Peter Boyer is the highly accomplished Rhode Island bred composer, conductor, and orchestrator, best known for his poignant classical work, Ellis Island: The Dream of America. Since 2002, Peter's emotionally moving creation has honored the immigrant experience, having been performed over 200 times in esteemed public forums nationwide. On June 29th, in celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month, a special rendering of Ellis Island with Pacific Symphony will be broadcast on PBS Great Performances. As an orchestrator, Peter has contributed to a range of blockbuster films including Skyfall, Finding Dory, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Jurassic World, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2, and Minions. In our insightful discussion, Peter reveals the contributing factors that led to Ellis Island's popularity and the fearlessness that has fueled his success in concert music.
You wrote your Requiem at the age of 17 with very little experience, in tribute to your late grandmother. What role did she play in your musical development? When you debuted the project at age 20, how did the success of this project shape your professional path?
I started playing the piano when I was 15. I hadn't played or composed before that, aside from a few guitar lessons when I was a kid. At that time in my life, I was basically a Billy Joel wannabe. I wanted to sing and play like him, so I asked my grandmother if I could have a piano shortly after I turned 15. She very kindly did that. Soon after, the piano showed up from the music store and I got set up with lessons. In those first couple years, I mainly wrote a lot of pop songs. I was just getting exposed to the classical repertoire for the first time in my junior year at Smithfield High School in Smithfield, Rhode Island. I was lucky to take a music history course that year, which focused on classical repertoire. It was a very small class of five people.
A couple of things happened that coalesced for me. About halfway through that course, I heard the Mozart requiem for the first time, and heard the story of it being his last unfinished piece. At that same time, my grandmother died unexpectedly. I was just turning 17, and I got this crazy, ambitious idea that I would compose a Requiem Mass and dedicate it to my grandmother. Going from Billy Joel style pop tunes to a full-scale Requiem was rather ambitious. I hadn’t had any composition lessons, just two years of piano training. So, I went to the Providence Public Library and I took out scores of Requiem Masses, from Mozart to Verdi and others. I borrowed the recordings and began to assimilate the material. I was a teenager with crazy ambition, so I just started composing it. It took me two years. By the end, I had a 40-minute piece for a large chorus — a big mixed chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), four vocal soloists (alto SATB), and a large orchestra with a huge percussion section. I did have some important mentoring from an undergraduate piano instructor in college, but he was not really a composer per se, and they weren't formal composition lessons. Over those two years, I spent a lot of time trying to educate myself about how it actually worked. I had great mentors and there was a lot of self-motivation on my part.
Long story short, I was an entrepreneurial fellow. I managed to raise $20,000 to put on two performances of the Requiem. I also had these very kind adults in my life who supported me by providing their ensembles. My high school choral director also a nearly-100-voice community choir, and he agreed to have them perform in the Requiem. He allowed me to guest conduct ,even though I was just beginning to learn how. It was an all-consuming experience for two more years. Right after I turned 20, I conducted 300 performers in the premiere of my Requiem at Rhode Island College. It was on a Sunday afternoon in a nearly one thousand seat auditorium, which was completely sold out, standing room, because there was so much interest from the community. It ended up getting an astonishing amount of attention, and I was chosen for an award and recognition by USA Today newspaper. I was featured in USA Today around the country. All of the local television stations did pieces on it, and the local newspaper, the Providence Journal, did a major story. That experience at age 20 was completely formative for me. The audience reaction to the piece was so overwhelming that it really set my course from that point on.
I understand you attended Rhode Island College. Who were the musical minds that influenced your path at this time in your life?
In terms of teachers, my undergraduate mentor was a man named Stephen Martorella. I actually ended up naming my son after him years later. Stephen was and is a multi-faceted musician — pianist, organist, harpsichordist, conductor — not a composer, but extremely knowledgeable about all things musical. He had attended the Juilliard pre-college program and Mannes College and The Hartt School, and had a very impressive musical pedigree. He saw my teenage ambition as a blank slate, and saw this young person who was very hungry for knowledge. His mentoring was very influential on me. I studied piano for a while with him, and after that, it was very clear that I was not going to be a classical pianist. My interests were moving towards composition, conducting, and orchestration. He was very helpful in clarifying that early direction.
In college, there were a number of things that influenced me, but I was completely blown away by Bernstein’s Mass. I still love it dearly. I’ve actually flown to different places in the country to see productions of it, because it's such an enormous undertaking. The LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel actually performed it this past season. The eclecticism of that piece, the way in which Bernstein used so many different styles and made these grand theatrical statements and gestures and tackled big topics — I'm sure that that influenced my early Requiem.
In graduate school, at The Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, I began to encounter and learn much more repertoire and many more composers and musical styles. It was definitely a formative time in my life. I studied conducting with Harold Farberman and composition with Larry Alan Smith, who had gotten all of his degrees from Juilliard and who had studied with Vincent Persichetti and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, so he had a pretty amazing pedigree.
What initially attracted you to the stories of immigrants passing through Ellis Island? Is there a personal connection?
The piece was inspired by a personal interest in the subject matter. It was a personal motivation to explore this aspect of American history. The stories that are celebrated in the piece originate with the Ellis Island Oral History Project. Ellis Island was open from 1892 to 1954, and the stories which I chose from the Oral History Project span a 30-year period from 1910 to 1940.
I think that part of what drove me to want to explore the subject matter was thinking about these classic words of Emma Lazarus that are inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Like so many kids growing up in America, at some point I was introduced to her classic sonnet, “The New Colossus.” I learned those words, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," when I learned about immigration, and they resonated with me. It was just something that I wanted to explore. We live in such challenging times. I wanted to try to keep in mind what those words have actually meant and honor how immigrants have really been integral in building the foundation of the United States.
Since the debut of Ellis Island: The Dream of America, it has gone on to be performed nearly 200 times, and was nominated for a Grammy. Can you tell us about how the performances have evolved?
Over a 16-year span, it's been performed about dozen times a year on average. The piece essentially has been in its final form since it premiered in 2002, in terms of the content of the stories and the music. I never actually revised the piece. I worked very hard over the course of that year between research, editing the interviews, and creating the script, and then wrote the music around it. So the piece has remained essentially unchanged, but I would say that the level of public awareness of the piece has certainly grown over the years.
One thing that was very special about these particular performances with Pacific Symphony, is that we knew they were going to be filmed for Great Performances. Therefore, it was a very high-end production. Pacific Symphony commissioned a whole new set of visuals to accompany the piece, which is something I’ve always hoped for. Since the beginning, there have always been images that have accompanied the piece from the Ellis Island Immigration Museum archives. In the past, they were only used during the six-minute Prologue for orchestra alone, and then the Epilogue, the recitation of the poem “The New Colossus.” That's about two minutes long, so over the years, only eight minutes of the piece was paired with visuals. I had always imagined a full-scale visual presentation for the entire 45-minute piece, but I just didn't have the resources to do that. As you know, I’m not a filmmaker, I'm a composer.
Pacific Symphony was able to commission a team of folks who specialize in visuals and I worked closely with them. Chase Simonds and Perry Freeze were the leads on this. With input from me, they created a complete sequence of several hundred historical photographs, not only of Ellis Island and early 20th-century immigration, but from other sources as well. For example, in the interlude that sets up the story of Lazarus Salamon, who came from this backdrop of war, we used images of armed conflict. Then for the stories themselves, because the objective was not to distract from the audience being able to focus on the actor or actress telling the story, what the visuals team did was to create a series of abstract paintings, one for each of the seven stories, which reflected the mood and the tone of the stories.
The visuals team had a very clever idea to photograph the paintings as they were being painted, documenting different stages, which could be morphed with slow moving animations throughout the story. Let's say you have a three to four-minute story… The backdrop is slowly morphing to reflect what's happening in the story. The audience is almost not even aware of that because they're focusing on the actor. Then for the interludes themselves, where it's just the orchestra alone and there's no narration, the orchestra is accompanied by a lot of historical photographs that really immerse you in that experience. It was a great addition to these performances. I'm very happy that now Pacific Symphony is going to make those visuals available to other orchestras. In fact, they’ve already begun to do that, so now those visuals will live on with the piece into the future, which is exciting.
Are there any guest stars performing in Ellis Island that have been particularly memorable and well received?
For this particular performance, all seven of the actors were terrific. I would say that three or four of them for this production are among the more well known. Barry Bostwick plays Manny Steen, who was an Irish immigrant. Barry was actually the only “veteran” of the piece. He’s performed it several times before, and he’s also on my original recording. He's the only one of the seven actors who is both on the recording and the television broadcast. I had been aware of Barry Bostwick since I was a kid, because he played Brad Majors in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
He was the original Danny Zuko in Grease when it premiered on Broadway. He actually debuted that role. Of course, he was the mayor on Spin City with Michael J. Fox, so Barry is very well known for that and many other things. It was great to have him. Camryn Manheim read the story of Katherine Beychok, an immigrant who came from Russia through Ellis Island as a child in 1910. Camryn gave a wonderful performance which is very moving. I had known her from shows like The Practice and a variety of other things. Michael Nouri, who read the role of James Apanomith, the Greek immigrant… I had known him from way back when he was the male lead in Flashdance when I was a kid. He's been in many films and television shows. Lesley Fera read the words of Helen Cohen, the first story in the piece. I actually had not known her, but apparently, she's quite well known for Pretty Little Liars on ABC. She did a wonderful job. She has quite a following among younger women because of that TV show. She tweeted about Ellis Island, and I was pleased to see how many people were interested in it from that.
There was a really interesting diversity. Then the other three actors are not as well known, but they have still have done a number of impressive things. They were all great. Barry Bostwick would have been the oldest actor, Kira Sternbach was the youngest, so they probably went from the mid-20s up to late 60s. Over the years, many, many actors have performed the piece — some completely unknown, and some better known. On my recording that was done back in 2003, I had the likes of Eli Wallach, which was remarkable, as well as Olympia Dukakis and Bebe Neuwirth. Many actors have performed it, and have brought a lot of different perspectives to it.
It's quite a rare thing that an actor, no matter how experienced, has the opportunity to stand in front of a full symphony orchestra and deliver their material. It was really interesting to observe the emotional reactions of the actors, because suddenly they're hearing this music behind them as they're delivering these monologues and these stories, from a live symphony orchestra that's literally right behind them. Most folks have not had that opportunity before. I've observed this a lot, to see how the music affects their performance and how moved they are. They're just hearing this music washing over them and supporting the story which they are telling. That combination of spoken word and symphony orchestra is something that's just not very often done. It's great to watch actors go through that experience on the stage.
On June 29th, PBS’ Great Performances will be premiering Ellis Island with Pacific Symphony. Can you tell us about your dynamic with their Music Director, Carl St. Clair? Were there any particular opportunities or challenges that this rendering presented?
Carl St. Clair is a marvelous conductor. I'm very happy and proud to say that he's supported my work as a composer for a long time. He actually had conducted Ellis Island with the Pacific Symphony way back in 2005, in an outdoor concert at what was then the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater — which is now no more, sadly. That was a huge performance for about 10,000 people. That was one of the performances Barry Bostwick was a part of, along with the television actress, Concetta Tomei. They did a marvelous job. Carl had always wanted to conduct Ellis Island in the amazing Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall which opened in 2006, but it took a long time to find the right opportunity for this to happen.
Carl has had a lot of experiencing conducting other pieces of mine. He commissioned a big piece for their 25th anniversary called On Music's Wings, which included soloists, an adult chorus, a children's chorus and an orchestra. There were hundreds of performers. Carl was one of the last protégés of Leonard Bernstein. I find that Bernstein’s work is so influential in my life, my thinking, and my music. I feel that Bernstein connection is part of the special musical connection I feel to Carl, and may have something to do with his affinity for my music.
For Ellis Island, every conductor is faced with the task of coordinating spoken word and the orchestra. The actors aren’t following a conductor, nor following notated rhythms. The spoken word proceeds at the pace at which the actor delivers it in the moment. The music, of course, has to be conducted and has to follow a set tempo. That's the most significant challenge with the piece. I worked very hard to meet this challenge. With a lot of care, I tried to accompany every moment of the narration with the appropriate music, paying attention to the right tempo and the right duration. For Carl, that challenge of coordination is always there, but he does an incredible job of navigating it. We were also very fortunate to perform in such a fantastic concert hall with very clear, wonderful acoustics. It really allowed for a very detailed orchestral balance.
The production value of the performance and overall sound quality are incredibly pristine. Can you tell us about the technicalities of the mix?
That was thanks to Shawn Murphy. He has been John Williams’ recording engineer for many years, and also the engineer for James Newton Howard and others. I was thrilled that he was the engineer for this. He recorded it and then mixed it over a long span. It was many months after the recording before I had an opportunity to hear a detailed mix, and then a few more months before it was finalized. It was a big challenge to capture around 60 tracks. I also hadn't really realized this, but because you've got spoken word in the concert hall going out over the PA in front of a live audience, that PA by nature bleeds into the other mics to some extent. It really makes it hard. You've got this extremely reverberant concert hall that they actually had to dampen to be able to capture the voices more clearly. I believe they captured all the narration with two different mics for each actor. From a technical point of view, it was a pretty elaborate mix. From the start, when I composed the piece, I tried to take care to not overwhelm the actors with the orchestra, and to keep the orchestra restrained. When an orchestra is at full strength and volume, it would overwhelm any actor speaking, no matter how amplified they are. It was always intended to complement the spoken word with the right music that wouldn’t be overpowering. Not too loud or too thick in terms of the texture. But during the Prologue and Interludes, then the orchestra has an opportunity to take center stage — not only to make transitions between stories, but also to play at a more full volume. It’s always tricky to make that work.
Millions of Americans have a deep connection to the stories of Ellis Island. Do you feel that immigrant tales are particularly significant and timely considering the current social turmoil regarding the subject?
The current controversies regarding immigration obviously couldn't have had anything to do with the creation of this piece, since I conceived it and wrote it more than 15 years ago. It's important to realize I was never seeking to make a political statement. That was never my objective. It was and is a work of the performing arts. I think that the television show showcases that in such a wonderful, high quality and genuine way. If that spurs people to think about immigration now, and if it can contribute in a positive way to that current conversation, then that's all well and good, but ultimately, that wasn't my aim.
The point is, these stories have resonance. I think they have a timeless quality to them. I've encountered countless people at many, many performances of the piece all around the United States who have been so moved by what they saw as a family story. It tells you something about the universality of the stories. These stories are obviously very relevant today. Immigration to the United States has always been a controversial topic. However, the level of vitriol and controversy right now is certainly higher than I have seen it in my lifetime. It’s something that I certainly never could have predicted, in terms of timing. These performances were filmed over a year ago in April of 2017. They were planned nearly two years before that. When all of this was set in motion, it was even before the last election, before people had foreseen what our current political climate would be. Who could have predicted how timely it would be right at this very moment? It’s remarkable how the stars have aligned.
You have been recognized for your ongoing contributions to TV and Film as an orchestrator for the likes of James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman, Michael Giacchino, and the late James Horner, among others. What are the most significant rewards of bringing these musical sketches to life?
I've been fortunate to work for a variety of folks at different times for varying amounts of work. I orchestrated for Michael Giacchino for quite awhile, but James Newton Howard has been the composer for whom I've orchestrated the most over the last couple of years. I should emphasize that I am not the lead orchestrator for any of those folks, so I'm always collaborating with a lead orchestrator on those teams, assuming a more minor role. For example, with Michael Giacchino, I worked with Tim Simonec; and for Thomas Newman, I worked with J.A.C. Redford; and for James Newton Howard, I work with Pete Anthony, who is his longtime lead orchestrator.
In all of these cases, what's wonderful is to be involved with the work of extraordinarily talented, proficient and successful composers. Every one of them is iconic. What the orchestrator does is important, even though it is not an especially creative role. All of these composers have their creative process of composing to picture and create their demos, which are quite extraordinary; but those sketches can’t actually be played by an orchestra until the orchestrator creates the detailed scores.
One of the real rewards of this is being able to take a peek into the workshop of these great composers. You get to carefully examine how they think and how they write, which is extremely informative to witness. You’re able to explore specific aspects of their process and examine the gestures they make, looking at what kind of harmonies they are using, what kind of colors they are utilizing from the orchestra, what sounds they’re using from their sample libraries. You come to understand how it works with the film.
To some extent, it's all about puzzle solving and of course, technical work. How do you exactly assemble and organize the specific orchestration that will lead to results as good as, or maybe even better than, these amazing demos? Perhaps, you are able to bring in a little something extra to add something useful in the cue. I have to put on a different hat than the one I wear as a composer, to fulfill somebody’s else’s vision. It takes a different focus to do that. As an orchestrator, you have to be able to understand how to get down on a page exactly what’s going to produce these results. There is a lot of pressure and often not a ton of time to complete the job. That’s the nature of the job, and it’s something I enjoy, especially on such high profile projects. I’m grateful for the opportunities.
What would you say is the most common misconception about the role of an orchestrator?
Wow, that's a good question. I don’t know if it can be generalized across the board, but I do think that the role can be very different from composer to composer and orchestrator to orchestrator. I think that some folks may believe that the orchestrator is doing the job of the composer. For me personally, certainly that has never been the case. I have never ghostwritten. I have orchestrated for composers who really do an extremely detailed job with every cue. Perhaps some people might misunderstand how exactly composers work, and where the orchestrator fits into that process. If you look back at the “old days,” where everything was literally written using pencil and paper, it’s interesting to compare. Take Max Steiner’s sketches for King Kong. That’s an example of a composer really notating everything by hand, then handing it off to someone else to expand onto the big paper and fill in all the notes.
For the most part, that “old school” way is not how it’s done any longer. I think John Williams is the exception. I have never had the opportunity to orchestrate for him, but it’s my understanding that he essentially creates what you might refer to as a condensed score. His sketches are totally detailed and complete on seven or eight lines of music — it's all there. In such a case, one’s job as an orchestrator would be essentially transcribing from the detailed sketch and expanding it onto the big paper. That’s definitely unusual these days, because composers have access to such powerful sequencers and sample libraries, which has dramatically changed the process.
Can you share one of the most creatively stimulating experiences you’ve had surrounding Ellis Island: The Dream of America?
When Ellis Island premiered back in 2002, I had chosen seven stories of seven real immigrants, and only one of those seven immigrants was still alive. It was this woman named Lillian Galletta, who had come from Italy as a little girl in 1928 with her four older siblings. They had come on the boat alone to join their parents and two older siblings in America. It's a very moving and extremely heartwarming story. When I had finished composing the piece, I got in touch with the real Lillian Galletta who had given her interview years before through the Oral History Project at Ellis Island. At that time, she was on Long Island and I was in L.A.
I talked to her and told her about the piece, explaining that I had used her story and how the piece worked. She was very inspired. I had this really emotional conversation with this person I'd never met, and she asked me to play some of the music for her. She wanted to hear the music that accompanied her story. So, from the piano, I sat and played this emotional theme revolving around the concept of reunion that I had written for her story.
As it happened, Lillian and her four older siblings all came to the premiere with the Hartford Symphony that I conducted back in April 2002. I believe that she was 78 or 79 at the time, and her siblings were all in their 80s. Following the conclusion of that first performance of Ellis Island, there was a tumultuous standing ovation, and it was a deeply satisfying moment. Then I quieted the audience down, and I said to them that I wanted them to meet someone whose words they'd heard in the piece. Then the actress who portrayed Lillian Galletta walked out from the wings with the actual Lillian Galletta on her arm, and the audience was introduced to this woman, whose story was representative of so many stories. It was a gratifying moment for me as a composer, because I felt it brought a genuine quality to what I was doing. These were not fictional stories. These were real stories of real people, and all of them were gone except for Lillian, but she was there that night. That was certainly one of the most fulfilling moments that I've had as a composer. It was special.
You’ve had such a far-ranging, illustrious career, touching many lives with your effervescent musical abilities. What can we expect from you next, and what remains on your bucket list?
Interestingly, the piece that I'm just now finishing is something I would not have imagined myself composing. If you can believe it, I was commissioned by “The President's Own” United States Marine Band in Washington D.C. to compose a piece for them in celebration of their 220th anniversary. The United States Marine Band was founded in 1798. As I understand it, they celebrate every five-year anniversary with an original piece. Their 215th anniversary, which was in 2013, featured a piece written for them by John Williams, called For The President’s Own. To follow that is obviously a big honor, and something I’ve tried hard to get right.
It’s been quite a challenging task for me, because I do not come from that world at all. I didn’t grow up playing in band or wind ensemble. It was a great surprise and honor for me when I was asked last fall to create a piece for them. The piece I’ve composed for them is called Fanfare, Hymn, and Finale, which is about 7 minutes long. They will premiere it next month on July 27 at the Texas Bandmasters Association National Convention, in front of thousands of band people from all over America. They'll also be taking it on their tour of the Midwest in the fall. The U.S. Marine Band tours a different region of America every fall for the duration of October. This is by any measure one of the very finest wind bands in the world. It’s pretty wild because the person who commissioned it is the Director of the United States Marine Band, a man named Colonel Jason Fettig, and one could say that he is a direct musical descendant of John Philip Sousa, who held that job in the late 19th century. He literally has the John Philip Sousa baton! So to have been asked to do this is quite an amazing thing.
As far as my bucket list, it certainly has to be scoring my own feature film. At this point, that's the missing piece of the puzzle that, for whatever reason, has proved elusive. Perhaps it’s because I've spent so much time focusing on writing concert music, and working as an orchestrator for other composers. That's still the hope I have. I've scored some relatively small TV things and short films, but the feature film opportunity is the one that remains at the top of my list. I’m sure that will be an important object of pursuit as things move forward.
Watch Peter Boyer's poignant classical work, Ellis Island: The Dream of America on PBS Great Performances on June 29th.