Saturday night, no one was safe from the charms of Hugh Jackman. As guest for the Academy of Music’s 156th Anniversary Concert and Ball, the Australian actor sang a few songs and waved his wit around stage. He bumped fists with the concertmaster and dedicated a tune, “Soliloquy” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, to his father.
For “Mack the Knife,” he paid a visit to Box One of the Academy of Music, the booth just to the left of the stage, and danced briefly with the governor’s wife. When he kissed Susan Corbett, you could sense that most of the women in the house - and a decent percentage of the men – were living that moment along with her. Yes, Gov. Corbett, this sort of thing goes on in Philadelphia concert halls and theaters every night of the week.
Classical die-hards could find something to love in Jackman, even if it was the fact that he praised the orchestra on stage a dozen times in his 40-minute set. This wasn’t exactly a night of artistic growth for the Philadelphia Orchestra or music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. But what a neat trick: the actor set out, and apparently succeeded, in thanking every member of the ensemble, rattling off in alphabetic order, with dramatic moments of struggle along the way, their first names.
“Actually, this was a surprise to me,” said Nézet-Séguin at dinner after the concert, wondering whether there wasn’t some help being whispered electronically into Jackman’s headset.
The star’s voice was more than adequately amplified, though it seemed the penetrating, slightly brassy tone was being accurately conveyed. Jackman works hard with the instrument he has at his disposal, and, not unlike Anthony Newley, a focused sound and fast vibrato get the words across with great energy. Deeper connections between text and music, however, remained subservient to charisma.
Nézet-Séguin was a great sport. Often, singers have brought in their own conductors to take over their portion of the program. But after a Strauss waltz, a polka and the William Tell Overture, Nézet-Séguin stayed (at one point to have Jackman dab the conductor’s brow with a Philadelphia Union jersey). If the orchestra was under-used this year, it was still a pleasure to hear the orchestrations in “Soliloquy” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” rendered so richly.
And there was an unadvertised bonus. Doing away with the usual classical guest artist, Nézet-Séguin stepped down from the podium briefly and led the orchestra from the keyboard in the middle movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467. We’ve heard him on harpsichord before, in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, but that was woven into the texture, and here one could appreciate a delicately resonant, if careful, treatment of a part of greater prominence.
The last Saturday night of every January, the Academy of Music’s anniversary fete reliably brings out the city’s political, business and cultural leadership, and so it was this year. But Joanna McNeil Lewis, the Academy’s volunteer president since 2007, has tinkered with the formula with the goal of ushering in younger support. Jackman’s career is more of-the-moment than some of the mature rockers who have been recent guests (James Taylor, Billy Joel), and Saturday night Cole and Heidi Hamels came out on stage to recite a few facts about the Academy (it once hosted a football game) and to hold themselves up as youthful first-timers at the ball.
“Who would have thought we were learning culture Saturday mornings watching those cartoons?” asked Corbett after the orchestra played the William Tell Overture. You know that a younger visage for the 156-year-old hall comes not a moment too soon when even the old guard is experiencing classical music through a pop-culture lens.