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L.A. Composer Looks East, Providing ‘Ellis Island’ Score for PBS’ ‘Great Performances’

Variety logo Variety 2018-06-25 Jon Burlingame
a white bench sits in front of a building © Provided by Variety

Los Angeles composer Peter Boyer will have his biggest national showcase to date when PBS’s “Great Performances” debuts his “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” on Friday, June 29.

Carl St. Clair conducts the Pacific Symphony in the hour-long broadcast, taped last year as part of the orchestra’s annual American Composers Festival. Actors Barry Bostwick, Camryn Manheim and Michael Nouri are among those speaking the words of immigrants who came through Ellis Island during the early years of the 20th century. Hundreds of historical photos provide a visual backdrop for both actors and orchestra.

Boyer talks about the challenge of writing “Ellis Island” in the below:

Boyer received a 2005 Grammy nomination for “best classical contemporary composition” for the work, which draws on the true stories of seven immigrants (from Poland, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, Ireland and Russia) and frames their words with dramatic orchestral music that is very much in an Americana vein. The piece concludes with a powerful reading of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem (“give me your tired, your poor…”) as inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Boyer is a familiar figure on the L.A. film-music scene, as he often orchestrates for such top composers as Michael Giacchino (“Jurassic World”), Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”), James Newton Howard (“Fantastic Beasts”) and Heitor Pereira (“Minions”).

While “Ellis Island” is his best-known concert work — having received more than 200 performances since its 2002 premiere — he has written a number of other large-scale pieces including a symphony and “The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers,” also for narrators and orchestra, for the Boston Pops in 2010.

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