Tribute to accomplished harpist, classical trailblazer
Ann Hobson Pilot, the former principal harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career. She was also the first African-American woman to serve as a principal player in any major symphony orchestra. A program airing tonight at 10 on WGBH, “A Harpist’s Legacy - Ann Hobson Pilot and the Sound of Change,’’ affectionately tells the story of her life as a harpist and her rapid rise through the color barrier in classical music.
Pilot was born in 1943 in Philadelphia into a musical family; her mother was, extraordinarily for the time, a concert pianist. Even so, her parents were understandably skeptical when a teacher at Pilot’s high school nudged her from piano toward the harp. The match took, and in her early 20s she joined the National Symphony Orchestra as its only black musician and even toured with the ensemble in the Deep South. With the poise and cadence of a diplomat, Pilot refers to the period of her tenure with the NSO (1966-69) as “a very difficult time for our nation.’’ On tour she was not always able to eat in the same restaurants as her colleagues, and some hotels required special permission before admitting her.
As she relates her strategy for staying above the fray, Pilot’s musical grace seems to extend to her personal carriage. “If someone said something to me that I considered to be objectionable I was able to very calmly say, ‘That’s objectionable, and I don’t appreciate you saying that,’ ’’ she explains. “I feel like I didn’t have that extra burden of anger - inner anger.’’ In other interviews, she has spoken more directly about her early days in Washington. “I got more a sense of loneliness there than I have in Boston,’’ she told the Globe in 2000, “because we were playing in Constitution Hall, the famous hall where Marian Anderson had been turned down to sing. I had a feeling of not really belonging.’’
Meanwhile her playing was being noticed far and wide. When guest-conducting the NSO, Arthur Fiedler asked her to audition for a principal post with the Boston Pops. She did and got the job, moving to Boston at age 26. In 1980, she was promoted to the principal harp position at the BSO, a post she held until her retirement in 2009. For that occasion, the BSO commissioned a composer of her choice - John Williams - to write her a harp concerto. She gave the premiere of “On Willows and Birches’’ that same year, and the piece, she proudly tells us, is on its way into the harp repertoire. For his part, Williams calls her “one of the greatest harpists we’ve ever had.’’ Yo-Yo Ma chimes in, too, with admiration: “I don’t know how she gets that sound!’’
Produced by Susan Dangel, “A Harpist’s Legacy - Ann Hobson Pilot and the Sound of Change’’ is a modest half-hour portrait that’s at its best in moments of biographic storytelling. A few small gestures might have made it stronger, like having voices from outside the field frame Pilot’s accomplishments within the larger arc of African-American participation in the performing arts. The film does touch on larger themes of race and classical music but it can only go so far without, in a sense, raining on its celebration of Pilot’s trailblazing path.
The truth is that, the program’s subtitle notwithstanding, “the sound of change’’ has been almost inaudible from the perspective of a child looking up at a professional orchestra on stage. Since Pilot’s departure, the BSO once again has just one African-American member. The trends are national. According to statistics provided by the League of American Orchestras, African-Americans make up less than 2 percent of the players in major orchestras, and Latino players less than 3 percent.
The reasons for this are complex and the problem can seem circular. (“A lot of black players did not prepare themselves for this kind of a life,’’ Pilot once told the Globe. “I mean, why, when there was no job at the end of the line?’’) There are some hopeful signs of progress on the grassroots level, thanks to organizations like Boston’s own Project STEP and similar efforts around the country. This documentary doesn’t hide from the deeper structural issues but at the same time, its main agenda is more straightforward: paying tribute to an exceptional harpist and a courageous career.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.