The Academy of Music had never looked so beautiful, at least in the opinion of TV and stage actor John Lithgow - and who's to disagree? Six huge onstage vases exploded with most every cream-colored flower in existence while dappled red and yellow buds lined the lip of the stage, which hosted a wide-ranging melange of talent (Lithgow touching base with the Broadway end).

They - plus the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach, pianist Peter Nero, and host Tom Brokaw, not to mention the Prince of Wales - all helped usher in the 151st year of the Academy of Music last night.

The annual gala fund-raising concert always has A-list celebrities, but last night went into overdrive, or at least tried to. The eagerly anticipated opera star Deborah Voigt canceled after hurting her back yesterday, but in a telephoned announcement introduced the plush-voiced, up-and-coming Angela Brown, who happened to be in town rehearsing for the Opera Company of Philadelphia's forthcoming Porgy and Bess production.

The music - "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca and the Act I drinking song from La Traviata - are in every lyric soprano's bones (at least to hear Brown sing them), though instead of dueting on the second piece with celebrated tenor Ben Heppner (who cut his participation down to a single aria from Andrea Chénier), she matched pipes with another last-minute replacement, Dongwon Shin.

Later, the orchestra played selections from its sound-only contribution to the 1940 Disney film Fantasia - with the famous Leopold Stokowski-Mickey Mouse handshake seen on an onstage screen - and outside the Mummers sported outfits suggesting Attila the Hun meets Elvis. Yes, it was a classic Philadelphia night.

You couldn't fail to be moved by philanthropist Leonore Annenberg's tears when she was cited for her support of the Academy, or her proclamation, "Tonight, I feel like 'the grand old lady of Locust Street.' " But as to the prince and his wife, they are only as interesting as any given individual perceives them to be, especially if you had the bad luck to be in a partial-view seat (as I was) and glimpsed only the royal pate.

There was bound to be an element of civic penance to the evening - speeches that went too long and talent that wasn't at its best. The two tenors were in slightly labored form. Headliner Rod Stewart (the bigger the occasion, the more likely you're going to have an aging rock star) sang classic songs by Jerome Kern with the rasp but only a fraction of the style of Tony Bennett.

But in the end it comes down to this: Has any building shaped and enhanced a city as graciously and continuously as the Academy of Music has Philadelphia? Would the city have become a cultural capital without it? Maybe not. So if the 150th anniversary concert wasn't the greatest night ever spent there, it at least ensured that many more years of great nights will be possible.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at