ALBANY — Ann Hobson Pilot, a groundbreaking classical music legend, will perform Saturday evening in a landmark Albany Symphony Orchestra concert at Old Mt. Zion Baptist Church at the Albany Civil Rights Institute.
“You can read all her credentials and all the great things she has done, but if you mention her name to a professional harpist or a harp student, they fall on their knees in homage,” Albany Symphony Music Director and Conductor Claire Fox Hillard said. “In that circle, she is at the top, primarily for her skills as a harpist, but also for her pioneering role when she became a professional harpist.”
Pilot played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for four decades before retiring from the orchestra in 2009. She is one of four African-American musicians who broke the color barrier with symphonies in the 1960s.
She joined the Boston Symphony in 1969 as assistant principal harpist and became principal harpist in 1980 — the first African-American woman to join a major symphony orchestra and the first to be principal harpist for one.
Pilot will perform with the symphony in its first Masterworks concert of the 2019-20 season, “The Sound of Change,” at 7:30 p.m. at the historic Old Mt. Zion Church at 326 Whitney Ave.
“I am absolutely excited about this collaboration,” Frank Wilson, executive director if the ACRI, said. “This is the first time we’ve had a production with the symphony in our building, so this is historic in more than one way.
“First, this is a historic collaboration between the Civil Rights Institute and the Albany Symphony Orchestra. It’s also a historic opportunity to have someone of the caliber of Ann Hobson Pilot appear at the Civil Rights Institute.”
Hillard says he’s also enthusiastic about the collaboration and guest performer.
“I’m always excited about our concerts, but I’m super-excited about this one,” he said. “No. 1 is our collaboration with the Civil Rights Institute, and Albany State University and the Albany Museum of Art. It’s a coming together of community, which is wonderful.”
Hillard said he also has a personal reason to want Pilot, who started out with the Boston Pops, to perform with the ASO
“The reason I am a conductor is Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops,” Hillard said. “As a child, every Sunday evening the Pops came on the public television station, with Fielder with his white hair and his white mustache. I watched those shows religiously, and the harp player in all of those broadcasts was Ann Hobson. I just grew up thinking that in symphony orchestras, the harp players were Ann Hobson.”
Though retired from the Boston Symphony, Pilot has kept a busy pace. She guest performed with the BSO the premiere of Grammy-winning composer John Williams’ concerto for harp and orchestra “On Willows and Birches,” which he wrote for her.
“A Harpist’s Legacy, Ann Hobson Pilot and the Sound of Change,” a PBS documentary of her life in music has been broadcast. In 2013, she released a new CD featuring music of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, for harp, violin and bandoneon, with Lucia Lin, violinist with the Boston Symphony and the Muir String Quartet, and bandoneonist J.P. Jofre.
This year, she has performed with the Omaha Symphony, debuted with the International Chamber Music Festival “La Musica” in Sarasota, Fla., and performed the Ginas-tera Concerto with the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Orchestra.
The Osprey, Fla., resident will join the ASO in performing pieces written by a diverse group of composers.
“I think it’s going to be historic to have that kind of a concert in that setting,” Hillard said. “My goal for this concert is to illustrate to people that classical music is more than dead white European males.
“I hope in my 32 years (as ASO conductor) I’ve introduced some new things and broadened our perspective. We’ve had female composers, African-American composers, Native American composers, Asian composers, showing the circle is much bigger. It doesn’t detract from the Beethovens and Mozarts. They’re great. It’s just there’s so much more. In the 21st century, we’re more global, so there’s more awareness. There’s a lot more out there if you’re willing to be adventuresome and try it.”
One of the composers whose work will be performed is Williams, who succeeded Fiedler as Boston Pops conductor and is known for his fantastic movie scores for “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman,” the Indiana Jones series and “Schindler’s List.” He has 24 Grammy Awards in his career, along with five Academy Awards.
“We’re doing the ‘Schindler’s List’ theme, with the solo violin and the big harp part,” Hillard said.
A young composer whose work will be performed Saturday is Jessie Montgomery of New York. A composer, chamber musician and music educator, her compositions focus on improvisation, language and social justice.
Also, the ASO and Pilot will perform compositions by William Grant Still, who is sometimes referred to as “the sean” of African-American composers. His most recognized work is his first symphony, “Afro-American,” and he was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra. His other firsts include being the first African American to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, the first whose opera was performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera shown on national television.
The fourth composer whose work will be performed is Claude Debussy of France, who is often described as the first Impressionist composer. Pilot will perform his famous “The Dances Sacred and Profane.”
“I want this for Albany, southwest Georgia and the good of the community,” Hillard said, “but it’s also gratifying for me to meet up with and perform with a childhood idol who is part of the Boston Symphony and who worked with Arthur Fiedler.
“I’m looking forward to sitting and talking with her about all the conductors she has worked with, not the least of which was John Williams.”
Wilson said he hopes that the ASO performance will bring some people to the ACRI for the first time.
“It will bring a lot of people who ordinarily would not come to see the Civil Rights Institute,” Wilson observed. “It will help expand us into the community.
“We will be able to seat 350 to 375 very comfortably. I’m looking forward to a full house, both for the concert and for Grace Note on Saturday morning.”
Grace Note is a program the ASO instituted last season in which people can attend a symphony “matinee” on Saturday mornings before an evening concert. On a pay-as-you-can basis, an individual can enjoy the 10 a.m. dress rehearsal of the symphony and its guest performers. The setting is casual and donations are appreciated, but not required.
Wilson said he has gotten word out to local Greek organizations, schools and community groups about the ASO performance with Pilot.
“She was the first African-American female to be a principal harpist for a major symphony orchestra,” he said. “I think it’s important for kids to see another genre of music, and especially for African-American kids to see an African-American female in that role I think it should expand their horizons beyond the traditional music that they listen to.”
Pilot will have a couple of days in Albany before the concert. Hillard said she will visit with students at the Lamar Reese Magnet School of the Arts on Thursday morning, with a reception Thursday evening at the Albany Museum of Art.
At noon Friday, she will sit in on the weekly Albany State University music students’ seminar at the Leroy Bynum Concert Hall on the ASU East Campus. Hillard said she’ll perform with the students, talk with them about her experiences and share a video.
“I got to know her over the years at conventions and things, and to have her come here as a soloist — and me to conduct with her as a soloist — is just a childhood dream come to full fruition,” Hillard said.
Tickets for “The Sound of Change” are $35 for reserved seating, $25 general admission, and $10 general admission for children, students and military with ID. Tickets for the post-concert Conductor’s Circle social event, also at the ACRI, are $20. Tickets can be purchased online at albanysymphony.org, or contact the ASO offices at (229) 430-8933 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday.