Steve Martin delights at sold-out Academy of Music concert and ball

Steve Martin gets applause after playing the banjo during the 161st Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball.

In its time, the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball has hosted comedians (Harpo Marx), rock stars of a certain age (Rod Stewart), and transcendent divas (Maria Callas).

But if you really want to goose up the energy, what you obviously need is a banjo act. Not just any banjo act, but a high-class one, which is exactly what the event’s white-tie crowd got Saturday night.

The formula worked. In arrangements written especially for this 61st iteration of the event, Steve Martin and the Philadelphia Orchestra skillfully married banjo and the Western symphonic tradition. The concert and ball, to raise money for the 161-year-old opera house, was sold out for the first time in more than a decade, and nearly $2 million was raised (before expenses).

Call it the sweet twang of success.

The night in fact raised more money than in any previous year, Martin told the Academy audience, which applauded his report loudly — “had it not been for my fee.”

Martin and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra’s music director who led the concert, had some chemistry going on stage, with the comedian submitting to a listening test at one point on what he called “esoteric, atonal symphonic music.”

Then the stage lighting turned green, and the orchestra bled green in a quick blast of “Fly, Eagles, Fly” that yielded clapping, singing, and a near-explosion from the audience.

More than 2,100 bought tickets to Saturday night’s concert, with 1,500 expected for the dinner and ball at the Bellevue, an orchestra spokeswoman said. Attending was a lively mix of local leaders from the arts, business, government, and philanthropic sectors. Among them: Gov. Wolf; Sen. Bob Casey; Wolfgang Waldner, Austrian ambassador to the U.S.; philanthropists Carole Haas Gravagno, John and Leigh Middleton, and Carol Shanis; Kimmel Center president Anne Ewers; and Philadelphia Museum of Art president Gail M. Harrity.

At the reception before the concert, a few, in response to some leading questions from the music critic, wondered if banjo was really the best choice to go with Philadelphia’s famously velvety strings.

Others, though, waved away skepticism.

“It’s the Academy of Music, and banjo is music,” said R. Anderson “Andy” Pew, who ought to know, as one of the building’s most ardent supporters.

Music there was. Soprano Laquita Mitchell and bass-baritone Kevin Short sang excerpts from Porgy and Bess, and Martin played four pieces arranged for banjo and orchestra. Martin plays well and fast, though his pieces were brief and light.
The best was the last, “So Familiar,” a moderately paced and meditative work that had the orchestra layering on various colors at points.

Martin’s talent is obvious, and he presented a good case for his instrument as a convivial companion to a great orchestra. After all, he told Nézet-Séguin, he’s played with lots of orchestras before.

But he said: “You’re the first conductor to say the word banjo without cursing.”