Review

'Ellis Island: The Dream of America' mixes music and oral histories to tell immigrants' stories

Composer Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” seems tailor-made for PBS. The piece traces the experiences of seven immigrants from seven countries on their way to America, using monologues from actors with orchestral underscoring and interludes.

The texts are taken directly from recordings made for the Ellis Island Oral History Project, and you can just imagine the folks at PBS licking their chops at the visual possibilities.

The Pacific Symphony started planning performances of “Ellis Island” as part of its recurring American Composers Festival some 18 months ago. (They first performed it at what is now the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in 2005.) But when PBS reportedly signed on in February, the project became a really big deal for the orchestra — its first exposure on PBS’ prestigious Great Performances series.

On top of that, immigration has been top of mind since President Trump took office, and judging from murmuring overheard Thursday night, the audience in Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall had no trouble making the connection.

It’s easy to see why “Ellis Island” has had legs since its premiere in 2002. (Boyer, who likes statistics, said that this was its 168th performance.) The piece makes its appeal emotionally and directly, mainly through the immigrants’ words, which tug at the family ties that so many of us have. Whatever the degree of their individual suffering, these immigrants had in common the unbridled joy of seeing the Manhattan skyline for the first time and believing they were in the promised land.

Boyer deftly heightens the emotions of the text as good underscoring should do, while the interludes set the scenes for the monologues to follow. There are generic Hollywood gestures — the trumpet theme in the Prologue sounds like it was destined for a television miniseries — as well as a few flecks of humor, some suave ragtimey music for the Irish segment, and a vicious storm at sea. You hear it once and you get it immediately.

For this performance, period photographs were cross-faded Ken Burns-style during the orchestral passages on a giant 72-by-24-foot curved screen in back of the orchestra. The actors — Barry Bostwick, Lesley Fera, Johnathan McClain, Samantha Sloyan, Dean Chekvala, Kira Sternbach, Lyn Greene — came out one at a time, some mimicking the accents of the characters, some not. Carl St.Clair conducted with his usual fervor, pounding home the grandiose Copland-style coda to sum up.

Unfortunately, the amplification and the hall’s reverberation made a good deal of the text nearly unintelligible. (The women fared better than the men.) That dampened the emotional impact of the immigrants’ testimonies that comes through on the piece's Naxos recording. Also, bright lights aimed at the audience hindered the view of the screen. Presumably things will be clearer on the PBS broadcast, which will be aired during the 2017-18 season. (Only the Friday and Saturday performances are being filmed; Camryn Manheim, Michael Nouri and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe rotate into the cast for some performances.)

The theme of the evening was California composers, of which there were four. In the lobby before the concert, 16 students from Chapman University did their loose-jointed take on Terry Riley’s “In C” that lasted nearly 27 minutes. Doing their part to observe John Adams’ 70th birthday, the Pacific Symphony brought electric violinist Tracy Silverman in to reprise his performance of “The Dharma at Big Sur,” the most Asiatic-flavored piece Adams has written to date, now taken at a more leisurely, polished pace. And Frank Ticheli, formerly the Pacific Symphony’s composer-in-residence, was represented by his engagingly spunky, syncopated, blue-note-strewn workout, “Blue Shades.”

Interestingly — given the thrust of “Ellis Island” — Riley is the only native-born Californian of the four.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Pacific Symphony

Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Friday (sold out) and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (“Ellis Island” only)

Tickets: $25-$195

Information: (714) 556-5799 or www.pacificsymphony.org

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