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MSO Masterworks Opening Concert


By Nancy Brannon

Riveting! Inspiring! Uplifting! Those are only a few of the words to describe the 2017-2018 season Masterworks opening concert by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO), September 30 – October 1, 2017, with its theme: the promise of America.

But before the first notes were played, the new MSO President and CEO Peter Abell was introduced to the audience. Peter’s father, Jack Abell (1944-1993), played viola in the symphony for 18 years, including eight years as principal.  He also taught at Rhodes College and University of Memphis.

Led by Conductor Robert Moody, the MSO received a standing ovation after the first piece, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony Number 9 in E minor, Opus 95: “From the New World.” With its familiar melodies and riffs in all four movements, the orchestra thrilled the audience with a superb performance – so much that conductor Moody decided to “revive” the “orchestral encore.” Playing one of Dvorak’s Slavic Dances further stirred the audience, concluding the first half of the performance. Moody wrote of Sunday’s performance: “This afternoon’s Germantown performance of Dvorak was off the charts fantastic!”

The second half of the program was quite innovative for MSO. Conductor Moody wrote about the second piece: “We are joining with actors from Playhouse On The Square to present an amazing work called “Ellis Island: The Dream of America. This timely work tells the tale of seven immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island. And I am adding a bonus – more music as the great poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ by Maya Angelou is read!”

Peter Boyer’s composition, “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” premiered in 2002 and has received over 160 performances by more than 70 orchestras to date. Boyer’s work celebrates the historic American immigrant experience and the American dream. Innovative in its format, the work combines elements of the theatre and multimedia in the concert hall, employing actors and projected historical images from the Ellis Island archives. Actors portraying the immigrants included: Anita Jo Lenhart, Bill Andrews, Christopher Tracy, Claire D. Kolheim, Irene Crist, Leah Nichols, Karen Mason Riss, and Lindsey Roberts. Jackie Nichols, Executive Producer of Playhouse On The Square, directed.

The spoken texts for the work come from the Ellis Island Oral History Project, a 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 and 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. 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.

For the Memphis presentation, Conductor Moody thought it appropriate to add an eighth “immigrant” to start the monologues: an African-American woman reading Maya Angelou’s (1928-2014) poem: “On the Pulse of Morning,” which Angelou read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton on January 20, 1993.

On the Pulse of Morning

By Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,   
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens   
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom   
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,   
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in   
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today,   
You may stand upon me,   
But do not hide your face.
Find more about Peter Boyer’s work at:

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