwind? What's on the proverbial play list for Mervon Mehta–acoustical and unplugged?

MM: My personality is such that it's all Zen. I rarely lose my cool, even when we have last-minute programming changes and cancellations. I like to unwind by listening to jazz, world music, especially Afro-Cuban influences. It soothes my soul. I also like to take long walks. My wife and I live in Queen Village, so I'm on South Street all the time. It's a good way to see, hear and experience the sounds of the street and to get a pulse on the local arts and cultural scene.

PCG: Working as closely as you do with big-name performers, any particular perks that stand out?

MM: Lang Lang played piano at my wedding. I thought he was joking when he said he cleared his busy international performance schedule to attend our wedding. Sure enough, he did, and also kept good his promise to play for us. Wow!

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