Citizenship found meaning again Thursday evening. It was discovered in the “everyone” who is an immigrant.
Not the immigrant “them.”
The immigrant who is “us.”
The nearly full Amphitheater audience listened to nobility on the stage of the Amphitheater and heard the call, taking ownership of an idea. And the audience played with beauty from within the orchestra and heard the song. And the audience then stood and shouted bravo, and some sat back down and cried.
For they had heard a witness with music and drama by the American composer Peter Boyer, known for work in both film and the concert hall. Ellis Island: The Dream of America may well be among the most performed works in America since it premiered in 2002; heard more than a hundred times and heard again on its recording by Naxos.
This week of words at Chautauqua about immigration were lifted Thursday by words of arrived immigrants, recorded some time ago, but still fresh with the travail and the hopes of those who came through Ellis Island to America — Greek, Italian, Irish, Belgian, Hungarian, Polish: Those who rejoiced on Broadway, and those who mourned on the Lower East Side; those who learned they had lost everyone left behind, and those who found family again, already here.
To each testimony — to a person, after a treacherous crossing, relief was found through the sight of a Statue of Liberty which stood very tall in a harbor of opportunity, a lamp lifted to mark a golden door. For, like those on the inbound ships, this grand sculpture is multicultural — designed and gifted by the French for a sculptural base in America by an American, Richard Morris Hunt. Right away, a solo trumpet calling upon our attention for a sobering view of projected images of ships dangerous filled, stuffed, with human cargo, and sober-minded strings establish a tenor fit for such gravity. The projected images throughout the 45-minute Ellis Island piece are a part of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum Library collection, supplemented by images from a longtime employee, Augustus Sherman.
Six narratives from the Ellis Island Museum oral history archive were performed in costume with a grace and piquant charm summoned by heartfelt story. They were five actors from Chautauqua Theater Company: Carol Halstead, John Bambery, Myles Bullock, Keren Lugo and Andrew Borba, who also served as stage director.
The performance aspect of Boyer’s work separates it from such as Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” not better or worse, just different. Ellis Island, actually, is more akin to Boyer’s other regarded dramatization to orchestra, called The Dream Lives on: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers from 2010.
His orchestrations for films have won recognition of the Academy Award Ceremony organizers, for whom he scored the 81st and the 73rd Oscar Ceremonies. This year, his orchestrations include “Minions” and “Jurassic World,” and he worked previously on 2009’s “Star Trek” and 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” He knows how to pluck the emotions, and we happily allow him reign — from sacred chords from the hymnal right down to Tin Pan Alley. The content of Ellis Island is that wide, and Boyer plays small against the spoken word, allowing it clear passage, but then stepping up to guide with music into the next reader, augured through a theme he has rendered appropriate to the character announced.
Ellis Island concludes with a reading by all actors of the Emma Lazarus poem, which is engraved into a plaque on the base of the statue, and we remember that we are a nation that welcomes the tired, the hungry and the homeless, and we are all, as one speaker declares, “strangers to each other,” who should be ready to build community.
The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, it should be made clear, was superb, as Brian Reagin, in his 19th year as concertmaster, handled with simple elegance and subdued voice the solo violin work that constitutes most of John Williams’ theme from the film “Schindler’s List,” a deft bookend to Ellis Island, painfully expressing another face of immigration.
And yet another view of the subject was rendered during the idea-packed concert, this one through the firebird legends. Appearing in most cultures, the firebird can represent both a blessing and a blight. The search for its magic, or for treasure that is within its powers, is another way of looking for the happy ending, a strong motivation to pick up and move on to a new nation with greater opportunity, if not streets paved with gold.
Our new music director, Rossen Milanov, created quite a program to parallel and inform the week’s theme on immigration. And in his lithe direction of the orchestra, he might as well have been that firebird, summoning the orchestra to swoop and soar through Igor Stravinsky’s piece that brilliantly conjures the hopes and the dangers of aspiring to a different levels.
The 28-year-old Stravinsky was asked in 1909 to take on the legend and create music for a ballet, organized by the great producer Sergei Diaghilev. It was to be a turning point for Stravinsky, for when the work was premiered in Paris on June 25 by the Ballet Russes to choreography by Michel Fokine for a company led by Vaslav Nijinsky, the critics were delighted with the results.
The story for this firebird enables a prince, who possesses a magic feather from the firebird, to overcome a wicked monster and free a dozen captured princesses. So the deep strings that begin the work portend magical circumstances and develop a wondrous relationship between the prince and the amazing bird-woman.
The nasty monster comes on with a dervish dance for himself and his leagues, but our prince overcomes these wanton ways with a sorcery given to a conclusion as tremulous and shimmering as was the wicked dance a marvel of full orchestra effects.
A triumphant finish makes clear that through skilled performance one can be present to an amazing musical effect, and such was the case Thursday, confirmed by the quick huzzahs and applause to an orchestra and its leader beaming to the orchestra about what they had just wrought. In its way, then, the evening was an experience in the triumph of will and desire. Happy endings, outcomes for the good, are possible to those who aspire to great things, and are determined to get there.
Anthony Bannon is executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. He previously was an arts writer for The Buffalo News.