Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates the American immigration experience in Boyer’s uplifting “Ellis Island”

Tue Sep 25, 2018 at 2:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mei-Ann Chen conducted the Chicago Sinfonietta in Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” Monday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

There are few more contentious political issues in these highly contentious times than that of immigration. Too often lost amid the heated debate are the personal aspects of the immigration experience and the hardships and compelling stories so many individuals faced coming to start new lives in America.

Mei-Ann Chen and the Chicago Sinfonietta opened their season Monday night at Symphony Center with a celebration of the immigration experience via Peter Boyer’s Ellis Island: The Dream of America. This multimedia work for orchestra, actors, and projections was the main work in the Sinfonietta’s program, “ID: Images of Diversity.”

Completed in 2002, Boyer’s epic work sets true stories gathered from the Ellis Island Oral History Project. We hear narratives from several immigrants who came to the U.S. from an array of countries, entering through Ellis Island between 1910 and 1940. The stories are humorous, touching, heart-breaking and often inspirational.

These sort of multimedia pieces rarely work successfully with the visual element too often distracting from or overwhelming the live music. But the remarkable array of projected period photos—inexplicably uncredited in the program—of immigrant faces, the Statue of Liberty, and tenements in early 20th century New York, were unerringly well chosen, complementing and enhancing the live testimonies and music brilliantly.

Boyer’s score for Ellis Island may not break much new ground or plumb great depths. But in its accessible utility and broad cinematic style, it proved highly effective. Highlights include the quick, bustling music for the New York street scenes, or the tender theme reflecting young immigrant children, which swells to a soaring lyrical climax.

Apart from a disastrous opening trumpet solo, the orchestra played with great polish and commitment under Chen who deftly handled the alternating spoken and musical elements with clear stop-and-go cues.

Too bad the Sinfonietta’s music director didn’t allow Boyer’s work to speak for itself. The only questionable element of the presentation came with the Taiwan-born conductor’s reading of a statement before the performance, which almost seemed to be apologizing for the inspirational, quasi-patriotic nature of Boyer’s piece. 

The (unattributed) statement noted that the testimonies in Ellis Island “are only the stories of white European immigrants” and that their experience “was and is unique,” adding, accurately, that Ellis Island doesn’t take into account slaves brought to the U.S. against their will and others “who have had a distantly different experience.” The written statement goes on to inveigh against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other restrictions on Asian immigration—while not mentioning similar restrictions on Irish immigrants— as well as so-called moral restrictions, “which kept queer and trans immigrants from also yearning to breathe free.”

Fair enough but why undermine the uplifting message of Boyer’s piece with a bit of gratuitous political commentary? No doubt the immigration experience—or nonexperience for those denied entry— was not always a positive one. But whatever the intention, the statement came off as preachy and patronizing. As shown by the strong applause at the conclusion of Boyer’s work, the Sinfonietta’s diverse audience is sophisticated enough to view the Ellis Island experience in a historical context without this kind of apologia.

In addition to the admirable playing of the Sinfonietta, much of the success of this performance of Ellis Island was due to the fine actors of the Berwyn-based Steep Theatre Company. Bassam Abdelfattah, Lucy Carapetyan, Patricia Donegan, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, Destini Huston and Omer Abbas related the true, first-person immigrant stories with a wonderful freshness and sincerity, bringing out the humor, sadness, enthusiasm and inspiration of the words. Director George Cederquist brought his usual brand of efficient, understated stage direction to the proceedings.

The program’s first half offered a nicely varied selection of shorter works, though—notwithstanding CEO Jim Hirsch’s introduction—the immigration connection was tenuous at best in most of them.

The evening led off with a vivid reading of the Overture to Verdi’s Nabucco, which certainly fit the displaced people’s theme. Chen and the players brought somber dignity to the opening motif, elegance to the famous chorus of Hebrew Slaves (“Va Pensiero”) and fiery intensity to the final section, Chen leaping about in her uninhibited podium style.

The noisy bustle of latecomers finding their seats seemed to affect balancing and concentration a bit in the brief “Simple Gifts” excerpt from Copland’s Appalachian Spring, though the Shaker hymn was performed with warm string tone and dedication.

James P. Johnson was best known as a stride jazz pianist and writer of the hit song, “Charleston.” Less commonly known was that he also composed for the concert hall including a Harlem Symphony, a one-act opera (with Langston Hughes) Da Organizer, and his Drums—A Symphonic Poem heard Monday night.

The subtitle suggests weightier music than Drums actually has to offer. The score is cast in a kind of snappy Broadway idiom—dance-like and Gershwinesque without the indelible tunes. Chen was on top of the shifting meters and the players provided ample rhythmic kick in a spirited performance.  Sinfonietta timpanist Robert Everson brought plenty of muscle and rhythmic vitality to his spotlighted solos. Percussionist Michael Folker deserves a nod as well for his nifty, virtuosic xylophone solo.

The Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Marquez has become the Mexican composer’s sole repertoire piece to such an extent that one sometimes wonders if there really is a Danzon No. 1. Chen led a worthy performance of this overplayed work, bringing idiomatic lilt to the tango-like opening theme and syncopated bite to the ensuing dances, leading the music in her own Terpsichorean manner.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates the American immigration experience in Boyer’s uplifting “Ellis Island””

  1. Posted Sep 26, 2018 at 8:06 am by Peter Moore

    Thank you for your review. As Artistic Director of Steep Theatre, I just wanted to note that the Chicago Sinfonietta graciously included the introductory statement by Mei-Ann and the accompanying information in the program per the request of our company and our artists. It was intended to add context to and clarify our intention with the piece.

Leave a Comment