To many, Saturday's cancellation of the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball might have seemed like a tragedy on par with, say, learning that dinner at your Great Aunt Dotty's got nixed - being spared a social convention that long ago passed into the realm of obligatory or quaint.
Even the name of the annual white-tie-and-tail event - a ball, for goodness' sake - stirs visions of something very 19th-century. The promenade up Broad Street from the Academy to dinner and dancing at the Bellevue seems like a spectacle captured in a steel engraving circa 1885.
But the concert and ball may be the trickiest trompe l'oeil in town. The ostensible point is to raise money for the restoration of the building itself. But lack of money raised is only one reason to mourn this year's ball that wasn't. The event has long been a social leveler and equal access opportunity - a chance, say, for the head of a needy charity to get introduced to a local millionaire philanthropist.
In 20 years of attending, off and on, I've always been struck by the sense that the reception, concert, and ball are more of a good way to close Philadelphia's three degrees of separation than the convening of a cohesive, closed circle. Things happen at the ball not possible at other times and places. The developer or banker who didn't take your call last month will, in this serendipitous stew, see you now.
When word spread that snow had compelled planners to cancel the event for the first time since it first appeared in 1957, the Internet trolls were out in force. The rich are not a universally admired class at the moment - the age of innocence this ain't. But the trolls missed important dynamics at play at the Academy of Music. First, though tickets are pricey, not everyone who attends is well off, let alone rich or ultra-rich. Second, contrary to what many believe, sitting on the board of the Academy or Philadelphia Orchestra (which owns the Academy) doesn't earn you money - it costs money, in donations to help keep those places functioning. The people attending this event are helping to perpetuate a venue and institution that benefits a broad swath of the city and suburban population.
But the biggest irony of the Academy Concert and Ball is that, far from being a relic, it is in the vanguard of many of the social and cultural dynamics coveted by arts groups today. Look at the clichés of arts-speak - terms and concepts thrown around by foundation officials, arts advocates, and academics - and you will see that this event actually put them into practice, quietly and without benefit of a study or strategic plan, many years ago.
If "audience engagement" is what all arts organizations want, can you get greater audience participation than a concert that segues to nearly the entire crowd getting up and dancing? And as for "place-making," few places in Philadelphia pack the sense-of-place wallop of the Academy. All manner of concert formats are being played with these days, but the Academy Concert and Ball continues to "transform" (to use another cliché) the experience in imaginative ways. Remember the year the ball opened up backstage and ancillary spaces for revelers? That's audience engagement.
The stewardship of the building in the past two decades has only strengthened the sense of place. The ballroom has been restored, its second-story doors uncovered so the glow inside can be seen from the street. Decades of period-inappropriate renovations have been reversed. Backstage mechanical equipment has been upgraded, helping to ease the hall's transitions from opera house to Broadway house to formal parlor hosting many a graduation ceremony or mayoral inauguration. The Academy of Music is in nearly constant use.
Isn't this the time for the orchestra to return to the Academy for a regular subscription series? Verizon Hall has the better acoustic. But visuals are more important than ever to the orchestra, whose use of theatrical elements would be easier in a hall with a proscenium and fly space.
The Anniversary Concert and Ball has been renovated, too. Former Academy chairman Joanna McNeil Lewis was a breath of fresh air, aiming to lure a new generation of love and support for the building by bringing in pop stars like Sting and Billy Joel. This year's concert was to have reached for younger. About 250 students and chaperones from All City Orchestra, Play On, Philly!, Musicopia, and other groups had been invited as guests of the Academy.
Does the Academy Ball need to evolve? Not every institution has to be an exact cross-section of the city, but in this case, we have a building that would very much benefit from absorbing some of the change around it. In past years, the Academy Ball Book has looked like a testament to patrimony. The few African American faces in it have been mostly musicians or students or recipients of charity. Greater thought must be given to the kind of special guest the Academy imports for the concert. We don't know what kind of jollity, charm, or talent Martin Short might have brought, and finding creative types who can both sell tickets and offer artistic substance is a tall order. Boy soprano Bobby Hill was to have sung this year, a nice touch if it had happened.
But the basics are all there, and it’s a pretty stunning success story that no one should take for granted. This city has one of the oldest opera houses in the world, lovingly maintained and restored to a high degree of authenticity, and an annual tradition that greases the wheels of civic life in the best sense. The 160th Academy of Music Anniversary Concert & Ball can’t come soon enough.