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MUSIC REVIEW

Pilot’s farewell matches her stature

Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot (left) with assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung at Symphony Hall Saturday. Pilot retired last season after 40 years with the BSO and returned for a farewell. Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot (left) with assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung at Symphony Hall Saturday. Pilot retired last season after 40 years with the BSO and returned for a farewell. (Michael J. Lutch)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2009

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Ann Hobson Pilot, who retired last season as principal harpist after 40 years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, returned to Symphony Hall on Saturday for an eclectic farewell, a chance to front the orchestra to which she gave such subtle, elegant spine for so long. With BSO assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung replacing James Levine on the podium, Pilot took the spotlight in three concertos of gradually increasing size. Elliott Carter’s “Mosaic’’ pits harp against a chorus of nine players, trading halting phrases. Pilot gave the American premiere last year at Tanglewood; this reading had more bright flash - unconventional techniques borrowed from the pioneering harpist Carlos Salzedo echoed by sharp-edged instrumental debate - but less long-line shape.

Debussy’s “Danses sacrée et profane,’’ for harp and strings, is formally modest, exotically perfumed impressionism, but the languid background showed how much energy Pilot gets out of her instrument, rhythmically taut, fiendish pedal shifts (the piece was originally written for the quickly-obsolete chromatic harp) dispatched with calm precision. Sung was also particularly good here, shaping string lines with grace and efficiency.

The full orchestra then came out for John Williams’s “On Willows and Birches,’’ premiered at the BSO’s season opener, then repeated at Carnegie Hall. Compared with the premiere, the ensemble seemed to have a better sense of how much they could play out, which gave Pilot a more substantial canvas for the dramatic arc of her own, nearly omnipresent virtuosity. The piece is a dark-to-light diptych (not unlike the Debussy); the sinuous, undulating opening had a lean insistence, and the tripping finale made a virtue of its own lightness. Pilot basked in one ovation after another.

The concert opened with Julian Kuerti, the BSO’s other assistant conductor, leading Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony with rambunctious polish, vehemence the composer elsewhere parlayed into grim heroism here made boisterous play, the fine-spun lyricism only able to stay well-behaved for so long.

The evening ended - at Pilot’s request, taking one last spin in the principal’s chair, alongside her successor, Jessica Zhou - with Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse,’’ Viennese decadence colliding head-on with the violence of the 20th century. Sung led a phenomenal performance, roiling with oppressive, frantic luxury. They were felicitous bookends: gleeful, childlike anarchy balanced by civilization itself unraveling into glittering chaos. What a way to go.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Ann Hobson Pilot, harp;

Julian Kuerti and Shi-Yeon Sung, conductors

At: Symphony Hall, Saturday

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