Wolf Trap President Arvind Manocha hopes to put education center stage

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the Wolf Trap arts-based teaching method is used in 65 schools nationwide. It is used in 65 classrooms in the D.C. region and 956 classrooms nationwide. This version has been corrected.


President and CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, Arvind Manocha in the Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. (Matt McClain/THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 12, 2013

Aside from the traffic, Vienna, Va. and Los Angeles have little in common. The small commuter town just miles outside Washington is better known as the end of the Orange Line than a cultural attraction. But Arvind Manocha, the new president and chief executive of Wolf Trap, is determined to change that about the suburb that houses the nation’s only national park for the performing arts. And if his success as a leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl is an indication of his talent, he may be set to put Vienna on something other than a Metro map.

But first, the question many are thinking: Why would anyone leave Hollywood for the Vienna woods?

“I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 17 years,” said Manocha, 40. “I was very much ready to apply what I knew to a new environment. Wolf Trap is a paragon of the summer festival business, but the other part that’s very different than the Hollywood Bowl is the Wolf Trap education programs. They are truly unique within their sphere, and I’m very enthusiastic to be part of that part of the story.”

Under Manocha’s watch, the Hollywood Bowl, a historic 17,000-seat amphitheater, became an even more beloved must-see summer spot for locals and tourists alike; Pollstar magazine named it “Best Major Outdoor Venue in America” eight years in a row. The former chief operating officer of the L.A. Philharmonic oversaw operations for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a Frank Gehry-designed landmark that the philharmonic calls home. During his 12 years with the philharmonic, he made the summer festival more diverse and reached new audiences with programs that included world music, jazz and any other genre that can be found on Pandora.

Manocha has always enjoyed the diversity and egalitarianism of summer festivals: The fact that audiences can see Bill Cosby, the Indigo Girls and Carly Rae Jepsen in the same venue this summer is what drew the lifelong music lover to outdoor festivals. Wolf Trap has espoused this vision since Filene Center opened in 1971: Tickets start at $4; bring a picnic blanket and your ears. But Manocha is angling to expand Wolf Trap’s reputation beyond outdoor summer concerts to a national juggernaut for early-childhood education. His broad interests in programming and education caught the attention of Wolf Trap’s board members when they began their search to replace former president Terrence Jones, who led the organization for 17 years.


President and CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, Arvind Manocha in the Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, VA. (Matt McClain/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Arvind clearly stood out head and shoulders above everyone,” said John C. Lee IV, chairman of Wolf Trap, who served on the search committee that selected Manocha. “He has the experience to take something that is really good and make it better.”

Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the L.A. Philharmonic, said Manocha’s work as director of the Walt Disney Concert Hall is indicative of the vision he’s bringing to Wolf Trap.

“We changed the entire direction of our institution back at the millennium when it was not in good shape,” Borda said of the philharmonic, which is now the second-largest musical organization in the United States after the Metropolitan Opera. “Arvind was deeply involved in reimagining what the institution could be and turning its fortune around.”

For the greater Washington area, Wolf Trap is summer. It is sold-out shows or a chance to see the National Symphony Orchestra in a venue that doesn’t require a tie. With its 7,000-seat amphitheater and a budget of $29 million, Wolf Trap hasn’t suffered the same decline in ticket sales that smaller, less diversified art institutions have. Sales were up by 9 percent last year over 2011, meaning the board could have been complacent in its vision. But Manocha hopes to expand Wolf Trap’s reach beyond the festival to children who have never been to Virginia or a Gipsy Kings concert.

Next act: Education

For children in 956 classrooms nationwide, Wolf Trap is synonymous with an arts-based teaching method taught in public schools. The Wolf Trap method is geared toward children younger than five to help them achieve literacy, problem solving skills and general development. Because children have an innate need to create and move, the method encourages them do that, embracing the philosophy behind “Schoolhouse Rock” and other programs that use music and dance to help kids internalize concepts.

In 2008, Wolf Trap received a $1.15 million grant from the Department of Education to research and develop an arts-integrated Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program to improve scores. With the findings, they’ll build on the method that teaches educators how to incorporate the arts into STEM-based curriculums.

“We’re not teaching arts appreciation,” Manocha said. “We work with teachers to help them use the arts as a way for very young children to grasp concepts like math. There are kids in Detroit or Nashville who’ve never been to the Filene Center, and for them, the entire definition of Wolf Trap is this education program.”

At a school in Fairfax County, teachers use dance to teach children about how planets revolve around the sun or they use storytelling — “Three Little Pigs,” for example — to teach children about scientific method. (The houses wouldn’t fall down if the pigs had used the six steps of engineering.)

“It’s not that kids won’t learn the material without the Wolf Trap method,” Manocha said. “But which kids will have internalized it enough that they feel comfortable telling their peers about it?”

Manocha has always held a broad interest in education. The son of two professors at Kent State University, he grew up in Kent, Ohio, and aspired to be a playwright or an academic. Ever the music lover, he played bass in heavy-metal cover bands and saxophone in his high school marching band “like a good Midwestern kid,” he joked.

He studied literature at Cornell University and established himself as an all-star scholar, winning the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, the less sports-obsessed twin of the Rhodes Scholarship, for postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge in England. Unlike many fellowship winners who return home for summers to intern, Manocha stayed abroad for two years. His immersion paid off. In Britain, he met his partner, Gideon Malone, who also moved to Vienna when Manocha began his post in January.

After Cambridge, though, Manocha’s focus shifted from academia to business: He joined the consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Co. in Los Angeles and received a crash course in management that pushed him to the business side of the performing arts world.

“I always thought I’d end up being an academic with a foot in creative arts,” Manocha said. “Consulting was from left field.”

But after 12 years at the L.A. Philharmonic, where he merged his love of music with management, his post at Wolf Trap combines his passion for academia with his experience. It’s a fitting role for this playwright-turned-CEO whose interests have always spanned genres.

“In a weird way, what we’re teaching mirrors my interest in the summer season,” Manocha said. “We now have the ability to embrace many identities and interests, to not be tied to one camp or genre. We want to help kids who may not have thought of themselves as scientists or engineers . . . so when the time comes, they can say, ‘Science and engineering are options for me. I can do that.’ ”

And in turn, maybe those budding scientists and engineers will gain a love of heavy-metal cover bands, too.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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