Trailblazing Harpist Reflects On Melding Music With Change

Ann Hobson Pilot, the principal harpist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), is retiring after 40 years with the orchestra. Host Michel Martin talks to Pilot about her distinction as one of the first African-American classical musicians with the BSO and how the genre has evolved during her career.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, my conversation with Jerry Mitchell. He's the latest MacArthur Fellow.

But first, for 40 years, Ann Hobson Pilot has played the harp for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Back in 1969, Ms. Hobson Pilot was the first female African-American to join the BSO and one of only a handful of African-Americans playing in leading orchestras in this country. She became principal harpist in 1980, and is considered by many to be one of this country's greatest performers on the instrument. Now, she is retiring. To recognize her outstanding career, John Williams has written, "On Willows and Birches," a new work for harp and orchestra, which Ms. Hobson Pilot performed last week in Boston and will play again this week at Carnegie Hall in New York. And Ann Hobson Pilot joins us now from the studios of member station WGBH in Boston. Welcome and congratulations.

Ms. ANN HOBSON PILOT (Principal Harpist, Boston Symphony Orchestra): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: And we can talk you out of it.

Ms. PILOT: I don't think so.

MARTIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PILOT: A little too late for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Can we ask you to jump into the time machine and ask if you were cawed, coming to play with the BSO 40 years ago? Do you remember the audition?

Ms. PILOT: Absolutely. That's something I don't think one ever forgets. When I came into the Symphony Hall, I hadn't brought my own harp but they had provided a harp. And I got there early, so they said, I was welcome to go on stage to warm up. And I remember walking into Symphony Hall and starting to play and hearing this enormous sound. And I thought, is that me? I can't believe it, because the resonance of Symphony Hall was just so impressive. And after 40 years, I'm still thrilled by the sound of that hall.

MARTIN: I don't remember who said this, but somebody said you can't be what you can't see. When you started, there were no role models for you, particularly not on your instrument or at least not that I know of. Do you remember…

Ms. PILOT: That's right.

MARTIN: …yeah, how it is that you got it into your head that you wanted to play the harp?

Ms. PILOT: As far as beginning the instrument, it was really by chance. My mother was a concert pianist and my older sister played piano. And when I got to be 14 years old, I decided I wanted to study an instrument of my own. And the music teacher at the school, where I was going in Philly said: why don't you try the harp? Because it's similar to the piano in that you use two hands and it's treble and bass class. And I said, all right, I'll give it a try. And from the first day, I loved it. And I think it was probably when I was a senior in high school, the woman that I was studying the harp with called my parents and said, I think that she has what it takes to become a classical artist.

MARTIN: Was there ever people who questioned whether you ought to be playing either classical music or the harp in particular? (Unintelligible) be known that they just didn't think you fit them mold?

Ms. PILOT: Well, I mean, I heard comments from folks like, I mean, I remember once I went to a friend's house and there was a painting on the wall of a woman with flowing gown and long blond hair. And the woman said to me, she was looks like a harpist is supposed to look with long blonde hair. So, there - there were comments like that - that made me realize that there were those that thought that that's what the image of a harpist should be. But it was never my image. And so, I couldn't really care about what was in others' heads. I just was there to do a job and that's what I did.

MARTIN: Well, what does it take to be good at the harp?

Ms. PILOT: It takes obviously dexterity. But what a lot of people don't know is the harp in addition to having 47 strings, has seven pedals. So, you have to be able to use your feet and your hands at the same time. In a way, it's a little bit of an athletic instrument because of the use of your legs, feet, hands.

MARTIN: And how do you get it around? I've always wondered about that. I mean, I think at this stage of your career, you don't have to slip it, I guess. But how…

Ms. PILOT: Oh, that is good news, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …how did you in those early years before you became, you know, the diva, how did you get it around?

Ms. PILOT: Well, the first thing you need is a station wagon because it has to lay flat. And then, of course, you know, strong arms never hurt either.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we are speaking with Ann Hobson Pilot. She is retiring from the Boston Symphony Orchestra after 40 years. We have not been able to persuade her to change her mind.

Tell us about the concerto John Williams wrote for you, "On Willows and Birches." That must have even quite something to have a piece written for you?

Ms. PILOT: It was about a year ago or a little bit more than a year ago. We asked John to write this piece. And at first, he said, I could never compose a work for harp such as this. The harp is intimidating to a lot of composers because of all the pedal work and all. But if anybody knows how to write for the harp, it's John because he's written so many wonderful harp parts in his film scores. So, we worked on it and eventually he agreed. And it's, I think, it's just a wonderful work.

MARTIN: Well, we won't keep you in suspense any longer. We'll play a short clip from "On Willows and Birches" from the premiere in Boston last week.

(Soundbite of "On Willows and Birches")

MARTIN: I know you thought about this. But according to the League of American Orchestras the number of African-American musicians playing in U.S. orchestras is less than two percent, it figures four percent among student orchestras. There was only one other African-American in the BSO when you joined 40 years ago. And now I understand, with your departure, just one again. What do you make of that?

Ms. PILOT: It is a disappointing stat. It's disappointing that the numbers have not increased but, I mean, I understand why. At first, I was concerned about it. But now, they do hold auditions behind the screen. And that is to try to rule out any possible discrimination based on anything. And there are organizations like Project STEP, which is String Training Education Program. They're training young students of colors to play stringed instruments because that's the largest body of instruments, so it's easier to get a job. So, I think that over the years, things will gradually change.

MARTIN: But there are those - we have had the opportunity here to speak with a number of artists, some of a variety of genres, jazz artists, for example, are often worried that their particular art form is not as popular among the younger generation as it has been in the past. Do you ever worry that classical music is not as appreciated as it used to be?

Ms. PILOT: I really don't think it's dying. I think that it always was a type of music just for a select few. So, I think it's fairly healthy.

MARTIN: Are there any, how can we put it, contemporary musical genres that you like?

Ms. PILOT: Oh, I love jazz. My husband played string bass for years. He was a member of the Esplanade Pops. And then when he retired from the Esplanade Pops, he put his bass in the corner and took up the sax.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. PILOT: So, he plays tenor saxophone now and he plays jazz. And so, I'm a real big fan of jazz.

MARTIN: Is there any role for the harp in jazz?

Ms. PILOT: I personally don't think that the harp lends itself very well to jazz. There are some that do play jazz on the harp and, you know, I take the - my hat off to them. But it's a difficult kind of music to play on the harp because the pedals in a way make it so limiting to be free to improvise. So, I don't play jazz.

MARTIN: Is it true that you wanted to retire last year, but that the music director James Levine talked you out of it?

Ms. PILOT: Actually, I wanted to retire, I guess, it's more like two or three years ago. And, I mean, I really do enjoy working with him. But by the time I got to 40 years, I thought 40 was a nice round number, the amount of years to stay with the BSO. And so, he reluctantly agreed to let me go, though I guess at some point, he had no choice

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PILOT: I guess so.

MARTIN: What are you going to do next?

Ms. PILOT: Well…

MARTIN: You still have - you sound wonderful. You have your health, you sound strong.

Ms. PILOT: Well…

MARTIN: What are you going to do?

Ms. PILOT: Well, that kind of was the point - was to leave when I still had my health and my husband still had his health so that we could travel and do a lot of the things we've always wanted to do. You know, when you play the harp and you want to go on vacation, you can't exactly just put it in your back pocket and go off into the sunset for a few weeks. So, it's always kind of hanging over your head that, oh, I should be practicing. I have this performance, you know. So, now, I will - we will be able to go wherever we want. I will continue to teach and I'll continue to play chamber music and hopefully to do some concertos. I hope to play John's piece as often as I can and some other concertos that I enjoy playing. So I'll still be very active. I'll be playing tennis and swimming and doing all the things that I love to do.

MARTIN: Without having to worry about bringing you friend along with you.

Ms. PILOT: Right, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations again.

Ms. PILOT: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Ann Hobson Pilot. She is retiring as principal harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, although she has agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall this week, and she was kind enough to join us from WGBH in Boston.

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