Legacy Conversations: Ann Hobson Pilot

Legendary harpist talks her distinguished career as former Principal Harp for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops, including the many collaborations with John Williams and the premiere of the Harp Concerto On Willows and Birches, composed for her by the Maestro in 2009

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Ann Hobson Pilot is one of the most talented women in the classical music who ever performed in United States and also a distinguished international soloist, teacher, mentor and moving force behind music educational programs for underserved minorities. She has been Principal Harp for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops for almost 30 years, from 1980 until his retirement in 2009. She joined the BSO in 1969 as Associate Principal Harp after stints in the Pittsburgh Symphony and Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra where he performed as Principal Harp for 3 years (1966-69). Ann has the distinguished credit of being the very first African-American woman to land a Principal role in an American orchestra, building herself a career through her talent and unique sensibility back in a time where the classical music scene was still a predominant white male-driven environment.

A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ann Hobson Pilot started studying music since a very young age and, at age 14, she picked up harp as her instrument of choice. Her talent for harp playing started to be noticed already during her high school years, but she had to face obstacles and challenges because of her race. In spite of that, she was accepted at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she got a Bachelor Degree under the esteemed teacher and pioneering woman harpist Alice Chalifoux. She began her professional career backing popular artists such as Johnny Mathis and Peggy Lee, but she soon left popular music to pursue a career in classical music. In 1966, she was selected to be Principal Harp for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., becoming the first African-American woman to land a principal role in any US orchestra. Ann performed in Washington until 1969, after which she was appointed as Assistant Principal Harp for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Principal for the Boston Pops after auditioning for the role. Ann performed with the BSO and the Pops for 40 years, 29 of which as Principal Harp, in a luminous and unique career as a classical musician.

In addition to her many solo appearances with the BSO and the Boston Pops, Ann performed as a guest soloist with many other major American orchestras, as well as in Europe, South Africa and New Zealand. She has performed with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Marlboro Music Festival, Newport Music Festival, Sarasota Music Festival and the Ritz Chamber Players. In 1999, she commissioned young American composer Kevin Kaska to write a Harp Concerto for her, which she recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Pilot also appeared as a solo artist in several recordings featuring harp transcriptions of music by Bach, Debussy, Ravel, and also recorded music by contemporary American composers including Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem and Elliot Carter.

During her career, Ann was given numerous awards and accolades both for her unique musicianship and for being an ambassador and inspiration for young players. In May of 2010, Ms. Pilot was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Tufts University. She has received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1993 and again in 2010, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Boston Musicians Association in 2010, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Talent Development League of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in January of 2014. In 2017, she was given the League of American Orchestras’ highest honor, the Gold Baton, at the League’s 72nd National Conference in Detroit.

Ann Hobson Pilot performs on the harp, accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the opening night gala of Carnegie Hall’s 119th season in New York, Thursday, Oct., 1, 2009. (Photo by Stuart Ramson/AP)

Ann Hobson Pilot started to perform for John Williams in 1980, when the Maestro accepted the post as Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops. After many years performing under former Pops’ music director Arthur Fiedler (who died in 1979), Ann immediately got in perfect harmony with Williams’ musicianship (“he brought a breath of fresh air”, she said) and his own fabulous music. She was frequently featured as soloist in concerts and recordings with the Boston Pops often performing many of the Maestro’s exquisite passages for harp, including music from Schindler’s List, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Harry Potter and Angela’s Ashes, all of which feature extensive writing for harp. Ann was also principal harp on the original soundtrack recording of Schindler’s List, where he performs in duet with violinist Itzhak Perlman.

In addition to the film compositions, Ann had extended solo parts also in several Williams’ pieces for the concert hall, including Treesong (written in 1999 for violinist Gil Shaham), and the Viola Concerto (written for Boston Pops’ principal viola Cathy Basrak), where the harp has an extended dialogue with the viola in the third movement. Williams also reworked one of the themes from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as a piece for harp and orchestra titled “Stargazers”, which was dedicated specifically to Ann Hobson Pilot and premiered in Boston in May 2009.

John Williams and Ann Hobson Pilot after the world premiere of the Maestro’s Harp Concerto “On Willows and Birches”, performed at Boston’s Symphony Hall in September 2009

The kinship between Pilot and Williams (“he’s not just one of my favourite composers, he’s one of my favourite people in the world”, she said) was the reason why the harpist insisted for many years on asking the composer to write a full-scale concert piece for her. The perfect occasion finally arrived in 2008, when Pilot announced her retirement as BSO’s Principal Harp. Williams accepted to write a Concerto for Harp specifically for her, titled On Willows and Birches. The composer wrote the concerto during the spring and summer of 2009, with a premiere date looming in late September of the same year as part of the Opening Night of BSO’s annual subscription season. As usual when writing a piece for a specific soloist, Williams worked closely with Ann Hobson Pilot to perfect the performance down to the tiniest detail.

John Williams and Ann Hobson Pilot rehearse the Concerto for Harp “On Willows and Birches” before the premiere in 2009 at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Notice the celeste keyboard at the center of the stage, as the piece features extended passages between harp and celeste

Williams used once again nature and literature as starting points for the piece and wrote the Concerto in two movements. The first was inspired by a quote from Bible’s Psalm 137, which speaks of harps hanged upon a willow tree, while the second movement takes a cue from a poem by American writer Robert Frost, specifically the phrase ‘One could do no worse than be a swinger of birches.’ The two movements are very contrasting with each other, with the first being a quasi-impressionistic, dreamy rumination on the harp’s most delicate sounds, while the second instead being very quick, athletic and rhythmically vibrant. Williams sets a sylvan, sometimes spectral atmosphere akin to the spirit of Toru Takemitsu, but for the most part he really focuses on the soloist’s masterful technique and her incredible expressive qualities, both in calm, meditative tones and virtuosic passages. The final result is a wonderful depiction of joy and happiness, as the Maestro himself said, “to celebrate a great woman and her great career”.

“Ann Hobson Pilot is one of the greatest harpists we’ve ever had. She’s the best we’ve ever encountered, and that’s got to do with the inner ear as much as with the inner soul.”

John Williams

The Concerto was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine at Boston’s Symphony Hall on September 23, 2009, and then performed again as part of the Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night gala in October 1, 2009 (this time conducted by Daniele Gatti, who subbed for an ailing Maestro Levine at the last minute). It was a joyous evening of music and the preface of another memorable event on October 3, 2009, where the BSO celebrated Ann Hobson Pilot at Symphony Hall in a full farewell concert dedicated to her, where she performed again the Williams’ Concerto, plus works by Debussy and Elliot Carter.

John Williams, Ann Hobson Pilot and James Levine take a bow after the premiere of Williams’ Concerto for Harp at Boston’s Symphony Hall (Photo by Michael J. Lutch/BSO)

After retiring from the BSO, Ann continued to appear as guest soloist with orchestras internationally and also as part of chamber groups and solo recitals. She also released a handful of solo recordings, including an album dedicated to the music of Astor Piazzolla arranged for harp, violin and bandoneon. She also recorded Williams’ harp étude “The Lanes of Limerick”, originally composed as part of the score for the film Angela’s Ashes.

In addition to her career as musician, Ann Hobson Pilot spent a lifetime devoted to teaching and mentoring young students in distinguished music schools and conservatories (including the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University) and appearing in masterclasses and seminars at the Tanglewood Music Institute. She’s currently affiliated with the State College of Florida, in addition to the Tanglewood Music Center and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Ann sponsored several music programs dedicated to underserved minorities and kept pushing for a more diverse and inclusive environment in classical music for people of color. In 2010, she was the subject of a documentary directed by Susan Dangel titled A Harpist’s Legacy, which aired on PBS several times over the years.

Ann Hobson Pilot performs the world premiere of John Williams’ Concerto for Harp “On Willows and Birches” at Boston’s Symphony Hall in September 23, 2009 (Photo by Michael J. Lutch/BSO)

In this conversation, Ann talks about her incredible life and career as classical musician, including the challenges and obstacles of being an African-American woman playing in an environment predominantly white and male-driven. Ann talks about her many collaborations with John Williams, the thrill and the honour of having a concerto written for her by the Maestro, the recording of the film score for Schindler’s List and many other favourite memories of working together with John Williams for almost 30 years.


A heartfelt thank you to Ann Hobson Pilot for her time and generosity. Visit her official website for more information about her life, career, recordings and to see the documentary “A Harpist’s Legacy”: http://www.annhobsonpilot.com


List of musical excerpts featured in the episode (all compositions by John Williams except where noted):

. On Willows and Birches – Concerto for Harp (2009), I. Adagio, Dreamily (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung)
. Pëtr Il’ič Čajkovskij, The Nutcracker, Op.71, TH.14 Act 2 – No.14 Pas de deux Intrada – Variation I (Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa)
. J.S. Bach, Violin Partita No. 1, BWV 1002 Bourree (Arr. for Harp)
. On Willows and Birches – Concerto for Harp (2009), II. Allegro con gioia (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung)
. “Stargazers, for harp and orchestra”, from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams)
. Maurice Ravel, Alborada del gracioso, M. 43 (Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa)
. The Cowboys Overture (Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams), from the Philips album Pops Around the World (1981)
. George Gershwin, arr. Sid Ramin, “‘S Wonderful” from Funny Face (Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams), from the Sony Classical album Unforgettable (1993)
. “Remembrances”, from Schindler’s List (1993), original soundtrack recording; Itzhak Perlman, violin
. On Willows and Birches – Concerto for Harp (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung)
. “Stargazers (for harp and orchestra)” from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams), live recording at Tanglewood (August 2009)
. Suite from Angela’s Ashes (Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; John Williams, piano; Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams), live recording at Tanglewood (August 2000)
. “Cadillac of the Skies” from Empire of the Sun (Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams)
. Treesong, for violin and orchestra – I. Dreamly: Doctor Hu & The Metasequoia (Gil Shaham, violin; Ann Hobson, harp; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Williams)
. On Willows and Birches – Concerto for Harp (2009), II. Allegro con gioia (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung)
. Astor Piazzolla, arr. Michael Manganuco, Escualo (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Lucia Lin, violin; J.P. Jofre, bandoneon)
. Kevin Kaska, Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, II. Lento Con Espressivo (For Salzedo) (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ronald Feldman)
. “The Face of Pan” from Hook (Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams)
. “I Could Have Done More”, from Schindler’s List (1993), original soundtrack recording; Itzhak Perlman, violin
. “The Lanes of Limerick”, from Angela’s Ashes (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp)
. On Willows and Birches – Concerto for Harp (2009), II. Allegro con gioia (Ann Hobson Pilot, harp; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung)