By John Chambless
The voices of people who came to America between 1910 and 1940 will be heard during “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” a multimedia program being presented by the Chesco Pops Orchestra in January.
Composer Peter Boyer's work combines photographs from the Ellis Island archives projected above the stage, along with actors reading the words of seven immigrants who reflect on their American experiences. The stories resulted from Boyer's extensive research in the Ellis Island Oral History Project. Boyer fashioned short monologues from the stories, and wove them into his orchestral score.
Along with the personal reminiscences, the work concludes with a reading of the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” which contains the famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor…,” which are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
“Ellis Island: The Dream of America” was commissioned by the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, and was premiered in April 2002 by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Boyer. This premiere was broadcast on National Public Radio’s “SymphonyCast” program.
A recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s performance of the work was conducted by Boyer, and featured actors Barry Bostwick, Blair Brown, Olympia Dukakis, Anne Jackson, Bebe Neuwirth, Eli Wallach, and Louis Zorich. The CD was released by Naxos and got a Grammy nomination in 2006 for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” has been performed almost 150 times by more than 60 different orchestras, and has been broadcast on hundreds of radio stations.
Sixty-five of Chester County’s finest musicians will be brought together for the January performances by the Chesco Pops, under the direction of new music director Joseph Gehring. These shows are Gehring's debut with the Chesco Pops. Since being founded in 2005, the orchestra has performed nearly 50 concerts in the region.
The Chesco Pops will partner with a local non-profit in each of the communities where the concert venues are located. They are the Unionville Chadds Ford Education Foundation, the Phoenixville Area Public Library, and the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester. A percentage of ticket revenues will be awarded each partner.
In reviewing the CD of “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” music critic Robin Friedman, of Amazon.com, wrote, “The texts are inspiring and beautifully read, and Boyer’s music captures and enhances the excitement of coming to the United States. The work opens with a long orchestral introduction that sets the stage for what follows – with a slow opening featuring the trumpet and a splashy transition to a lively theme featuring brass, percussion, and bells.
“Each of the speakers offers his or her story about coming to America in language that frequently is eloquent. The first speaker, an immigrant from Poland, concludes her history with the realization that, in America 'you are free!' and her understanding is captured in the musical interlude which follows.
“The young Greek fisherman who follows makes his own decision to leave his family for America, and his speech and the interlude which follows surge with hope and gratitude. The Italian immigrant rejoins her family and proclaims 'we are all together now!' to triumphant music. The Hungarian immigrant recognizes that 'I became a man here' with the opportunity for a free life, and his realization is accompanied by a reflective meditative passage. The Jewish woman immigrant from Belgium tells her story to the accompaniment of a wailing solo violin.
“The liveliest passage belongs to the Irish immigrant, a raconteur and non-stop talker who tells his story to the accompaniment of a bouncy, popular theme on the piano and by the orchestra. The final speaker is an immigrant from Russia who describes her first sight of the Statue of Liberty as 'a vision from heaven.'
“This is open-hearted, patriotic and inspiring ceremonial music about what coming to the United States meant to generations of dispossessed people seeking a better and a free life.”
In making his debut with the Chesco Pops, Gehring brings an extensive background as a conductor, pianist and educator. He teaches at Immaculata University and conducts the Immaculata Symphony and the University Concert Band. He also conducts the West Chester Band and directs the entire instrumental program at the Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville, where he conducts the elementary, middle and high school ensembles, and is a frequent guest conductor throughout Chester County
As a pianist, he has been the director of music ministries at Exton United Methodist Church since 2004. He is also the accompanist for the Brandywine Singers, and has maintained a piano studio for beginning to advanced students of all ages for more than 15 years.
When he joined the Chesco Pops, Gehring commented, "I am thrilled to continue to work with the fabulous musicians in the Chesco Pops. Through innovative programming and unique collaborations, I look forward to our presenting new and exciting music programs to the residents of Chester County and beyond, and to advancing the name of the Chester County Pops Orchestra and expanding its
The Chesco Pops will perform on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 3 p.m. at Unionville High School; Sunday, Jan. 26 at 3 p.m. at Phoenixville Area Middle School; and Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at West Chester East High School. Tickets are $15 ($12 for seniors, free for children and students). Tickets are available at the door, or online at www.chescopops.org.