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The Interview

Ann Hobson Pilot

By John Koch, Boston Globe

How were you able to succeed, starting so late?
I had a piano background starting at the age of 6. I became good on the harp very fast, and that's always encouraging, and I also worked. I did church work after I'd been playing only a year. I had my first professional job at 17, in Philly at the Latin Casino, playing five nights a week behind acts such as Johnny Mathis and Peggy Lee, making what, to me, was a lot of money. They didn't use the harp every week, so I went to school and played occasionally. It was great.

Were there other black musicians when you first played in orchestras?
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. And we toured down South a lot, so there were all of kinds of problems. By the time I came to Boston, I had gone through all of that. I felt more accepted here, although I was the only black player for 20 years before [cellist] Owen Young, the other black player, came. It's just very hard for anybody to get a job here. A lot of black players did not prepare themselves for this kind of a life - I mean, why, when there was no job at the end of the line? But there will be more opportunities for black players to get jobs, with programs like Project STEP, String Training Educational Program for children of color.

Talk about the perception of the BSO as an elite white institution.
I wouldn't say it's changed a great deal, but it's changed some, especially in the last five years. I would look out 31 years ago and see no one; now I see a few blacks scattered here and there in the audience. The symphony does programs geared to increase minority involvement, and I think it's finally started to work. Also, when I came, I was one of four women. Now there are about 30.

It seems like you have to be very physical with a harp.
It's a nice size, something you can put your arms around, but it's not heavy when it lies on you well balanced between your knees and your shoulder. There's something about being expressive using your hands in direct contact with the strings. I guess I talk through the harp with my hands. When you have the instrument on your shoulder, the vibrations go into your body, and it's been said that's very healing. Harpists live to be quite old: The man I've replaced played principal harp in the BSO and retired at 76; and the woman that I studied with is now 92 and still teaching.

Is it physically demanding?
Very. At the BSO, there are all sorts of folks to do it for you, but when you're young, you have to carry the thing all over the place, and it weighs about 85 pounds. It takes quite a bit of strength to play - you're using your shoulders; your legs, because there are seven pedals; your arms. It takes some strength just to pull the strings and get a good sound. When I was starting, I would squeeze a tennis ball to strengthen my hands. I'm a tennis player, and I try to be active. Stretching is important, because a lot of harpists have tendinitis.

Ever been on the disabled list?
Never - I've been lucky. My record is one of the best.

Are you fearful of cuts and burns?
Absolutely. I love dogs, but I never approach one with my hands. I'll never put my hand in a strange place that I can't see. I had a tennis match last week, and we lost a ball behind some things. I wouldn't put my hand in there to retrieve it. My partner had to come over and do it. I'm very careful, gardening. My very first orchestra job, with Washington National, was replacing a woman who had severed the tip of her finger on some hedge shears. I tend to be kind of paranoid.

Does Tanglewood present special challenges?
The thing that's always a problem is playing outdoor concerts when the weather can do horrendous things. The minute we have even a misting, the harp goes crazy: It goes out of tune; it breaks strings. It affects me to such an extent that if I have a solo to play, say, on August 10th, as soon as the season starts, I'm already worried about what the weather's going to be. One time it was cold, so I asked if I could have an electric heater to keep my hands warm. They put the heater there, and I noticed the harp stayed in tune better. This was in the Shed. It can be unpleasant to play in there unless it's a beautiful day - then, it can be a gorgeous place to play.

Is the lack of harp repertory frustrating?
It used to be, but at my age, I enjoy it, to be honest with you. I get more time off. At Tanglewood, we might do 22 concerts, and maybe eight don't have harp.

Is there any downside to a career in the BSO?
No. It's really been my dream. It's better than the dream. No other orchestra gets a setting like Tanglewood, and I love being in Boston. It's the best job. If I complained, no one would listen to me.

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