Camryn Manheim held it together, but viewers of the latest installment of PBS’s magnificent Great Performances series may not.
The latest installment of the long-running series is a presentation of Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” a multimedia Grammy-nominated composition that is among the most popular contemporary classical pieces in the symphonic repertoire.
It’s performed by the Pacific Symphony of Orange County, Calif., as part of its American Composers Festival, and is being broadcast by PBS now in part to celebrate June as Immigrant Heritage Month.
Boyer wrote “Ellis Island” in 2002. It is a work that soars to powerful crescendos and descends to emotionally resonating muted sections. On its own, it is a uniquely moving experience But the music is part of a greater whole.
Boyer uses archival photos flashed on a screen behind the orchestra and text from the Ellis Island Oral History Project to illustrate the experiences of seven immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1910 and 1940.
The immigrants chosen are representative of the immigrant influx during the three-decade period: Italian, Irish, and Jewish. Barry Bostwick, Michael Nouri, Lesley Fera, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Samantha Sloyan, Kira Sternbach, and Manheim do not so much recite the words, but re-enact them, interpret them, and bring them to life.
Although it probably isn’t surprising to people familiar with Boyer’s work, the three elements of “Ellis Island” are exceptionally well integrated; like a perfectly machined motor, the pieces fit together smoothly. Equally impressive are the comments of these immigrants, essentially uneducated people, proving you don’t need schooling to acquire wisdom and common sense.
None more so than Manheim’s Katherine Beychok, who came to America from Russia in 1910, when she was just 10 years old.
“Hunger was a guest in everybody’s house,” she told the Oral History project. “The majority of the people were hungry all the time. The only time there was relief from out poverty was on the Sabbath. The men came home from whatever they were doing, studying or working for a living, and they put on whatever better clothes they had and got ready for the Sabbath. They went to shul, to synagogue, and when they came home, and that was the time we had a big meal.”
Beychok’s father came to the States first, and when she landed, “this man came forward, and he was beautiful. I didn’t know he was my father. I fell in love with him and he with me.”
In a telephone interview, Manheim explained: “I was just asked if I could read the script and of course reading those beautiful firsthand accounts of going through Ellis Island filled with fear and hope and optimism, all that spoke to me, coming from a family of immigrants.
“They gave me that passage and asked if I would be comfortable reading it. I loved it. I loved being able to tell a story so emotional with the backdrop of a symphony.
“I remember, we all got together the day of the performance and waited in the wings. We walked out one by one, and it was just a tidal wave of emotions. I can’t really explain it to you, because I never felt anything like it before: the power of those words coming from poor immigrant children in a new land.”
She pauses for a second before continuing: “I’m getting emotional just thinking about it now.”
Manheim’s maternal grandparents came through Ellis Island. “Their names are probably displayed on the wall there,” she said. She was born in Caldwell and raised in a very secular — as she calls it, Jew-ish — family on the West Coast.
Ironically, she and her siblings (she has a sister and brother) are more observant now. All their children (including her son Milo, an actor) became bar mitzvah, a fact she attributes to the more welcoming synagogues that have sprung up.
“We were able to find a community in keeping with our beliefs and our connection to Judaism,” she said.
Manheim has won many awards as an actress (both a Golden Globe and an Emmy) but probably she still is best known for her role as Ellanor Frutt on “The Practice.” Today she spends much of her time giving keynote addresses at various Jewish federation functions and is involved in Bet Tzedek Legal Service, which provides pro bono assistance to people in need.
“I talk about philanthropy and tikkun olam and basically thank the federation for its amazing service to our community,” she said. “There are so many wonderful stories. We just laugh and cry together.”
Great Performances “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” airs on Friday, June 29 at 10 p.m. on PBS.