Magazine article American Harp Journal

John Williams Writes a New Harp Concerto for Ann Hobson Pilot

Magazine article American Harp Journal

John Williams Writes a New Harp Concerto for Ann Hobson Pilot

Article excerpt

TRADITIONALLY, retirement from a major organization means a party, a few toasts and perhaps some kind of memento like a gold watch. Instead, to honor Ann Hobson Pilot on her retirement after forty years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Oscar winning composer John Williams has written a new harp concerto in her honor at the request of music director James Levine and the orchestra. The piece was premiered in Boston's Symphony Hall in September at the opening concert of the orchestra, with Levine conducting, and then at the BSO's opening Carnegie Hall concert in early October.

Williams calls his piece On Willows and Birches. It is in two movements with a duration of approximately fifteen minutes. The orchestration includes strings, percussion, with an extended celeste part, double winds and horns, in addition to the solo harp.

An occasion of this magnitude is months, if not years, in the making. After Pilot told Maestro James Levine that she was planning on retiring from the orchestra following the 2009 summer season at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, Levine came to her and asked what he and the orchestra could do for her as a fitting tribute and thank you. The obvious choice was a new solo for harp and orchestra. The next question became who was to be asked to write it. Upon consideration, Pilot's choice was award winning composer John Williams, with whom she had worked for years from her chair in the Boston Pops Orchestra after Williams followed Arthur Fiedler as conductor. Initially Williams refused, daunted by the idea of composing an extended work for the harp, but he soon became intrigued by the challenge and delighted to be able to compose a piece for an artist and colleague he respects so greatly. The following dedication appears on the score:

   Written to celebrate the illustrious career and
   outstanding artistry of Ann Hobson Pilot--With
   admiration and affection--John Williams


Trees have long served as a source of inspiration and symbol to Williams. For instance, his bassoon concerto, written in 1995 for Judith LeClair, principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic, is called The Five Sacred Trees. So it is perhaps not surprising that he would look once again to this image. Speaking backstage at Tanglewood, in July 2009, Williams noted: "The harp is transporting. It takes us away from the corporeal world.... It somehow doesn't admit to gravity. It is above the ground." The image of the tree, earthbound at its roots, yet extending skyward, seemed an apt metaphor for the instrument to Williams.


Williams found inspiration for the two movements of the concerto in two different texts.

The first movement, "Willows," is prefaced by a line from Psalm 137, one of the psalms written during the Israelites' Babylonian captivity. The opening lines of the psalm in the King James translation read as follows:

   By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
   yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
   We hanged our harps upon the willows in the
   midst thereof.

The image of the harp hanging from the willow tree (it is that line that prefaces the first movement) intrigued Williams in both a "visual and sonic" sense. He sees this atmospheric and coloristic movement as evoking the ethereal beauty of the harp, somehow above the constraints of gravity and the quotidian considerations, while the sense of loss implicit in the text reflects the sadness at the loss of this particular artist through her retirement.

The second movement which Williams describes as more traditional in the soloist/tutti relationship, is based on Robert Frost's poem "Birches." After describing the permanent damage done to birch trees by winter ice, Frost turns the poem to a celebration of the delight a young boy feels at pulling down the top branches of a birch tree and then letting the tree snap back up to its full height, carrying him with it in joyous abandon. …

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