Ann Hobson Pilot plays Debussy & Ravel
This Omaha Symphony performance was recorded live at the Holland Performing Arts Center on January 11, 2019.
In January 2019, Omaha had the great fortune to witness not only two masterpieces of the solo harp repertoire, but to have them performed by a veritable institution, Ann Hobson Pilot. This week's Symphony Anywhere release is her performance of Debussy's “Danse sacrée et Danse profane” and Ravel's “Introduction et Allegro” with your Omaha Symphony.
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Born in Philadelphia, Pilot wouldn’t begin harp until age 14, but her mother’s career as a concert pianist resulted in Ann receiving piano lessons at age 6, and accelerating her harp skills as a teenager. By 17, she had steady, professional work performing “behind acts such as Johnny Mathis and Peggy Lee, making what, to me, was a lot of money.” Her growth as a player, however, occurred simultaneously with obstacles due to racial prejudice. Her first application as a Black musician to the Maine Harp Colony, a summer study program for aspiring professional harpists, was denied. Fortunately, she dug her heels in and successfully reapplied the following year. It allowed her to study with another institution in classical music: Alice Chalifoux, Principal Harp of the Cleveland Orchestra and sole female member at that time. Ann would transfer from the Philadelphia Musical Academy to the Cleveland Institute of Music to continue her studies with Chalifoux. (Our own Omaha Symphony Principal Harp Mary Bircher also studied with Chalifoux!)
Pilot won her first position as Principal Harp for the Washington National Symphony in 1966 at age 23, went on to win Second Harpist for the Pittsburgh Symphony, and in 1969, won Assistant Principal Harp of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Principal Harp of the Boston Pops. She would ascend to Principal Harp of the Boston Symphony in 1980 at age 37, a position she held until her retirement in 2009. She also began teaching at the New England Conservatory, one of the nation’s top music schools, just four years after arriving in Boston, until 2013. She has a distinguished international solo career, has received multiple lifetime achievement awards from the Boston Musicians Association, has filmed two PBS documentaries – one on the origin of the harp and the people of Namibia – and has the very unique honor of a concerto written specifically for her by composer John Williams.
In an interview about her time in Boston, Pilot gave a brief overview of her first few years as a Black musician in the world of classical music: “I was the only black player in Washington [at the National Symphony, 1966-1969]. I had a lot of friends in the orchestra, but I got more a sense of loneliness there than I have in Boston, 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.” Anderson had been denied the use of Constitution Hall in 1939, just four years before Ann was born; her impromptu move to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial became an iconic moment in civil rights history. She would perform here with the Omaha Symphony in February 1953. In Boston, Pilot would be the sole Black member of the Boston Symphony for twenty years before Owen Young, a Black cellist, won his position.
We were thrilled to have Ann Hobson Pilot here in January 2019, and we’re thrilled to share her performance with the Omaha Symphony and Maestro Thomas Wilkins with you now.