FVSO concert departs from the norm

Ameila Perron

The Fox Valley Symphony’s final concert of the season was not a traditional night at the symphony.
The Appleton-based symphony wrapped up their “Dream of America” season April 29 with a concert celebrating America’s heritage as an immigrant nation.
The first half featured a spread of works representing a number of different musical cultures across the world that have influenced American composers.
The second half of the concert left symphony conventions behind with Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” a multi-media extravaganza that explored and commemorated the many immigrants who passed through Ellis Island on their way to achieving the American Dream.
The piece opened and closed with a visual display of photographs of immigrants, accompanied by the orchestra. The main focus of the work, however, was a series of monologues.
Seven actors appeared on stage, one by one, to retell the true stories of seven immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. According to Boyer, who came to Appleton to introduce his work, the monologues were taken directly from the Ellis Island Oral History Project, an ongoing effort to collect stories from immigrants.
“The monologues selected represent a diversity of countries and cover a large span of time,” Boyer explained. “But what seems to unite all of them is a theme that was true then and is true today, and that is a dream.”
Beyond the profound optimism of the immigrants’ words, the monologues were united in their emotional depth. The stories told of harrowing experiences which most Americans will never face, such as the terror of being chased out of one’s home by poverty, war or oppression; the misery of 20 days of seasickness; or the overwhelming difficulties of settling in a new country.
A number of audience members were moved to tears, and many found it impossible to leave without redefining their notions of what “American” ought to mean.
“Ellis Island” is part of a larger effort to reach out to the Appleton community. Said symphony executive director Marta Weldon, “One day I opened the paper and read about all the Hmong refugees who were coming to Appleton. I already knew about this work, and I said, ‘We have to do this piece.'”
An important consideration to an orchestra, says Weldon, is to “keep picking ways to collaborate with community. You wouldn’t think of a symphony orchestra collaborating with a veteran’s association, but we’re doing that for next year’s premier of Chris Brubeck’s “Quiet Heroes (A Symphonic Tribute to the Flag Raisers at Iwo Jima).”
The FVS reaches out to the community in other ways, such as their Partners in Education program and two youth orchestras.
Another way to reach out is through broad programming. “We did a Tchaikovsky symphony,” said section violinist Maiken Knudsen, “but we also do premiers and music from around the world. It’s important for the community to get exposure to this music.”
Reflecting on a possible orchestral career, the Lawrence junior added, “Doing the Ellis Island piece was a really good learning experience for me. I’d never done anything like this before. This kind of orchestral experience can only be beneficial for a conservatory student.”
Next year’s program, the 40th anniversary season, will include the Brubeck premier and an appearance by “A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor. In addition, the program will feature a “hot young violinist in his twenties,” according to Weldon, and a “community lovefest Beethoven’s Ninth performed with a 150-voice community choir.