He has dueled banjo with Kermit the Frog and held his own with Earl Scruggs.
Now, live from Philadelphia, Steve Martin is down for a rather prominent Saturday night on the social calendar with the Philadelphia Orchestra. As guest for the next Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball on Jan. 27, Martin will appear not only as a comedian, he will also blend his banjo playing with the sound of the orchestra in pieces of his own.
What was the appeal of appearing at the annual fund-raiser for upkeep of the 161-year-old opera house?
"I have a long association with Philadelphia, having traveled there as a stand-up comedian. I've done shows there, and I love the Philadelphia Art Museum and all the great Eakins and Homer paintings," said Martin, 72, a serious art collector of catholic tastes. "Also, I had a 10-year career with the Steep Canyon Rangers doing comedy and music, and we did a couple of gigs with the orchestra and it was really fun."
Bluegrass music is so fast, he says, that playing it with an orchestra makes it seem "like the difference between ballet and tap."
The Academy Anniversary Concert has always tried on various personalities by bringing in a range of celebrity. Last time, Martin Short reprised his Ed Grimley persona long enough to get his hands on a triangle, and he sat down with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin for an interview by Jiminy Glick. Musical guests for previous iterations of the event have included James Taylor, Jill Scott, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, and Sting.
In 2016, an uninvited guest showed up: snow, which led to the first-ever cancellation of the event.
Will Steve Martin be a throwback to Harpo Marx or Victor Borge, who have performed for Anniversary Concerts past? Or more along the lines of Béla Fleck? Whereas Borge played music and comedy off each other, Martin says he intends to keep the two separate.
"The music is all sincere," he said. "I find people are seduced by the banjo, as I was. I find it very emotional. For people who give it a chance, the banjo is really complex."
In 2010, his big banjo love led to the establishment of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass to recognize musicians – it includes a $50,000 award and a sculpture by Eric Fischl – because "the playing had risen to the level of classical musicians, I think, though these guys are still paying off their instruments."
Martin will be host, do a monologue, and is expected to play both solo and with the orchestra. Three or four of his songs are being orchestrated by Jonathan Sacks, an orchestrator and composer whose work is heard on such movies scores as Monsters, Inc. and A Bug's Life. Martin says he enjoys the sound of the banjo, "a staccato instrument, against the long lines of the violins, violas, cellos, and basses," and has already heard some samples of the orchestrations.
"It's so thrilling. But I never know quite how to evaluate it, because you can orchestrate 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and it sounds fantastic with a great orchestra like Philadelphia."
One thing concerns him. He says he's always a little scared by the brisk rehearsal schedule, though Nézet-Séguin, who is conducting again this year, is well known for putting everyone at ease.
"They run everything once and expect it to be perfect and then move on," Martin says of the typical orchestra drill. "But I will have recordings I will play through [in advance], and my playing has improved over the past 10 years," he says. "Practicing and performing live on stage has helped calm any nerves. When you are playing live on stage, you are thinking about making music rather than thinking about every note."
The concert and ball are scheduled for Jan. 27 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.
Tickets for the concert and ball, which range from $350-$2,125 per seat, are available at 215-893-1978 or www.theacademyball.org.