American music has a complicated story.
It’s told by all kinds of composers. Europeans, Asians, Russians. Latins and Jews. Our music can be patriotic, and it can dissent. It dreams. It borrows, and it searches. It travels from one idea to another, and mixes them all together.
It looks and sounds a lot like the immigrants who come to this country. And it felt very much like that on Saturday evening at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center, when music director Jung-Ho Pak and the Cape Symphony Orchestra opened their season with a journey through many of the immigrant stories that make up American music, and America itself.
This concert was not a comment on the fractured state of America politics. It was a hopeful look back at what has been accomplished, when desperate and ambitious citizens of the world, forced from their homelands, have been welcome to this country and found a new beginning.
The program had two distinct approaches. Before intermission Pak played a selection of composers who came to this country because they loved it, and wrote music celebrating it: Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, Franz Waxman and Bright Sheng. After intermission was a dramatic presentation of Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” set for orchestra and seven actors.
In 1941, Stravinsky thought he was doing the country a favor when he tweaked the Star-Spangled Banner, making it a bit more singable, and more interesting musically. He was wrong. The scheduled premiere of his arrangement, at Symphony Hall in Boston, was waylaid by the authorities, and the composer threatened with arrest (or so one version of the story goes).
Pak played the notorious arrangement before the concert — twice — remarking “compared to some of the things done to our national anthem, this seems rather tame.” Indeed it does, simply bolstering the bass line and adding a dominant seventh chord — not nearly as frightening as some of the butcherings that take place before sporting events.
The orchestra also performed Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka,” the frivolous score to a ballet (not making this up) for 50 elephants and 50 dancers — a Ringling Brothers commission. Turning to more substantial fare, the orchestra revived Waxman’s score to the movie “Sunset Boulevard,” and a movement from Bloch’s sweeping, anthemic “America, an Epic Rhapsody.”
After a bracing reading of Sheng’s thorny overture to the opera “Dream of the Red Chamber,” the audience erupted in a surprisingly enthusiastic ovation. Pak, who as a conductor can appreciate better than most when a robust performance of a challenging piece resonates with the audience, turned to the hall and said, “I love you all.” Quite a moment.
Boyer’s “Ellis Island,” set for orchestra and actors, takes its inspiration from the oral history project that documented the stories of thousands of immigrants who came past the Stature of Liberty to make a new life. Boyer chose seven narratives, and set those stories to a thoroughly accessible score.
The seven actors took the stage one by one, reliving the dramas of Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Italian, Greek, Irish and Belgian immigrants who crossed the Atlantic. These were not the stories of individuals; they were the stories of families. Families that were torn apart, who were reunited, and some who perished — but all who hoped for a better life here, a new start, and who found it.
The piece has epic ambitions, and fulfills most of them. Boyer’s music — colored with melodic nuggets, realized variously by solo violin (assistant concertmaster Rhiannon Banerdt), flute (principal Zachary Sheets), and cello (principal Jacques Lee Wood) — is tuneful throughout. Some of the lines from the immigrants’ stories — “Hunger was a guest in everyone’s house,” or “We are all strangers here — it’s just a matter of who got here first”— will remain in memory just as long as Boyer’s remarkable melodies.