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September 18, 2009

Pilot Program Becomes Farewell Concert, with John Williams Harp Commission Premiere

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Principal Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot’s retirement after 40 years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is to be celebrated in Symphony Hall next Wednesday evening. September 23, in a program that includes the premiere of On Willows and Birches for Harp and Orchestra by John Williams.

BMint. Staff Photo

BMInt. Staff Photo

In 1939 major orchestras were mostly closed to women other than harpists. World War II changed that, as women were called upon to fill vacant seats. But it wasn’t until 1952 that a woman was appointed first chair of a major symphony orchestra in the United States — Dorothy Anthony Dwyer, first flute of the BSO. The next woman to be appointed to a principal chair at the BSO was Marylou Speaker (Churchill), in 1977, but not until fifteen years later. Ann Hobson Pilot, who had been in the harp section since 1969, was appointed to the principal harp chair in 1980.

Hobson Pilot played in Washington, DC, in the late 1960s, where she felt uncomfortable with attitudes towards African-Americans, a problem she did not face in Boston. But she a big supporter of Project STEP, encouraging young African-American children to study string instruments.

BMInt interviewed Ann Hobson Pilot backstage at Symphony Hall this morning.

The concert next week features the premiere of John Williams piece written especially on the occasion of your retirement. Williams’s title is reminiscent of the music of MacDowell, of French Impressionists, and so forth. Is there any relation to these?

“John has always been interested in trees. He loves them. He was inspired by Psalm 137. Yes, it is impressionistic — the wind rustling through the trees, through the harp strings.”

[By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion./ We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof./ For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.]

“For the second part, ‘Birches’, he chose the poem of Robert Frost He envisions a little boy swinging on the birch tree. Lively, rhythmic, swaying, …”

[When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.

. . .

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.]

You commissioned a piece from Kaska, which was issued on a London recording, but the BSO has never played it?

“It has never been performed, except in the recording studio. Kaska wrote another piece, a triple harp concerto, Knights on the Red Branch, for the harp convention held in Philadelphia, my home town, in 2004. [The convention organizers] thought it was fabulous that three of us who graduated from Girls’ High, four years apart, are now principal harpists — Paula Page at Houston, Susan Pejovich at Dallas, and I.”

With the BSO you have played the BSO Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp, Debussy’s Danses, a Ginastera concerto, and a Joaquin Turina piece, that with Rafael Fruebeck de Burgos. But there are so many relatively new, late-20th-century pieces, for harp, …What did you not play with the BSO that you would have wanted to play?

“All the ones I wanted to play, I played. If I didn’t play them with BSO, I played them with the Boston Pops. I devoted myself to pieces that interested me. Now that I’ve retired,.. but since I retired, I have had less time than ever.”

How about the Frank Martin piece?

“I love it, both as a piece and to play — which is not always true.”

Do you think your performance of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, as a colleague noted, was especially notable?

“I think more of the Mozart, which we did; and we recorded the Debussy trio with and Burton Fine.”

You joined the BSO in 1969, in the fall, with William Steinberg. But did you audition for him, or Leinsdorf?

“Steinberg.”

How did you find him?

“At that point in his life, he was up in years and not well. I was down there in years and new and fresh, so I was impressed. I also knew him from my substitute work in Pittsburgh.”

Which BSO conductors did you especially enjoy playing under?

“I really do like playing for Jimmy. I enjoyed Colin Davis, Abbado, and Seiji, I enjoyed Seiji.  Bernard Haitinck. I always enjoyed working with him.”

What harp do you play?

“A Lyon Healy. It is a Chicago firm, but now pretty much international. I use the Salzedo model; he designed it; it’s Art Deco. I like that it’s not [decorated with] flowery angels, gold, all that. It’s practical, especially for orchestral work, being shlepped around a lot. It is big, and has a big, round sound. My teacher was a student of his, so I am like his grandchild.”

Now to the question I know you are always asked — about being black.  You have been quoted as saying that you were the only black player in the National Symphony, in the late 1960s.  You said you had a lot of friends in the orchestra, but got more a sense of loneliness because the orchestra was playing in Constitution Hall, the famous hall where Marian Anderson had been turned down to sing.

“Yes, I had a feeling of not really belonging.  By the time I came to Boston, I had gone through all of that. I felt more accepted here, although I was the only black player for 20 years before [cellist] Owen Young, the other black player, came.”

Are you involved with Project STEP (the program to encourage black children to take up string instruments)? (Actually during the interview, the executive director of Project Step dropped by, proving Pilot’s active help.)

“I am a big supporter. And my husband was the first artistic administrator. A few years back, I participated in a documentary, Ann Hobson Pilot: A Musical Journey, that involved a trip to Africa, researching the origins of the harp. It was co-sponsored by WGBH and the Museum of Afro-American History [on Beacon Hill]. Now we are raising funds for a second part, which will use a filming of the Williams piece from the concert next week. It will also tell the story of my life and my career, to inspire young African-American kids that they can do this. also. We want to get rid of that old drawback: Why prepare yourself for something that has no future?”

“Project Step is our 501 C3 for this part, and 10% of the proceeds will go to it.”

*    *    *

The other pieces on the September 23 BSO program, conducted by James Levine, are Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture; Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with pianist Evgeny Kissin; and Debussy’s La Mer. For Boston Musical Intelligencer readers who are lucky enough to be in New York City on October 1, entire program will be repeated by the BSO at the opening night of Carnegie Hall that evening.

The Williams piece with Ann Hobson Pilot will be repeated by the BSO on October 3, with a slightly different program. (It opens with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which Maestro Levine conducts for the first time in his career, and closes with Ravel’s La Valse.)

Bettina A. Norton is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She lives in the house in which she grew up, in Boston, and has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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