What is the job of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the actual concert portion of the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball? The orchestra has to support the guest star, as it did well this year with Martin Short. It should be the festive soundtrack that sends patrons off to dinner and dancing feeling good about their support of the treasured Academy – and in this, too, the orchestra succeeded Saturday night for the Academy of Music 160th Anniversary Concert and Ball.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin was the orchestra's charming personification, acting as host, and being a very good sport about it all. Short teased Nézet-Séguin about his accent, and at one point – and all in good fun – stopped the music with a complaint.
You want to do it, the conductor asked? Somebody has to, Short said, and he did (if just for a single note).
But a presence for Nézet-Séguin is not the same as a real presence for the orchestra. Planners tried to create connections between the orchestra and the building. Once upon a time, Eugene Ormandy recorded the "Scherzo" from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Academy, we were told, and then the orchestra played the movement. Soprano Vanessa Vasquez, an Academy of Vocal Arts resident artist, sang an aria from Puccini's La rondine, reminding us that this hall is an opera house. Before Short sang "Full Moon and Empty Arms," a 1945 pop song made famous by Frank Sinatra, Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra played a brief excerpt from the Rachmaninoff piano concerto from which the song's tune was lifted.
If entertaining was the goal, the concert got there. But there wasn't much sense of artistic challenge, or that popular and classical art forms were stretching toward each other. Jill Scott was guest singer for the 157th anniversary concert, and she was a revelation – the way her sound cozied up to the orchestra's, the incredible palette of that voice. "Her ability to spontaneously tap any sound to turn a corner in a phrase or put light behind a lyric communicated on a level every bit as sophisticated as Schubert," I wrote about that concert.
For the 158th, Al Pacino and the orchestra made surprising connections across genres when he read from Richard III ("Now is the winter of our discontent…") as the orchestra played from William Walton's luminous score to the 1955 film. You understood, through this unlikely marriage, the synergies of music and text.
The Academy concert and ball is also a collection of synergies. It must cultivate donors, gather new generations of love around the old building, balance revenue and expenses, and rekindle a connection between the orchestra and its former home. Martin Short was hugely entertaining. He created a high-wattage atmosphere at a time when everyone needed to shut out the world and have some fun.
Next year, though – Jan. 27, 2018 – we will be listening for something a little deeper, something more about what art can do for the spirit. We need that, too.