Thursday, July 28, 2011 “'the sound of change' has been almost inaudible from the perspective of a child looking” at an orchestra

[“Ann Hobson Pilot, principal harpist for the BSO from 1980 until her retirement in 2009, is the subject of a program that airs tonight on Channel 2. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/file 2009)”]
Television Review
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / July 28, 2011
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.”

“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!'’’

“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.

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