Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Ways to show we treasure our Academy

A detail from the ceiling mural at the Academy of Music. Over the years it has been patched, but only a full-scale repair will do it justice, and none is planned.
A detail from the ceiling mural at the Academy of Music. Over the years it has been patched, but only a full-scale repair will do it justice, and none is planned. TOM GRALISH / Inquirer Staff Photographer
A detail from the ceiling mural at the Academy of Music. Over the years it has been patched, but only a full-scale repair will do it justice, and none is planned. Gallery: Ways to show we treasure our Academy

Slightly overlooked Saturday night amid all the gawking at an august billionairess, two visiting royals, and a comically misguided rock star was the Academy of Music itself, whose 150th anniversary was, after all, the reason for the gathering.

No question the Academy was the recipient of a great love that expressed itself financially. Almost $12 million was raised, and though expenses have not been totaled, it's clear that well over half that will actually end up helping to restore the old hall.

But the Academy did receive a genuine love letter that night, and though it was brief, it was extremely moving.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to imagine what it was like to be a guest here on opening night one and a half centuries ago," said Tom Brokaw to the audience. A piano began playing Chopin's setting of a tune from Don Giovanni, music played on the Academy's first night of public life.

As Brokaw spoke, the orchestra joined in, warming the air with its saturated sound, and, one by one, architectural details of the building were illuminated:

"Notice how the eye is greeted by beauty no matter which way you look. Gold-capped columns and statuary frame the artistic scene [columns lit]. The chandelier is enormous, yet delicate [chandelier lit]. Mozart himself, the symbol of creative perfection, reigns supreme above the proscenium, surrounded by his muses of poetry and music [so lit]. The Academy's designers aimed to transform the spirits of all who entered, even before the music began. They certainly succeeded."

And so did Brokaw. Animating the building in this way made us fall in love all over again. We may have been in the Academy hundreds of times, but bringing it alive made us realize that it's even more beautiful than we thought, and that despite its grandeur, it could be showcased in an even more emotional way.

The evening also pointed up how much work is left to be done. The Academy has undergone tens of millions of dollars in restoration work in the last decade, and its stewards have earned themselves a special place in preservation-architecture heaven for their tender and thoughtful treatment of the building.

When Brokaw's words lit the chandelier, however, we saw the need for the fixture's refurbishment, which is planned, and the sad shape of the ceiling mural above it, whose repair is not. The mural has been patched over the years, but only a full-scale restoration will do it justice.

At the president's reception earlier, the ballroom was dimly lit, but one could easily imagine the verve the room will capture by replacing the mirrored doors with a clear view to Broad Street (as is planned). Looking in from the outside, that reception would have been quite a sight - the flamboyant gowns bobbing up and down, the chandeliers lacing the room like pieces of old-world kinetic art.

Work on a building like this is never done. It's a century and a half old. In addition to pure preservation work, the Academy continues to morph its form to meet the needs of its users of the moment - most lately the ballet and opera companies, and Broadway shows.

But Brokaw's love letter made the restoration work seem urgent, and suggested that the building was not realizing its full potential in terms of winning a place in the hearts of next generations. Lots of visitors still enter it every year. If they could hear and see a version of what Saturday night's visitors got - an abbreviated history show, perhaps a film with lighting timed to reveal the architecture - the Academy would be making the same kind of emotional connections that so impressed Philadelphians who still speak powerfully about having heard one of Stokowski's children's concerts there decades ago.

The Franklin Institute shows a short on Philadelphia before movies in the Imax theater. The Independence Hall area has the Lights of Liberty outdoor show connecting visitors to events of two centuries ago. Why shouldn't the Academy have its own five-minute show that every visitor sees before The Nutcracker or Wicked? Who could leave such an experience without a newfound sense of ownership of the building and everything that has happened in it?

One further step in extending the Academy's vitality can be realized by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which occupied the hall full-time for a century. At one point, the orchestra considered returning to the Academy a few times a year in regular subscription concerts to satisfy fans who still view the orchestra and Academy as inseparable. The idea was dropped; the orchestra cites the expense of setting up and breaking down the acoustical shell on stage that keeps the orchestra sound from disappearing into the rafters.

A shame, since love in a concentrated form should never be squandered. It is, after all, those old Academy fans, as well as young admirers-to-be, who will look after the Academy long after the billionairess, two royals and a rock star have left the building.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@philly

news.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.

By Peter Dobrin Inquirer Music Critic
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