‘On Willows and Birches’ (Harp Concerto) Reviews

From the World Premiere performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine, with Ann Hobson Pilot on Harp:

After intermission came the new Williams work, a well-crafted two-movement concerto that clearly fulfills its stated aims of paying tribute to Pilot and showcasing her formidable musicianship. That said, it is a modest work in its musical substance and in its effect. The first movement, titled “On Willows’’ after a line from Psalm 137, is slow, spare, and ruminative, with an undulating solo harp line drifting above a hazy orchestral landscape, creating a kind of spectral chamber music that seems to be heading somewhere it never quite reaches. The second movement, “On Birches’’ after the Robert Frost poem, is more chipper, caffeinated, and rhythmically emphatic, with an extended cadenza that puts the soloist’s virtuosity squarely on display.

And Pilot had plenty of it to show this appreciative audience. Her playing had impressive rhythmic clarity but also a keen sense of mood and color, not to mention a fundamental graciousness and expressive warmth. As the crowd’s ovation made clear, she will be missed.

New York Times review:

Ann Hobson Pilot, the former principal harpist of the Boston Symphony, who recently retired after 40 years with the orchestra, was the soloist in John Williams’s “On Willows and Birches,” written for her, a work that had its premiere on Sept. 23 in Boston. Though Mr. Williams made his name (and his fortune) as a film composer, he is a smart craftsman of concert works.

The first movement of this 15-minute concerto, inspired by a phrase from Psalm 137, “We hanged our harps upon the willows,” is alluring, atmospheric music that balances lacy runs and dry plucked themes in the harp with quizzical, elusive harmonies and shimmering orchestral textures. It reminded me of Mr. Williams’s transfixing score for the film “A.I.”

The jaunty second movement, inspired by the Robert Frost poem “On Birches,” was less engaging. The music is jazzy and restless but a little square and tame, like a pops concert “Petrouchka.” Ms. Pilot was a refined and nimble soloist. Mr. Gatti, who learned this score during a car trip to Boston the day before the concert, seemed in full command.