Ellis Island: Program Notes cover

Ellis Island: Program Notes


Peter Boyer's Grammy-nominated “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” is a stirring work that celebrates the historic American immigrant experience with actors and projected images. The New Yorker’s critic Alex Ross described John Adams’ music as “present-tense American romanticism.” In celebration of the composer's 70th birthday, Pacific Symphony performs “The Dharma at Big Sur,” with Tracy Silverman, “the greatest living exponent of the electric violin” (BBC Radio).
Be part of history! Join the audience on April 7-8 for the recording of the first-ever PBS “Great Performances” broadcast from Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
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To learn more about tonight's Guest Artists, please click here.

To learn more about PBS “Great Performances” please click here.

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.

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Ellis Island: Program Notes



Robert A. Barnhart • Lighting Designer

Perry Freeze • Projection Designer

Chase Simonds • Projection Producer

Rachel Allen • Projection Associate Producer

Art Lazaro • Projection Artist

Kim Lyons • Projection Painter

Frank Ticheli (b. 1958)

Blue Shades

John Adams (b. 1947)

The Dharma at Big Sur

A New Day

Sri Moonshine

Tracy Silverman


Peter Boyer (b. 1970)

Ellis Island: The Dream of America


Words of Helen Cohen (emigrated from Poland, 1920)

Interlude 1

Words of James Apanomith (Greece, 1911)

Interlude 2

Words of Lillian Galletta (Italy, 1928)

Interlude 3

Words of Lazarus Salamon (Hungary, 1920)

Interlude 4

Words of Helen Rosenthal (Belgium, 1940)

Interlude 5

Words of Manny Steen (Ireland, 1925)

Interlude 6

Words of Katherine Beychok (Russia, 1910)

Epilogue: "The New Colossus" (Emma Lazarus, 1883)

Texts from the Ellis Island Oral History Project

Photos provided by the National Park Service Statue of Liberty National Monument, The New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress

The 2017 American Composers Festival is generously sponsored by Charles and Ling Zhang.

Blue Shades

Blue Shades


Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings.

Performance time: 11 minutes


The internationally recognized American composer Frank Ticheli was composer-in-residence with Pacific Symphony from 1991 through 1998. Born in 1958 in Monroe, Louisiana, he received his doctoral and master's degrees in composition from The University of Michigan.

His orchestral works have received considerable recognition in the U.S. and Europe with performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Dallas Symphony, American Composers Orchestra, the radio orchestras of Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Saarbrüecken and Austria, and the orchestras of Austin, Bridgeport, Charlotte, Colorado, Haddonfield, Harrisburg, Hong Kong, Jacksonville, Lansing, Long Island, Louisville, Lubbock, Memphis, Nashville, Omaha, Phoenix, Portland, Richmond, San Antonio, San Jose, Wichita Falls and others.

Ticheli is well known for his works for concert band, many of which have become standards in the repertoire. In addition to composing, he has appeared as guest conductor of his music at Carnegie Hall, at many American universities and music festivals, and in cities throughout the world, including Schladming (Austria), Beijing and Shanghai, London and Manchester, Singapore, Rome, Sydney and numerous cities in Japan.

His compositions have been described as “optimistic and thoughtful” (Los Angeles Times), “lean and muscular” (New York Times), “brilliantly effective” (Miami Herald) and “powerful, deeply felt, crafted with impressive flair and an ear for striking instrumental colors” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel).

What to Listen For

Walt Disney Concert Hall photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

What to Listen For

Ticheli is frequently inspired by visual experience, especially architecture-notably the work of “starchitect” Frank Gehry. His music seems to shine and iridesce like one of Frank Gehry's gleaming titanium structures, with distinctive phrases and gestures that glide among each other in layers without crisp attacks or endpoints.

Though very different in character and effect, the technique is reminiscent (to one listener, at least) of the patented layering of “cascading strings” that gave the popular Mantovani Orchestra its deliciously unctuous sound in the 1970s and '80s.

Ticheli's way with texture and color has made him one of the most frequently programmed composers of compositions without strings, including concert band music for schools and virtuoso ensembles, and many of his catalog entries exist in separate arrangements for full orchestra and band.

His combination of energy, finesse and an evocatively beautiful sound has established many Ticheli compositions-including Blue Shades-as core repertory in both realms. Either way, listeners face two critical questions: Are the “shades” in his title hues of blue? Or are they blue sunglasses?

Frank Ticheli conducting his own work Blue Shades with the Georgia State University Symphonic Wind Ensemble; November 8, 2011, Rialto Center for the Arts, Atlanta, GA


The Dharma at Big Sur

The Dharma at Big Sur

JOHN ADAMS (B. 1947)

Instrumentation: 2 clarinets; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion; 2 harps; piano, 2 keyboard samplers; solo electric violin

Performance time: 31 minutes


This year the music world marks the 70th birthday of the distinguished American composer John Adams. Earlier in his career, critics were quick to categorize Adams with supposed “minimalist” composers such as Philip Glass, who is 10 years his senior. But it did not take long for Adams' wide-ranging style and questing musical mind to reach beyond the bounds of any single classification in major works such as the operas Doctor Atomic and the Death of Klinghoffer and in his remarkable 9-11 elegy, On the Transmigration of Souls.

In these, as in all of his compositions, Adams demonstrates a distinctively individual voice and a broad awareness of musical traditions from other times and places.

No American composer receives more commissions for occasional works than Adams, and as an accomplished memoirist, he continues to document his experiences in contributing to the music of our times.

The Dharma at Big Sur, just such a piece d'occasion, was composed in 2003 for the opening of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, and, like Ticheli's Blue Shades, it was inspired by the poetry of architectural space in general-and by Frank Gehry in particular.

According to Adams, “This new building was designed by the great Frank Gehry, with whom I’d collaborated 20 years earlier on a piece called Available Light for the choreographer Lucinda Childs. Even in its earliest planning stages, Disney Hall promised to be more than just another concert hall.

With the sweeping, silver-toned clouds and sails of its exterior and with its warm and inviting public spaces, this opening of this building embodied a watershed moment in the history of West Coast culture.

When I was asked by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, to compose a special piece for the opening, I immediately began searching my mind for an image, either verbal or pictorial, that could summon up the feelings of being an emigrant to the Pacific Coast—as I am, and as are so many who’ve made the journey here, both physically and spiritually.”

What to Listen For

Image by DomCarver

What to Listen For

In the program notes for the premiere performance, Adams cited as influences the Jack Kerouac novel Big Sur for its evocation of the overwhelming emotional impact of first encountering the monumental landscape of the West, and the violinist Tracy Silverman for a performance style that fused a variety of musical traditions, ranging from North Indian sarangi playing to that of jazz and rock artists like Stéphane Grappelli, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, and even to Appalachian fiddling.

“When I heard Tracy play,” Adams noted, “I was reminded that in almost all cultures other than the European classical one, the real meaning of the music is in between the notes. The slide, the portamento, the ‘blue note’-all are essential to the emotional expression, whether it’s a great Indian master improvising on a raga, or Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Hodges bending a blue note right to the floor.”

Adams originally intended to specify the pre-Baroque system of "just" intonation for The Dharma at Big Sur, though this proved impractical for a large orchestral ensemble playing in unison. Remarkably, he achieves the desired effect with conventional orchestral tuning.

In Adams’ words, The Dharma at Big Sur expresses the “so-called ‘shock of recognition’ when one reaches the edge of the continental land mass.... For a newcomer, the first exposure produces a visceral effect of great emotional complexity.” His words call to mind those of the poet John Keats, describing stunned European explorers' mute amazement at their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.

Tracy Silverman performs his arrangement of The Dharma at Big Sur by John Adams.

Tribeca New Music 2014 Festival at The Cell in New York City

May 18, 2014


Ellis Island: The Dream of America

Ellis Island: The Dream of America


Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling on English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd doubling on bass clarinet, 3rd doubling on alto saxophone), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling on contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano (doubling on celesta), strings.

Performance time: 44 minutes.

Photos courtesy of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.


Ellis Island: The Dream of America was born out of my fascination with the relationship between history and music. I’m drawn to good stories-especially stories which come from the past but are relevant to the present-and as an orchestral composer, I’m intrigued by the potential of the orchestra as a storytelling medium.

Of course, orchestral music cannot tell stories in a literal way, but its ability to suggest scenes and emotions, and evoke responses in listeners, has challenged and stimulated composers for centuries. My fascination with the story of the Titanic led me to choose that as the subject of an early orchestral work, and considering the plight of that vessel’s third-class passengers-humble European immigrants bound for America-led me to think more broadly about early 20th-century American immigration.

Ellis Island, New York, ca. 1910, via the National Archives

America is a nation of immigrants, and our immigrant history is a profound part of our American mythology. In the history of American immigration, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are icons of immense significance. In the years of its operation, from 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants, over 70 percent of all immigrants to the United States, passed through Ellis Island, the processing station which was “the gateway to America.”

Today, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population, over 100 million Americans, can trace their roots to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island.

The stories of Ellis Island immigrants are in many ways our family stories: Whether they are the tales of our grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or friends, so many Americans can relate to these experiences as part of our collective history. This is what makes Ellis Island stories so fascinating, and it’s what drew me to this material as the basis of a major composition.

When I decided to create a work about Ellis Island, I knew that I wanted to combine spoken word with the orchestra. When I began researching Ellis Island, I learned of the existence of something which would come to define the nature of the piece: the Ellis Island Oral History Project.

This is a collection of interviews, housed at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, with immigrants who were processed at Ellis Island during the years of its operation. Begun in 1973, the Ellis Island Oral History Project now contains over 2,000 interviews.

The largest number of these were done during the late 1980s and early 1990s, catalyzed by the opening of the Museum in 1990.

All immigrants interviewed for the Project were asked a standard set of questions: What life was like in their native country, reasons for coming to America, the nature of the voyage to port and the journey by ship, experiences arriving in New York Harbor and being processed at Ellis Island, their ultimate destination, and their experiences adjusting to life in the United States.

Collectively, the interviews which constitute the Ellis Island Oral History Project-in both recorded form and in transcripts-are a treasure of immeasurable worth in American history. When I learned of the existence of this resource, I knew I had found the source from which my texts would be drawn: real words of real people telling their own stories.

A newly arrived immigrant family on Ellis Island, gazing across the bay at the Statue of Liberty. Image via National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

The decision to use texts from the Ellis Island Oral History Project meant that the work would require actors, and it’s an important distinction that they are not “narrators” or “speakers,” but actors. They deliver their monologues in the first person. The use of actors and, in live performance, projected images with the orchestra makes Ellis Island: The Dream of America a hybrid work which is closer to a theater piece than a pure concert work, though it is intended to be performed in the concert hall.

Though I am a composer and not a writer, I decided early in the process that I would create the script for the work myself, prior to composing the music. The creation of the script involved the selection, arrangement and editing of texts from the Ellis Island Oral History Project into a sort of dramatic narrative.

This proved to be a huge task, not least because of the staggering amount of material which exists (much more than I could ever realistically canvas for material). Ellis Island welcomed (or rejected) immigrants from a great many countries over a span of more than 60 years, and so I wanted the immigrants’ stories chosen for inclusion to be widely representative of both geography and historical period.

And of course, I wanted to use stories which would say something important about the American immigrant experience, stories which were poignant, gripping or even humorous. I examined over 100 interviews, and found many more stories than could be included in a 44-minute piece with 25 minutes of spoken word. Ultimately I settled on a structure which includes seven stories, four female and three male, of immigrants who came through Ellis Island from seven countries, between 1910 and 1940.

For the final text in the work, I knew from the beginning that I could not create a work about Ellis Island without making reference to the poem by Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, which is inscribed at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

This poem is synonymous with the Statue, Ellis Island, and American immigration in the minds of many Americans. A number of immigrants interviewed for the project made reference to the poem, and the words of Katherine Beychok provided a natural bridge to a recitation of the poem, which serves as the work’s epilogue.

The orchestral music in Ellis Island: The Dream of America is continuous, framing, commenting on, and amplifying the spoken words. Following a six-minute orchestral prologue, the work’s structure alternates the individual immigrants’ stories with orchestral interludes. In general, during the actors’ monologues in which the immigrants’ stories are told, the orchestra plays a supporting role, employing a more sparse orchestration and texture so as not to overpower the speaking voice.

During the interludes, the orchestra assumes the primary role, and accordingly “speaks up” with fuller orchestration. The prologue introduces much of the work’s principal thematic material. It is in two sections, slow and fast.

In the first section, the work’s main theme, simple and somewhat folk-like in character, is introduced by a solo trumpet, then taken up by the strings and developed.

The second section is quick and vigorous, and introduces a fast-moving theme in the trumpets, with pulsating accompaniment in the whole orchestra, which I think of as “traveling music.” These themes recur in many guises throughout the entire piece.

In addition to these, there are other important musical themes, some of which are associated with particular immigrants’ stories. Of course I attempted to compose music which was appropriate for the nature and character of each of the stories.

For Lazarus Salamon’s story of the military oppression in the Hungary of his youth, a menacing snare drum tattoo is significant. But when he speaks of arriving in New York and seeing the Statue of Liberty, a quiet, hymn-like theme for the strings is heard-which will recur at a later mention of the Statue.

Lillian Galletta’s story is that of children’s reunion with their father-an emotional and heartwarming story which I attempted to reflect in a lyrical “reunion” theme. The story of Helen Rosenthal is one of escaping the Nazis to find freedom in America, though her entire family perished at Auschwitz. For this I chose a solo violin to play a lamenting theme suggesting an Eastern European Jewish character.

In stark contrast to this is the story of Manny Steen, an irrepressible Irish immigrant and delightful raconteur. His story cried out for a “Tin Pan Alley” treatment, markedly different in style from the rest of the music. Just as each immigrant is a strand in the American tapestry, so I attempted to reflect their tales with various musical styles.

In live performances of Ellis Island: The Dream of America, there is a visual component which accompanies the music during the Prologue and Epilogue. This consists of images from the archive of historic photographs housed at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum Library.

"Ruthenian woman." Image by Ellis Island clerk Augustus Francis Sherman, 1906

Many of these come from the collection of Augustus Sherman, a longtime Ellis Island employee who took a number of poignant and historically important photographs of immigrants. These immigrants’ faces seem to tell their own stories, and it is little wonder that copies of many of these photographs are displayed prominently in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Work on this piece was begun in the months before September 11, 2001, and completed in the months that followed. During my research trips to Ellis Island in the summer of 2001, many times I had imagined what it was like to be an immigrant sailing into New York Harbor, and seeing the skyline of lower Manhattan.

As the world mourned those devastating events, I often reflected on how that skyline had tragically changed. After September 11, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum, which draw millions of visitors each year, were closed to the public for over three months; the Statue itself did not welcome visitors again until August 2004. The reopening of these American icons reminds us of the endurance of the freedoms which have drawn generations of immigrants from around the world.

Ellis Island: The Dream of America was commissioned by The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, in celebration of the inaugural season of its Belding Theater. It was premiered by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra under my direction, with a cast of actors directed by Martin Charnin, at The Bushnell on April 9, 2002.

---Ellis Island: The Dream of America: Words of Lillian Galleta, emigrated from Italy in 1928, read by Olympia Dukakis · Blair Brown

At that first performance, it was my great pleasure to welcome to the stage Lillian Galletta, the only one of the seven immigrants featured in my work who is still with us. This delightful moment was made even more poignant by the fact that her four older siblings, all in their 80s, who had traveled with her from Sicily to America in 1928, joined us that evening.

—Peter Boyer, 2004


Postscript: Pacific Symphony’s April 2017 Performances

The stories of Ellis Island are stories of journeys. My personal journey with this work has been a remarkable one, now stretching over 16 years-including the year I spent creating it-and encompassing countless memorable moments.

When I composed Ellis Island and conducted its premiere in 2002, I could not have foreseen the impact that this work would have on my life. More than 165 performances have been given by 75 different orchestras to date. In the first few years after the work’s premiere, I attended most of the performances, and conducted some; but the growing number of performances all around the United States has made it impractical to attend most of them.

In all, well over 200,000 people have experienced this work live. It has been performed nearly as much as all the other works in my catalog put together!

At every performance I have attended, the emotional reactions from audience members, and the personal stories and comments that they have shared-generally about how their own family members’ stories seem to have been reflected in the work-have been deeply meaningful to me. Clearly, the stories celebrated in Ellis Island resonate with many Americans. To whatever extent I was successful in marrying these stories with music, I remain grateful.

One of the most exciting moments in my career to date was the nomination of my recording of Ellis Island, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra recorded in London, and a cast of marvelous actors captured in New York, for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 2005.

(I had the honor of losing the Grammy to William Bolcom’s magnum opus Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a predecessor in Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival, and a work so ambitious as to make my work seem modest by comparison. Both of these recordings were released on the Naxos American Classics label.)

From the time I composed Ellis Island in 2001-02, my “big dream” for the work was that it would be produced for PBS’ Great Performances, America’s preeminent performing arts television series. This has always seemed to me to be the greatest possible outcome for the work, which would allow it to be experienced with the highest artistic standards and production values, by the largest number of people around the United States and beyond.

I am absolutely thrilled that these performances of Ellis Island from Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival are being filmed for PBS’ Great Performances, and will be broadcast nationwide next season.

Arriving at Ellis, circa 1908, photo by Lewis Hine

It has taken 15 years, but my “big dream” is finally coming true! I am deeply grateful to the many members of the Pacific Symphony family who have worked so hard for so long to bring this PBS broadcast to fruition. This is a very special moment for all of us.

—Peter Boyer, 2017

To learn more about tonight's Guest Artists, please click here.

To learn more about PBS “Great Performances” please click here.

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.