At the Academy of Music anniversary concert last year, Helen Mirren threw around terms like jawn and double doink, while at another bash not long ago Hugh Jackman sang "Mack the Knife" and strayed from stage to plant a kiss on the wife of Pennsylvania's governor.

Now comes John Lithgow. Famously intrepid, Lithgow couldn’t have done much to surprise at Saturday night’s iteration of the annual white-tie celebration of the Academy.

And yet, surprise he did — performing children’s songs.

No other big-name talent, operatic or instrumental, was present this year for the Academy of Music 163rd Anniversary Concert and Ball, unless you count the Philadelphia Orchestra itself. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted — his eighth appearance at the event, whose proceeds benefit the orchestra and restoration of the Academy, which it still owns.

Tickets to Saturday’s concert and ball ranged from $350 to $2,150, helping to raise a gross of $1.7 million — though expenses are high, and the net amount raised after the bills are paid is typically much lower. Last year the gross was $2.2 million.

About 2,000 attended the concert alone, with about 1,350 taking the promenade down Broad Street for dinner and dancing at the Bellevue Hotel.

Social conventions in the world beyond the Academy's marbled foyer may rise and fall, but the Academy concert and ball keeps on keeping on. There's comfort in that. It's still one-stop shopping for all your networking needs at the dinner and pre-concert reception.

Guests walk up Broad St., from the concert at the Academy of Music, to the ball at the Bellevue at the Hyatt during the 163rd Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball at the Academy of Music in Phila., Pa. on January 25, 2020.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Guests walk up Broad St., from the concert at the Academy of Music, to the ball at the Bellevue at the Hyatt during the 163rd Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball at the Academy of Music in Phila., Pa. on January 25, 2020.

If past concerts sought to convey an edge (Rod Stewart) or nostalgia (James Taylor), Lithgow took on his task with a lightly comic air of earnestness.

He praised the orchestra and Academy in a script that sounded, well, scripted.

“At a time when other cities are cutting back on the arts, Philadelphia is moving forward,” he told the audience.

Not exactly news. But when Lithgow broke into song he was on artistic terra firma. Taking on his Winston Churchill persona from The Crown, he led the audience in a round of “Land of Hope and Glory.

The event’s theme was youth, Nézet-Séguin said, and the evening’s first standing ovation went not to Lithgow but to a dozen string students from Philadelphia’s All City Orchestra program playing Elgar’s Salut d'amour.

The orchestra followed a fairy-tale theme with excerpts from Ravel’s Mother Goose and Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

But it was Lithgow the crowd came to see, and while there wasn’t a lot of him, what he brought was charming. The orchestral arrangements suited the orchestra’s fat sound, and Lithgow bent his voice to heighten the texts.

I’m sure there are other singers who can just as effectively convince you in a song that the word manatee cries out to be echoed by raisin-bran-a-tee and spic-and-span-a-tee, but offhand I’m not sure who they are.

Lithgow even got his listeners into the act, asking them to chime in at a certain point in the song “I Got Two Dogs,” and they did.

He told the audience: “You make wonderful children.”