‘The Dream of America’ comes to the Macky stage

Boulder Phil presents “New World” Symphony, multi-media work about Ellis Island

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Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island
Dietmar Rabich via Wikimedia Commons

The Boulder Philharmonic will devote its next concert, Saturday, April 27, to two works that reflect on the history of the United States and its peoples.

The first is very well known, the Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” by Dvořák. Written while Dvořák was living in the United States, the symphony was shaped by the composer’s experiences here, including with American music and literature.

The second work, “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” by Peter Boyer, is less known. As the title suggests, however, it is about the experience of immigrants arriving in this country and the lives they create here. It will be accompanied by projected images, and includes a script taken from immigrants’ recollections.

Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony is one of the most popular works of the orchestral repertoire. “It’s a great piece,” Michael Butterman, director of the Boulder Phil, says. “It’s gripping, it’s dramatic, there are moments of excitement, and also real lyrical beauty. It’s well known and well loved for good reasons.”

Not as well known are some of the symphony’s connections to American history and literature. Not only was the symphony written in the U.S. in 1892–93, the premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on Dec. 16, 1893.

Some parts of the symphony have specific American sources. The slow movement, which includes a theme later known as “Goin’ Home,” is said to have been inspired by Harry Burleigh, an African-American singer and composer of many spiritual arrangements, who sang for Dvořák.

Another source of inspiration was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” which was extremely popular in the U.S. and Europe in the late 19th century. Dvořák knew the poem in Czech translation and wanted to write an opera based on it. The opera never materialized, but Dvořák said that both the slow movement and the scherzo of the symphony portrayed scenes from the poem.

“I hear [the symphony] as written to convey a sense of the great new land that Dvořák was experiencing,” Butterman says. “That’s the perspective from which I’m approaching it.”

Boyer’s “Ellis Island” had its origin in the Oral History Program of the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, which began in 1973. The musical work was composed in 2001-02 after being commissioned by the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, Connecticut. 

Boyer went through the interviews in order to select a few that, in Butterman’s words, “would together constitute a satisfying story arc, and have enough variety to represent the breadth of persons who passed through Ellis Island.” In the end Boyer selected seven interviews with immigrants — three male and four female — who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island between 1910 and 1940.

Using the recorded interviews, Boyer created a written script that is read by actors with Boyer’s original score. The immigrants ranged in age from four to 30 when they entered the U.S and were in their 80s and 90s when interviewed. The actors, selected and directed by Bud Coleman of the CU Department of Theater and Dance, will be closer to the age of the immigrants when they arrived at Ellis Island.

In addition to the spoken sections, there is an orchestral prelude and a closing section using Emma Lazarus’ poem ”The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, that have accompanying photographs of Ellis Island.

Butterman saw Ellis Island on PBS’ Great Performances series last June, performed by the Pacific Symphony with Hollywood actors taking the roles of the immigrants. “It seemed to be timely in terms of a theme that our country is once again grappling with,” Butterman says.

Speaking of the projected images and the script, he says, “I am in favor of bringing other elements into the concert experience. I hope they will be entry points for people who have not experienced dozens of orchestral concerts during their lives. I think this is an interesting way to open that door to them.

The Boulder Phil and the CU College of Music will sponsor events associated with the concert. Michael Beckerman, a distinguished scholar of Eastern European music, will present a lecture, “Was Dvořák’s American Dream… a Nightmare?” at 4 p.m. Friday, April 26, in the CASE Building Auditorium on the CU campus. He will also be featured at a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. April 27 in Macky Auditorium, hosted by Marilyn Cooley from Colorado Public Radio.

Following the performance, there will be a musical response and talk-back in Macky Auditorium Room 102, presented by Boulder’s Motus Theater and featuring Cristian Solano-Córdova from the Colorado Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and members of the Boulder Phil. 

Editor’s note: Due to illness, Michael Butterman will not conduct ‘The Dream of America.’ Composer Peter Boyer will conduct in his place. Gary Lewis, Boulder Philharmonic principal guest conductor, will conduct Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony.  

ON THE BILL:‘The Dream of America’ — Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. with Marilyn Cooley from CPR. Tickets at boulderphil.org

Public talk: ‘Was Dvořák’s American Dream… a Nightmare?’ 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 26, CASE Building auditorium, Boulder.