Carnegie Hall kicks off its season tonight in New York with a new work by prolific Hollywood composer John Williams. It's a concerto for harp and orchestra, and Williams wrote it specifically for Ann Hobson Pilot. For the past 40 years, she's been a harpist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and now she's set to retire. Hobson Pilot was the first African-American woman to win a seat with the BSO, and one of the first in any major symphony.
Hobson Pilot was 14 when she fell under the spell of the harp. It was different, she says. And so was she.
"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 considered to be, first of all, a feminine instrument, and certainly not an instrument of people of color. I mean, the angels played the harp and all of that."
Hobson Pilot's harp-playing got her into the Cleveland Institute of Music. Then she landed a job with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., where she was the first and only African-American musician. She remembers catching the attention of Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler in 1969, when she was 25.
"He came to guest-conduct us and said, 'We have an opening in Boston for the principal of the Pops orchestra, and another with the Boston Symphony. And I like your playing. Would you consider auditioning for the job?' "
Hobson Pilot got the job.
Boston Symphony Orchestra trombonist (and later personnel manager) Bill Moyer says he remembers when Hobson Pilot joined the BSO.
"When I joined the orchestra in 1952," Moyer says, "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."
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.
"She has poetry inside of her," Moyer says. "What more could you hope for? It's disappointing to me that the classical music field hasn't opened up more, so there are more African-Americans in the field now."
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. Williams says it's even harder to write for.
"There are difficulties with the harp — limitations, special opportunities," Williams says. "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."
Williams has guest-conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for decades, and has gotten to know Hobson Pilot's playing. But even he wasn't sure she could pull off the new concerto.
"I was surprised that she could," he says. "It seems almost like a magic trick to hear and watch her do it."
Hobson Pilot rehearses the concerto, called "On Willows and Birches," while sitting on a cushioned stool on stage in Symphony Hall. She embraces her heavy harp with her entire body. Her arms stretch as her fingers glide across 47 strings. She says conjuring this sort of magic for an orchestra the caliber of the BSO is anything but easy.
"This orchestra plays perfectly," she says. "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."
Now, with her retirement, she will be able to relax and enjoy the music — from her seat in the audience.
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