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Cleveland Orchestra kicks off humanities festival with a visit to 'Ellis Island'

Peter Boyer's "Ellis Island: The Dream of America" will kick off the Cleveland Orchestra's humanities festival. The piece features the stories of seven immgrants who came to America in the early 20th century.
Ellis Island Foundation
Peter Boyer's "Ellis Island: The Dream of America" will kick off the Cleveland Orchestra's humanities festival. The piece features the stories of seven immgrants who came to America in the early 20th century.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s “American Dream” humanities festival kicks off Tuesday with a free performance of Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America.”

The “American Dream” festival runs through May with performances, keynote speaker Isabel Wilkerson and partnerships with arts organizations such as Karamu House, the Cleveland Cinematheque and the Cleveland Museum of Art. It’s all centered around the social and historical importance of the Puccini opera “La fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the West”), which will be performed May 14, 17 and 20.

“Ellis Island” incorporates music, projected images and actors conveying seven stories of immigrants who came to America in the early 20th century. Boyer, who is based in Los Angeles, will be in Cleveland for the Severance performance, as well as five educational concerts. After that, he heads to London for the premiere of his new work, "Today We Ask," commissioned to celebrate the Coronation of King Charles III.

Boyer calls “Ellis Island” a “live documentary.” He came up with the idea in the late 1990s, partially due to his fascination with the poem “The New Colossus” at the base of the Statue of Liberty, with the famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Ideastream Public Media’s Kabir Bhatia discussed “Ellis Island” with Boyer.

Peter Boyer: Only in the course of actually working on this piece, which I did over the course of about a year, did I discover the interesting fact that I also have Ellis Island ancestry - which I hadn't known. My mother's maiden name is Pannone. I learned in the course of this that my great-grandfather, Francesco Pannone, had come to America through Ellis Island from Naples in 1912. At that point, my great-grandfather had been gone for quite a while, [but] I actually was able to discuss that with my late grandfather. I was just one of so many because there are over 12 million [Ellis Island immigrants]. So, the seven stories chosen in some way are representative of a much greater number.

It's fairly common for those stories simply to be put in the past as something that is part of the old life. It was part of the past history. When people came to the United States, they began a new life. I thought it was interesting that my own grandfather, who was very close to his father, didn't actually know that it was Ellis Island. That particular story had never been told to him. It's the end of the journey across the ocean, and then the beginning of the new life.

Bhatia: What was the inspiration for doing the Ellis Island research in the first place?

Boyer: I wrote this piece between 2001 and 2002. I got the commission from the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford in early 2001. It was an April 2002 premiere. I was well into the work, I had done all the research, created the script and I had begun composing the music when September 11, 2001, happened. I recall the sense of shock and dismay that permeated everything at that time. And here was a commission about a very American subject, American immigration. I remember there being discussions with the Bushnell and the Hartford Symphony about whether it should in some way be changed. Should we somehow reflect what has just happened? I thought about it a lot and in the end, I decided that the right thing to do was simply to go ahead with my original vision and to honor these stories.

This is a piece that, obviously, has a great deal of affection for and belief in the best ideals of the United States. In a moment like that, we were reflecting on people who have very different opinions of the United States. Since then, so much has happened. Particularly in recent years, we're living in such complicated, divisive and often depressing times. It's interesting to look back on this piece and see that, even in the course of 21 years since the piece premiered, how much America has changed. And yet, surprisingly, this piece has actually grown in terms of its reach in terms of the number of performances. That's something that I really hadn't anticipated and something for which I'm very grateful.

The Cleveland Orchestra will be the 116th orchestra that has performed the work, and these will be the 261st to 266th performances [including five educational performances in Cleveland]. As an American composer writing orchestral music, it can often be difficult for many composers to have even a second performance of a work or a third performance.

Bhatia: When this piece premiered in 2002, were any of the seven immigrants still alive?

Boyer: That's a great question. There was only one still alive at that time, and her name was Lillian Galletta. She was the youngest of the stories that are featured in my piece. She came to the United States with her siblings from Italy in 1928, when she was only a little girl. Hearing the audio recording of her interview that was done in the early 1990s, when she was an older woman, hearing the emotion in her voice as she described this reunion that she as a little girl and her older siblings had with their father at Ellis Island, was incredibly moving. You can hear the emotion in her voice. I heard that and said, “That must be in the piece. I have to use that and I have to find a way to amplify this emotion with the orchestra.”

Composer Peter Boyer was in the midst of composing "Ellis Island" on September 11, 2001. He says the piece has unexpectedly taken on even greater relevance since its premiere in April, 2002.
Benjamin Ealovega
Peter Boyer
Composer Peter Boyer was in the midst of composing "Ellis Island" on September 11, 2001. He says the piece has unexpectedly taken on even greater relevance since its premiere in April 2002.

My first interaction with her… [was to] speak with her on the phone. She was in New York, and I played the piano for her over the phone of what I call “Reunion Theme” that I'd written for her. And I could hear the emotion in her voice. This was a couple of months before the premiere in Hartford. So, the Bushnell arranged to have her come to the performance. And what was really touching and moving to me was at that point, all four of her older siblings - who had come with her in 1928 - were all still alive. I think she was 79 at the time and her siblings were in their 80s. They were in New York and New Jersey and Florida and the Galletta siblings all came to this first performance, which I conducted.

I remember so well conducting the grand conclusion of this piece with this cast of actors, an overwhelming, long standing ovation from the audience. And then when they were done applauding and I sort of calmed them down, I said that I wanted them to meet a woman whose words they had heard in my piece, and Lillian walked out [on stage]. It was a stunning moment. It was really one of the great moments in my life as a composer, because it resonated so strongly that this is the truth. Here's this real person and here's the story we heard, and this represents so many people.

Bhatia: I bet the place exploded when she came out.

Boyer: It absolutely did. And Lillian was quite a character. She looked younger than her years. She's gone now, but that was very, very meaningful to me.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.