“I’ve never worn white tie and tails before,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, the still-newish president of the Philadelphia Orchestra, standing in the lobby as guests began to arrive for this year’s Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball. “They’re actually quite comfortable.”
Others that night were likely also having their first encounter with rarefied formal wear at the academy bash, the annual rite that has persisted for more than six decades as perhaps the highest of the city’s high-society traditions.
Like other lingering artifacts of a long-gone era, the Academy Ball is both a charming and curious spectacle. Yes, old money still shows up. More so, though, in the last two decades, it’s a bit of glamour a lot of regular Philadelphians slip on for a few hours.
Many genuinely love the Academy Ball. Some love it ironically. Others still love to hate it. My own affection is real and stems from the fact that the event is a quirky Philadelphia phenomenon, a concentrated blast of social lubricant.
It remains one of the few nights to put the city’s various bubbles in one room at one time: arts, business, government, social services, media, philanthropy, and more.
But we live in an era in which institutions are questioning their meaning and reconsidering their messaging, and it’s time, too, for the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball to change — if not out of its comfortable old white tie and tails, then into an event of greater substance.
Helen Mirren was the headliner this year, and she delivered on everything the name promised: vivid characterizations in excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, in an almost dangerously sparkly Escada gown and steep Badgley Mischka heels, a stage presence both sexy and dignified.
She reminded the audience repeatedly why they were there: to support a magnificent building.
The event brought in money: $2.2 million, a medium sum relative to other years. But that figure gets eaten away by high expenses. It seems an awful lot of time and money each year gets poured into an event whose flame burns bright for just a few hours.
Meanwhile, the academy’s needs, despite 25 years of ambitious and painstaking renovation work, are ongoing. Looking up just before the lights went down, many no doubt noticed the golden ceiling mural badly in need of restoration.
A weather-sealing assessment of the roof, facade, and other exterior elements is undergoing cost estimates. The orchestra long ago let go of its archivist, an important link in helping to tell the academy story from opening day in 1857 to today.
Despite its heavy use by Opera Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Kimmel Center’s Broadway series, and others, the academy doesn’t quite convey to the larger city the critical role it plays well beyond the performances. There isn’t another civic space that has the same sense of occasion.
It’s where we gather to host presidents, graduate college students, and to memorialize leaders. Setting matters.
Perhaps it matters most for children. Many hear and see their first Nutcracker there. To experience music, theater, or dance for the first time in a hall whose grandeur transports you to another time and place — a different reality, really — can have a huge impact. It opens up worlds of possibilities.
With its golden sculptural figures, gauzy warm-glow chandelier, and vast classical columns, the interior prods the young to think beyond the quotidian.
Verizon Hall may be acoustically superior and efficient. The Academy of Music, though, is a place of memory, emotion, and magic.
The orchestra still owns the academy (the Kimmel manages it), and surely one of the questions Tarnopolsky and others must confront is whether the format of the concert and ball are doing the best job of growing support for the building.
Obviously, the orchestra must make any changes with great care. It should listen to the academy’s loyal donors and volunteers who are the muscle behind planning the event the whole year. But the questions are many.
Should the evening continue to be split between the academy and the Bellevue, or should it be contained to the academy, as it was one year (2012)? Is there a way to complement the pricey evening with a more accessible public celebration of the building? Is the best time for the ball the dead of winter, when many academy fans are away in Florida?
And, would the orchestra generate more love for itself and the academy if it spent more time there generally?
Giving money is an emotional act, and for many listeners the truest venue for hearing the orchestra is its home from its founding in 1900 until 2001. A series of perhaps three Friday afternoon concerts in the academy would make an awful lot of listeners happy.
The format of the event needs a greater sense of purpose — an artistic one. When I look back over the last two decades, there are a couple of standout nights I wish could have been heard by the entire city and beyond.
Audra McDonald’s lush Gershwin songs in 2004 with a fully invested orchestra and conductor Simon Rattle were remarkable, and the year Jill Scott took over the stage was a revelation. The way Scott married her pop sound to the mighty orchestra was a thing of incredible beauty. It was an event. The art made it so.
Both of these evenings represented musical growth for the orchestra, and had they been carried beyond that one night and one audience via recording or streaming, they could have made new friends for the orchestra and the academy.
The Vienna Philharmonic might be a useful model. For many music fans, the only thing they know of that orchestra comes by way of the annual New Year’s concert, which lives on for months or years afterward on laptops and mobile devices. Images of the orchestra in the Musikverein spreads the reputation of both.
So, too, should it be for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Academy of Music (whose construction, by the way, predates Vienna’s golden music temple by a few years).
This year’s live broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day concert was seen in 90 countries with an estimated audience of 50 million, the BBC’s Petroc Trelawny announced during the broadcast. Philadelphia has a sound every bit as authentic to it as waltzes and polkas are to Vienna.
Academy leaders may feel protective of the event as it is currently constructed, in part because it gives supporters, who are paying hundreds to a couple of thousand dollars per ticket, a certain exclusivity. You want to make donors feel they are getting something for their money.
But the academy is bigger than that, and if it is going to attract support from a larger pool of donors, it should occupy a larger place in the city’s consciousness.
Anyway, exclusivity hasn’t always served us particularly well, especially in classical music. As traditions go, it might be one whose time has come and gone.