First a blizzard, then a strike: Why the Academy Ball really must go on this weekend

Martin Short is once again slated to host the event, which was canceled last year

The Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball in 2015. The last planned ball, in 2016, was canceled for the first time in its six-decade history.

In the great order of things, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and on the fourth Saturday in January, Philadelphia gathers to féte the Academy of Music.

Except last year. The social calendar and earth science conspired Jan. 23 to bury the Academy of Music 159th Anniversary Concert and Ball beneath an enervating thud of snow. For the first time in its six-decade history, the event was canceled.

Dior and James Galanos gowns went back into the closet, fancy food was donated to homeless shelters, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which organizes the annual event in its former home at Broad and Locust Streets, was left doing damage control with an important swath of its constituency. The Academy Ball Book, a starchy pictorial paean to Philadelphia society, already printed, became a curious artifact of the ball that never was.

This is why the cancellation was a huge loss to the arts in Philly.

But the big bash is back – on Saturday – and leaders are aiming to make up for lost time. Martin Short, who had been lined up for last year’s concert, has been rebooked. The cochairs of the 159th anniversary ball will be honored at the 160th. “We’ve crafted this year’s event with that sense of respect and appreciation for all the work that they were doing at 159,” says  Matthew Loden, Philadelphia Orchestra executive vice president for institutional advancement.

Attendance looks promising. So far, more than 1,900 have signed on for the concert portion, including about 300 students attending for free – with about 1,500 of those listeners joining the traditional promenade afterward up Broad Street to the Hyatt at the Bellevue for dinner and dancing.

There is no snow date, says Loden.

“If it snows,” he says, "it will not snow in a way that will negatively impact the ball. I’m sure of it."

Others with actual meteorological credentials concur. "Overall, I think we're in good shape," said Glenn "Hurricane" Schwartz, NBC10's chief meteorologist, who sees a near-freezing, dry Saturday night ahead, with less than a 10 percent chance of precipitation. 

There is added pressure around this year’s concert and ball. The orchestra’s last big social event, opening night, marred the start of the season when last-minute contract negotiations failed and musicians called a strike. The silencing lasted only the weekend, but it was the second time in less than a year that the orchestra had summoned its wealthiest and staunchest supporters, only to turn them away without any actual music. (The gala dinner portion of opening night went on as musicians walked the picket line out on Broad Street.)

“We think it’s going to be great,” says Adele K. Schaeffer, chairman of the Academy of Music board of trustees, and one of about 150 volunteers putting together this year’s concert and ball. What will Martin Short be doing on stage at the Academy with, in front of, or in close proximity to the orchestra and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin? It hasn’t all been decided, says Schaeffer.

But Short appeared at the Academy earlier this season with Steve Martin, and she was impressed.

“He has great depth,” says Schaeffer, who attended the very first ball, on her parents’ coattails, in 1957. “He can sing, he can dance. And I think he is the most brilliant comedian I’ve ever seen. He’s just a marvelous performer. He can do anything. He doesn’t have an operatic voice, though he probably could manufacture one. I think it will be a surprise to everyone.”

Alec Baldwin had also been a possibility, Schaeffer said. As suave radio host for the New York Philharmonic concerts, Baldwin would have brought classical currency, and his Trump routine certainly would have caused a topical buzz. But he wasn’t signed because of scheduling considerations, she said. “He was going to be on location filming. So it came up sooner than he thought. He thought he could accommodate us, but then could not,” Schaeffer says.

The concert and ball has long been de rigueur for Philadelphians of a certain stripe – government and corporate leaders, arts-sector workers, philanthropists, the socially ambitious, and society's old guard.

“It’s still an evening where different kinds of people can have immediate access to the movers and shakers of Philadelphia,” says Loden. “There’s a festive atmosphere that the celebration of this building helps with. It’s ecumenical in that way. Everybody loves the Academy.”

Love does not come cheap. Spots for the concert alone can be had for $75, but concert-plus-ball tickets go for $350 (for members of the Young Friends group) with price points all the way up to $2,075 per seat.

Proceeds are spent on renovations and upkeep of the Academy, opened in 1857. Last year, many patrons allowed the orchestra to keep the cost of their tickets, snow be damned. The event ended up netting $448,000,which was wonderful, considering we had to cancel,” says Loden. An additional $400,000 was raised in 2016, and all of the money went toward projects last year, like replacing old HVAC units at the Academy and restoration of stone and brickwork crowning the Broad Street façade.

With the 150th anniversary concert and ball a decade ago, organizers intentionally began going younger. Pop entertainers started headlining the event (Hugh Jackman, Sting), and the format started to morph, in part to foster affection among a younger crowd.

Who are these younger attendees who continue to don gowns and white-tie-and-tails to celebrate this gorgeous relic of another age?

“I think it’s people who love Philadelphia,” says Lynsie Solomon, cochair of the Young Friends of the Academy of Music, which has about 200 under-40 members. “A lot of younger people are Philly-centric, and the Academy is the gemstone of Philadelphia. It’s about as Philadelphia as you can get. It’s historic, it’s beautiful. I can’t imagine the city without the Academy. We’ve all grown up going there seeing The Nutcracker, and it’s just something we all feel a part of.”

Schaeffer expects the current format of pop-culture guests to continue, and no change in the event’s slot on the calendar is planned – snow or no snow. Why can’t the orchestra build in a snow date? The end of January, after all, is at high-risk for wild weather.

“It is logistically not possible with the performance pressures that are put on the Academy of Music,” says Loden. “The Kimmel Center manages the building, and it’s booked three years out. The reason that we are doing this concert in January is because that is our contractual agreement with the Kimmel Center. It’s spelled out that the fourth Saturday in January is only for the orchestra to go back and to do this ball. If we imagined a snow date, it would probably have to be not at the Academy of Music, which sort of defeats the purpose.”

And, in any case, he adds:

“As I said, it’s not going to snow.”