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From Temple degree to Mann CEO

A music student comes full circle

Catherine M. Cahill grew up a lover of music, but merely playing the cello wasn't enough. Only pulling the strings behind the scenes would do.

A peripatetic career that led her to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, Toronto Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and, most recently, Brooklyn Philharmonic (to be president and chief executive officer) has landed Cahill, 52, in Philadelphia as president and chief executive of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

This native of Washington Crossing, N.J., took over the Mann job June 1, 2008.

This isn't her first stop in Philadelphia: Her journey started here at Temple University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in music performance, and took her to Drexel University for a master's of science in arts administration.

Question: You came with an economy that's in the tank.

Answer: It's probably one of the hardest seasons I have ever experienced in my professional life. I am not alone. The decline in corporate support has been significant in this town and others.

Some of my colleagues are experiencing corporate declines as high as 50 percent. Special events, galas, and things of that nature - people are experiencing declines. We're actually holding our own this year.

Q: How have you been able to manage so far?

A: We have been extremely judicious with our budget this year. And we have made a number of rounds of administrative cuts - and fairly deep, I have to tell you.

We've certainly reduced our operating costs on a significant level. And at the same time we are trying to still improve our fund-raising.

Q: Can you give some examples of the administrative cuts that you've made?

A: We've laid people off. . . . Four in the fall. And then we cut our marketing budget. And we cut a lot of vendors out in the spring. We took another few hundred thousand dollars out at that level. We have some projected cuts coming up that we will implement if we are unable to balance and we have a Plan B for that.

We are a very lean institution to start with. We don't have very many full-time people here. Our seasonal help is where you'll see an increase in our operating costs. Because, of course, we're hiring stagehands for the summer. And we're hiring groundskeepers for the summer. And we're hiring security officers for the summer.

Q: Any problems here that are unique from other venues where you have worked?

A: One of the challenges in this job - a little bit different than working with an orchestra in the hall - is weather. We have had one of the wettest Junes in decades. And so there has absolutely been an impact on box office without question. . . .

In our budgeting this year we've put in contingency budgets so if it rains, we have a cushion up to a certain level. I will tell you that nobody expected this to be the wettest June in decades.

Q: Where do you want to take the Mann?

A: The Mann has every promise and opportunity of absolutely being the world-class institution that it has aspired to be and has at times been without question. . . .

We have the opportunities to look at video screens for the future to transform the experience for the audience. We have a good deal of work to do on making our lawn more accessible. . . . We will expect and hopefully have the Philadelphia Orchestra back on a very long and ongoing basis. . . . We are looking at collaborations with other summer festivals across the nation. . . . We are looking at other resident ensemble companies that we would like to start building relationships with so that our programming base grows and continues to improve. . . .

Philadelphia has a treasure here unlike almost any other city. Certainly when you look at the landscape in the nation, this is right up there with being one of the top handful of unique experiences. Something Philadelphia needs to treasure and be proud of. It's a real civic asset.

Q: So you went to Temple.

A: Well, at the time I knew that I wanted to be in a conservatory environment. I was a cello major. . . . I wanted, however, a university setting so that I could have some classes beyond just the music room, if you will. . . . I wanted a city on the East Coast that I felt comfortable in. . . . And it was a choice between Boston or Temple and, frankly, Temple gave me a scholarship. And my mother said: OK! That's where you're going! . . .

I liked Philadelphia. I was living here. I had my world here. . . . I was a passionate advocate of the Philadelphia Orchestra. As a young student, I stood in line - I think there were $2 tickets in the old days, standing alongside the wall of the Academy of Music. And you climbed up to the nosebleed section, which has the best acoustics, and that was a hot Saturday night, going to the Philadelphia Orchestra. We lined up dutifully every week - religiously. . . .

I ended up landing an internship at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center because it was the other summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I just fell in love with the whole summer music festival world. . . . And many years later, full circle, here I am back now as the president of the Mann Center.