Going Out On A Glissando: BSO Harpist Retires For 40 years, harpist Ann Hobson Pilot has given the Boston Symphony an angelic sound. To mark the occasion of her retirement, she introduces a new concerto written for her by composer John Williams.

Going Out On A Glissando: BSO Harpist Retires

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Carnegie Hall in New York kicks off its season tonight with a new work by the prolific Hollywood composer John Williams. Williams wrote it specifically for Ann Hobson Pilot. For the past 40 years, she has been the principal harpist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She was the first African-American woman to win a seat with the BSO and one of the first in any major symphony. Now she is retiring. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has the story of the harpist and the music composed for her.

ANDREA SHEA: John Williams has written music for androids and aliens. The harp, he says, can transport an audience.

Mr. JOHN WILLIAMS (Composer): There's something heavenly, or even divine, if you like, about the harp. I think it has a special connection with the other world.

(Soundbite of harp)

SHEA: The harp cast its spell on Ann Hobson Pilot was she was 14 year old. It was different, she says, and so was she.

Ms. ANN HOBSON PILOT (Harpist): When I was coming up, I was an oddity, I guess you would say, by being an African-American playing the harp because the harp was certainly not an instrument of people of color. You know, I mean, the angels played the harp and all of that.

SHEA: Hobson Pilot's harp-playing got her into the Cleveland Institute of Music. Then she won a job with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., where she says she was the first and only African-American musician. She caught the attention of the Boston Pops music director in 1969, when she was 25 years old.

Ms. HOBSON PILOT: Arthur Fiedler came to guest conduct us and said, you know, we have an opening in Boston for the principal of the Pops and second with the BSO, and I like your playing. Would you consider auditioning for the job?

Mr. BILL MOYER (Trombonist): And she won.

SHEA: Bill Moyer - not that Bill Moyers - remembers when Hobson Pilot joined the BSO. At the time, he played trombone and eventually became personnel manager.

Mr. MOYER: When I joined the orchestra in 1952, there was one other person in the orchestra who was a woman, one, and she was the second harpist. All the rest were men, and there were no people of color.

SHEA: With Hobson Pilot's retirement, there is now only one full-time African-American musician in the BSO, but Moyer is quick to point out that the orchestra has always used a blind audition process. Musicians are separated from their judges by a screen and chosen based on skill. Hobson Pilot, Moyer says, was hired for no other reason than her beautiful playing.

Mr. MOYER: She has poetry inside of her. What more could you hope for?

(Soundbite of harp)

Ms. HOBSON PILOT: It's disappointing to me that the classical music field hasn't opened up more so that there are more African-Americans in the field now.

SHEA: Hobson Pilot has done her part to try to change that. She's mentored public school children in Boston who are interested in stringed instruments. But, Hobson Pilot says, the harp is difficult to learn. Composer John Williams says it's even harder to write for.

Mr. WILLIAMS: There are seven pedals, and each string can produce three different pitches: It can be a C flat, a C natural or a C sharp at any given time.

SHEA: Williams has guest conducted the Boston Symphony for decades and has gotten to know Hobson Pilot's playing, but even he wasn't sure she could pull off the new piece.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILLIAMS: I was surprised that she could. It seems almost like a magic trick to hear and watch her do it.

SHEA: He's not kidding. Hobson Pilot makes it look easy.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Ann Hobson Pilot rehearses the concerto called "On Willows and Birches." Sitting on a cushioned stool on stage in Symphony Hall, she embraces her heavy harp with her entire body, her arms stretching as her fingers glide across 47 strings.

(Soundbite of harp)

SHEA: Hobson Pilot says conjuring this sort of magic for an orchestra the caliber of the BSO is anything but easy.

Ms. HOBSON PILOT: This orchestra plays perfectly, and, you know, being a part of the orchestra, you have to be perfect, and so, for 40 years, trying to be perfect has been a challenge.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Now, with her retirement, Ann Hobson Pilot will be able to relax and enjoy the music from her seat in the audience.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

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