Helen Mirren is on the phone, and she’s either a surprisingly practical person or she’s decided to float a little deadpan British humor.
Why, I’d been wondering, did she agree to host this year’s Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball?
“Because I was asked, and I was free,” says Mirren.
Fair enough. But if you’re Helen Mirren — winner of Tony, Academy and Olivier Awards, known to Prime Suspect fans as Detective Jane Tennison — you presumably have a few other things you could be doing the last Saturday in January than landing in chilly Philly for a rare outing with a symphony orchestra.
Turns out, though, that Mirren has some personal connections that make her appearance here to celebrate the academy’s 162nd anniversary seem like destiny.
“I love Philadelphia,” she says. “I made a film there quite a long time ago [Lee Daniels’ 2005 Shadowboxer] and very much enjoyed my time there, and it was a great time to come back to the city. And there is something very magical about being on stage with a full orchestra and having that experience, which is not an experience I’ve had that often as an actor.”
Only once before, actually. Mirren appeared with Jeremy Irons with orchestra in excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed with Mendelssohn’s incidental music, in 2011 at the Castleton Festival, founded by conductor Lorin Maazel. And now she’ll do something similar, if more brief, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will once again preside over the annual academy fête.
“It’s a great cause,” says Mirren, 73. “It’s a great, great orchestra, a great part of the cultural landscape of America, and I’m very proud to be there.”
The event, followed by dinner at the Bellevue for many of the guests, raises money for the Academy of Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which still owns the hall. Restoration projects are ongoing, and attention has turned recently to the question of how to repair and weather-seal the exterior of the elegant old opera house at Broad and Locust — cupola, roof, cornice, façade, and all.
The connections for Mirren go beyond Shadowboxer, a crime thriller shot here with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Mo’Nique.
If Mirren looks over at the string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra with a certain nostalgia, it may be because she is thinking of her father, Vasily Petrovich Mironoff. “He was a violist before the war,” she said, "and when he was young he very much wanted to be a professional musician.
"He was, briefly. He played with the London Philharmonic, and of course the war came and he never went back to it. It wasn’t financially possible [he became a civil servant]. But I certainly grew up with classical music. We were only allowed to listen to classical music in the house.”
Mirren studied piano, also briefly.
“It was a disaster,” she says. “It must have been heartbreaking for my poor father to realize that his only daughter had no musical talent.”
But she still loves classical music. “It’s my go-to music in the car,” she says.
The choice of talent for the annual Academy of Music event has evolved over recent years. A dozen years ago, academy leaders started looking beyond traditional guests like flutist James Galway and cellist Yo-Yo Ma to pop singers. Rod Stewart appeared at the 150th anniversary concert, followed in succeeding years by Billy Joel, James Taylor, Sting, Paul Simon, Hugh Jackman, and others.
Mirren’s appearance will be most like that of Al Pacino’s in 2015, when he read a monologue from Richard III with the orchestra in the background playing William Walton’s stirring music from the 1955 film.
This year, the academy concert will also feature a brief appearance by Aida Garifullina, singing the bubbly “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet.
The rising Russian soprano will make her Metropolitan Opera debut Jan. 30 as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. (Nézet-Séguin is not leading that production; Cornelius Meister is making his Met conducting debut).
Mirren will narrate scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the orchestra performing excerpts from Mendelssohn’s score. She is also slated to deliver a monologue and introduce pieces.
She is particularly well-equipped for the job. One of her first film appearances was in the Peter Hall-directed 1968 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She played Hermia. (Diana Rigg was Helena, Judi Dench was Titania, Ian Richardson was Oberon, and Ian Holm was Puck.)
“I’ve played all the women — Titania, Hermia, and Helena, so I know it very well,” says Mirren. “In youth theater, I played Helena, and I was also around when Peter Brook did his very famous production at the Royal Shakespeare Company [in 1970]. I wasn’t in the play, but I was at all the rehearsals and I watched that develop.”
To be able to hear Shakespeare’s words with Mendelssohn’s music, though, is a relatively rare pleasure.
“The music goes straight to the heart of things,” says Mirren. “His music reflects the words just magically. It’s actually quite inspiring as an actor to hear the music and respond to the music.
"It’s a very beautiful symbiotic experience. I wish other composers had done it with other Shakespeare plays. It’s quite a satisfying evening for the audience, as well. You can think about the words and at the same time lose yourself in the music.”
The Academy of Music 162nd Anniversary Concert and Ball
Tickets to the concert-only portion of the event, at 7 p.m. Jan. 26, are $75. www.philorch.org, 215-893-1999.
Tickets for the concert and ball, available by calling 215-893-1978, range from $350 (Young Friends) to $1,950. Pre-concert reception tickets are sold out.