Groundbreaking master of angelic instrument set to take wing
by Geoff Edgers, Boston Globe
One day in high school, Ann Hobson Pilot, an aspiring harpist who happened to be African-American, was at a friend’s house when the girl’s mother pointed to a picture on the wall. It showed a white woman with flowing blond hair.
“Now she looks like a harpist is supposed to,’’ the woman said with an edge.
Hobson Pilot still remembers the sting of the comment, even a half century later. She remembers it as she prepares for the highlight of her four decades with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, tomorrow night’s premiere of a concerto written for her by John Williams.
“It surprises me when I think back to that time,’’ says Hobson Pilot, now 65. “I worked hard, but what was I thinking? The harp was considered to be the instrument of an angel, a white woman with flowing gowns.’’
From the Symphony Hall stage, Hobson Pilot changed that perception.
“No one thinks of Ann Hobson Pilot as an African-American harp player,’’ says Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director. “They think of her as the great harp player of her time.’’
The BSO is making that point by featuring Hobson Pilot in programs to celebrate her recent retirement, including a starring role in tomorrow’s opening-night gala and October concerts in Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall.
The honor is unprecedented at the BSO, where senior players typically take their farewell bow at the orchestra’s summer home at Tanglewood. Hobson Pilot is anything but typical.
She tried to retire three years ago. Music director James Levine pleaded with her to stay, and she did.
Now, though, she’s ready. She wants to travel, play solo recitals, and perform with other orchestras.
“My main goal was to leave before my playing went downhill,’’ Hobson Pilot said during a recent interview at Symphony Hall. “I feel that way about parties. I’d rather leave early than stay too long.’’
Growing up in Philadelphia, Hobson Pilot was surrounded by music. Her mother and older sister both played piano. She decided, at age 14, to take up a different instrument. At school, she asked her music teacher about flute, cello, and violin. Other students had already taken those instruments. The harp was available.
Her parents paid $15 a month to rent a rickety harp for her to practice on. They also bought a used green Rambler station wagon to transport the instrument.
As a teenager, Hobson Pilot attended a summer harp camp in Maine and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
She landed a gig with the National Symphony in Washington after her 1966 graduation and remained there until 1969, when Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler suggested she audition for the BSO. (Fiedler knew her from stints conducting the National Symphony.)
At the time, the only other African-American in the orchestra had been Ortiz Walton, a double bass player from 1957 to 1962. Hobson Pilot won a permanent post in 1969 as second harp. She was appointed principal in 1980.
In her new job in Boston, Hobson Pilot didn’t push for diversity. She was there to play.
“I was quiet. Still am,’’ she said. “I didn’t get into making a political presence. My statement was doing my job and showing that playing music well had nothing to do with color. If intelligent people looked at me, they’d acknowledge that.’’
But Hobson Pilot didn’t ignore the issue of race entirely. Her husband, Prentice Pilot, a bass player in the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra for 22 years, became the first artistic director of Project STEP, a BSO program founded in 1982 to support minority players. Hobson Pilot volunteered to work with the students.
She also insisted on having her picture on the cover of compact discs she recorded. She wanted African-American children to see that a woman with dark skin could star in the classical world.
The reality is that Hobson Pilot leaves a symphony world that hasn’t changed much for African-Americans. Just a handful of black players serve as principals nationwide. The percentage of African-American musicians in American orchestras has ranged from just 1.4 percent to 1.9 percent over the last eight years.
The trouble, Hobson Pilot and Volpe believe, is not at the orchestra level, particularly because auditions are conducted behind a screen, making it impossible for members to rule out musicians based on appearance.
“You start with the fundamental of what’s happening in major school districts,’’ said the BSO’s Volpe. “There’s been an erosion of music programs.’’
With Hobson Pilot’s exit, only one African-American player will remain in the BSO, cellist Owen Young.
“I often tell her, you can’t leave me here, I’ll be all alone,’’ joked Young, who joined the BSO in 1991. “The truth is, what I got from her is professionalism. She comes and plays and is always prepared. It really has nothing to do with race or gender.’’
The Williams concerto came about because Hobson Pilot admired the composer’s writing for harp in his scores for “Schindler’s List’’ and “Angela’s Ashes.’’ She called Williams last year to request a composition, but he declined.
His reluctance stemmed from both his busy schedule and the challenges of writing for solo harp.
“I kept saying, ‘Ann, there are so many wonderful composers out there,’ ’’ Williams recalled. “But she said, ‘No, I want you to do it.’ In the end, I found I couldn’t resist her.’’
On a recent day, Hobson Pilot sat on a chair on the Symphony Hall stage with her harp. She tilted the instrument back and began to play the Williams piece, “On Willows and Birches.’’
“For me to play a piece for John Williams is incredible,’’ she said, her harp leaning into her. “And to play with the BSO with Levine conducting. Please . . .’’