seven actors (four female, three male) or two actors (one female, one male);
Spoken texts from the Ellis Island Oral History Project
Composition Date and Commission
Commissioned by The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate the inaugural season of its Belding Theater
About the Work
Ellis Island: The Dream of America, Boyer’s most ambitious work to date, celebrates the historic American immigrant experience and the American dream. Innovative in its format, the work brings elements of the theater and multimedia into the concert hall, employing actors and projected historical images from the Ellis Island archives.
The spoken texts for the work come from the Ellis Island Oral History Project, an historic collection of interviews with actual immigrants about their experiences emigrating to America. After extensive research in this archive, Boyer chose the stories of seven immigrants who came to America through Ellis Island from disparate nations between 1910-1940. He fashioned short monologues from the actual words of these immigrants, and wove them into an orchestral tapestry which frames and comments on their stories—by turns poignant, humorous, moving, and inspiring. The work concludes with a reading of the Emma Lazarus poem The New Colossus (“Give me your tired, your poor…”), providing an emotionally powerful ending to this celebration of our nation of immigrants.
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 Theatre. It was premiered by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer, with actors from the New York stage, directed by Martin Charnin, at the Bushnell in April 2002. The premiere was broadcast on National Public Radio’s SymphonyCast program in July 2002.
Since its 2002 premiere, Ellis Island has gone on to enjoy tremendous success, becoming one of the most performed American classical orchestral works composed in the last 20 years. The work has received over 250 live performances by more than 110 different orchestras, an extraordinary performance record matched by very few contemporary orchestral works. Hundreds of thousands of people have experienced the work live, and its performances regularly have been met with standing ovations. Ellis Island: The Dream of America has consistently elicited in audiences a profoundly emotional response which is truly rare for a work of contemporary classical music. Some descriptions of those responses can be found here.
Though Ellis Island is most often programmed by orchestras on classics series (where it is generally the complete second half of a concert), it also has been programmed frequently on pops concerts and educational concerts (for which a Teacher Guide is available). A number of orchestras have brought Ellis Island back for repeat engagements in subsequent seasons, due to audience demand.
In September 2010, The League of American Orchestras’ Symphony magazine profiled Ellis Island as one of “a handful of recent works by living composers becoming orchestral standards.” Of those six works profiled, Ellis Island was by far the longest in duration, and also the most recently composed work. (The other works were Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, Christopher Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body, Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Musica Celestis, and Christopher Rouse’s Rapture.)
Boyer recorded Ellis Island with the Philharmonia Orchestra and a cast of renowned stage and screen actors. This recording was released by Naxos in its American Classics series in 2005, and it has been broadcast by more than 100 classical radio stations around the United States, and internationally. The recording was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. The complete recording may be heard here.
In 2017, a production of Ellis Island with Pacific Symphony and a cast of screen and stage actors, conducted by Carl St.Clair, was filmed for television by PBS’ highly prestigious Great Performances series, and that one-hour program was televised nationally by PBS in June 2018. The program was rebroadcast nationally in July 2020. Video excerpts from the PBS show can be seen here.
Interest in Ellis Island: The Dream of America continues to grow, and all signs point to the establishment of the work as a permanent part of the American orchestral repertoire.