Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Helen Mirren dazzles at the Academy of Music 162nd Anniversary Concert

The Academy of Music 162nd Anniversary Concert - and special guest Helen Mirren - drew about 1,800 patrons to the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street Saturday night.

Helen Mirren on stage at the Academy of Music 162nd Anniversary Concert and Ball.
Helen Mirren on stage at the Academy of Music 162nd Anniversary Concert and Ball.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Buoyed by Mendelssohn’s fairy music and perhaps a flute or two of champagne, supporters of the Academy of Music gathered Saturday night at the hall to celebrate its birthday.

Helen Mirren was the special guest for the Academy of Music 162nd Anniversary Concert. This year’s iteration of the benefit, to which tickets cost from $350 to $1,950 for the concert, dinner, and ball, featured Mirren as host, narrator of excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and, she joked, as adopted Philadelphian.

The words she has already learned you needed to know to pass as a local, she told the crowd, were anything but Shakespeare: hoagie, jawn, and Double Doink.

Mirren also spoke passionately about the importance of arts education, the audience of tomorrow, and future generations of Academy supporters. Addressing the audience way up high in the Academy, which she took to be populated with a younger crowd, she said: “We believe in you, we have faith in you, help us out.”

Many already have. This year, 1,800 tickets were sold for the concert and 1,400 for the dinner and ball at the Bellevue, a spokesperson said, a little under last year’s 2,100 tickets to the concert and 1,500 for the dinner and ball.

The event raised $2.2 million gross (before expenses), slightly more than last year's $2 million. Net proceeds will be split between the orchestra and academy restoration projects.

The next bit of ambition for the hall, which opened in 1857, is sealing and weatherproofing the exterior — including the vast roof, a cupola with badly deteriorated paint, the elaborate cornice at the top of the building, and elements of the facade showing their age.

A cost estimate on that job is expected this spring, but it will clearly outstrip the income from a single ball.

Still, the goal of this anniversary fete goes beyond money. It's also a chance to connect or reconnect with the building.

Among those attending Saturday night were Mayor Jim Kenney; State Rep. Marcy Toepel; State Sen. Larry Farnese; John B. “J.B.” Kelly, president of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation’s U.S. chapter (and cousin of H.S.H. Prince Albert); Sun Hong, president of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra; and Ma Chengcheng, president of Shanghai Media Group.

It was Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s seventh time conducting the Academy Anniversary Concert — it would have been his eighth had Winter Storm Jonas not made a special guest appearance in 2016 and snowed out the 159th anniversary event — and the orchestra’s music director is always a sunny presence.

Especially so in a shiny, golden Dolce & Gabbana jacket. He engaged in banter with Mirren, and from the moment the Academy chandelier lifted toward the ceiling to the Pomp and Circumstance exit music, he was a smooth host.

“How amazing that after 162 years, the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street is not a museum, but a muse,” he told the audience.

To drive the point home, Academy leaders programmed a little opera. Soprano Aida Garifullina, who is about to make her Metropolitan Opera debut, performed a crystalline “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. Dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet performed excerpts from The Nutcracker.

It all led to Mirren, who performed parts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream interspersed with the orchestra’s excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the play. In a couple of spots, Mirren made Shakespeare’s words — her voice endowed with desperation or longing — elide just so with the emotion of the music.

She quoted Oscar Wilde, argued for the Academy’s continued care, and spoke of the building’s artistic ghosts and rich history.

Its cornerstone, she said, was laid by President Franklin Pierce, and he would have done so earlier except for the fact that the government was shut down.

Pierce said he would build the Academy, Mirren told the crowd, “but he’d make New Jersey pay for it.”