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The Academy of Music 158th Anniversary Concert and Ball—A Night to Remember

January 14, 2015

Ah, the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball! It’s the social event of the Philadelphia season—has been since the Academy’s Centennial in 1957—and this year’s promises to be the best yet. For the 158th Anniversary Concert and Ball on January 24, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra are joined in the gilded splendor of the Academy of Music by Oscar-winning actor Al Pacino, the gifted young violinist Simone Porter, and guests dressed to the nines in white tie and ball gowns.

“To have an actor of Al Pacino’s caliber share his craft with us will make for a truly memorable evening,” says Nézet-Séguin. “To combine his formidable dramatic ability, our outstanding musicians of the Orchestra, and the rising talent of Simone Porter will bring special electricity to this Academy Anniversary Concert, sure to be talked about for years to come.” 


Directing the festivities—the man behind the curtain, so to speak—is the acclaimed stage director James Alexander, who adds the extra razzle-dazzle to an already glittering event. You may have seen him in our video promoting this year’s ball. (He’s the dapper fellow with the Scottish accent. “Someone said it was my audition tape for Downton Abbey, he laughs.) Or you may have seen his work on stage: He was the mastermind behind the magical moment in the Stokowski Centenary Celebration in which the famous conductor appeared to toss the baton—literally—to Yannick, as well as the sold-out 2013 performances of the Orchestra’s staged version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (back by popular demand this April). Alexander is the Anniversary Concert’s creative director, and while he won’t tell us all the tricks he’s got up his sleeve, he did agree to give us a glimpse of some of the cool and colorful elements in store.

“What I’ve done is imagined that she has a real persona,” says Alexander of the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street. The Academy Anniversary Concert and Ball is the Grand Old Lady’s birthday party, and as the revelers arrive the guest of honor will still be getting dressed. “I see her chandelier—this magnificent, iconic chandelier—as her tiara,” he explains, and before she puts it on, guests will have a rare chance to see it up close: The chandelier will be lowered before the start of the concert. “As the concert starts, it will rise. And this is her, putting on her tiara.”


Photo: Jessica Griffin

“Honoring Our Grand Traditions” is the theme of this year’s Concert and Ball. Alexander is producing a modern-day, high-tech photo album for his “birthday girl.” Images from the Academy’s storied 158-year past and major events in The Philadelphia Orchestra’s history in the building will be digitized and flashed across an enormous screen, interspersed with night-of-the-event photos, texted and tweeted by guests mingling at the Chairman’s Pre-Concert Reception and musicians warming up backstage.

“This is one of the fun elements, a 21st-century element,” says Alexander. “My technical wizards—they will incorporate photographs of the evening into the photograph album that’s opening up on the screen.”

The special guests bring their own special gifts. The 18-year-old Porter, who makes her Philadelphia Orchestra debut at the concert, performs a work by violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler that Kreisler himself performed at the Academy of Music: “There’s a wonderful review when he played in the Academy that the applause was so loud that the chandelier shook,” says Alexander. “So there’s a great touch of history there.”

And then there’s Pacino, whose own great classical music memories include seeing Stravinsky conduct The Rite of Spring. “It’s a singular honor for me to perform on the stage of the Academy of Music, in the very place where Rachmaninoff conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra and where this legendary ensemble gave the United States premiere of The Rite of Spring,” Pacino says. “I could not be more thrilled to become part of the legacy of the historic Academy of Music and The Philadelphia Orchestra.”

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

“We have this extraordinary, legendary special guest,” says Alexander. “He’s not a host. He’s the special guest. He’s going to have conversations with Yannick. He’s going to be Al Pacino and talk about his connection to great classical music. Because he really truly believes that great classical music inspires us—as do great movies. … Quite often they change our lives.”

Proceeds from this year’s Concert and Ball benefit the Academy of Music and The Philadelphia Orchestra, and specifically the Academy’s aging HVAC system. If you think that doesn’t sound sexy, well, you haven’t asked James Alexander.

“The HVAC system is the lungs of the building. We’re basically giving the Grand Old Lady a new pair of lungs,” says Alexander. “And she’s only getting them because of the generosity of this audience. … This will breathe fresh air into the building—fresher air—for both performers and audiences.”

Alexander says he’s had a wonderful time steeping himself in the iconic status of the Academy of Music. “The building’s yet to give up all her secrets,” he says.

The same might be said for Alexander. Insisting he won’t “give all the candy in the store away,” he has “a very technologically enterprising way” of presenting the thank-you speeches to recognize the donors who make the evening possible. And when the guests walk the block or so up Broad Street from the concert at the Academy to dinner and dancing at the Hyatt at the Bellevue, they’ll “travel along an acoustic causeway” on the Avenue of the Arts. “That’s all I’d like to say!” says Alexander.

Intrigued? Join the party! Just $100 buys a concert-only ticket and helps ensure the future of a National Historic Landmark. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.theacademyball.org or by calling 215.893.1978 (for the Gala) or 215.893.1999 (for the Concert only).