How do artists respond to American immigration and put it into a creative context?
It was a significant question that took many years for composer Rob Kapilow to process. The result is an impactful new piece, “We Came to America,” which draws on the diverse traditions, languages and perspectives of the American immigrant experience through intergenerational stories and aims to create a deeper understanding of the complexities and contributions of immigrant communities in New Jersey and beyond.
The choral-orchestral work will have its world premiere in partnership with New Jersey Symphony in a Jan. 20-21 program titled “The American Dream.”
Kapilow will conduct the work on Jan. 20 at NJPAC in Newark and Jan. 21 at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, joined by an intergenerational choir of singers from JCC Young People’s Chorus @ Thurnauer, Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and Ember Choral Arts.
New Jersey Symphony music director Xian Zhang will conduct the remainder of the program, which includes dance selections from Leonard Bernstein’s musicals and William Grant Still’s “Darker America.”
She also will lead the symphony in a shorter Jan. 18 NJPAC concert that will feature neither Kapilow nor his work. It will pair the Bernstein-Still selections with a reorchestrated version of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “i am a white person who __ Black people,” commissioned by the symphony in 2020.
Kapilow’s large-scale “We Came to America” project began more than four years ago. It was commissioned by Thurnauer School of Music at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly and includes an ambitious community outreach effort, a school curriculum and a scholarship fund, and will be the centerpiece of an annual fundraising event.
The choral text of five movements borrows from multiple sources including The Bible, Walt Whitman, U.S. immigration statutes and immigration stories.
The piece was named after Faith Ringgold’s 2016 children’s book “We Came to America,” which is illustrated in her characteristic folkish, colorful style. Its message celebrates the American people as a united nation of immigrants, rich in cultural diversity and heritage.
“As a composer, every once in a while you hear a few words and you hear a musical idea instantly,” Kapilow says, who lives in River Vale. “The first, simple lines — ‘We came to America, every color, race, and religion, from every country in the world’ — just resonated with me. As soon as I heard those words, I had a musical idea for that. It just seemed like a reminder that this is who our country was.”
Dorothy Kaplan Roffman was the catalyst. She founded the Thurnauer School in 1984 to provide quality music education for students of all ages and backgrounds.
“She’s an absolute force of nature,” say Kapilow, whose family has been involved with the school for decades, his son attending as a teenager.
In 2018, Roffman invited Kapilow to become Thurnauer’s artist-in-residence. “It’s an amazing school and I always believed it was important to do something local, so I said yes without any idea of what I’d actually do!” he jokes. “Our first idea was to think of a project that would make a big impact.”
Around the same time, Roffman made a social call to Ringgold, a longtime resident of Englewood, a stone’s throw from the JCC headquarters. Roffman was so taken with Ringgold she suggested a collaboration to Kapilow, and gave him a collection of the artist’s books, including “We Came to America.”
“The title alone sort of hit me,” Kapilow says. “Part of it is that my own grandparents were immigrants themselves, from Russia, but also, this was a moment when immigration was really in the news — that really horrible moment in history when children were being kept in cages at the border.”
While Ringgold’s book was a strike of lightning, much of the multi-layered work took a gradual, pentimento approach centered on intergenerational interviews conducted by JCC’s Young People’s Chorus. The multicultural choir, led by artistic director Emma Brondolo, is part of JCC Thurnauer School of Music. (JCCs are cornerstones of Jewish life and follow Jewish values and traditions, but their doors are open to all.)
The interviews began as an unrelated community engagement initiative. An invitation was put out to immigrant families in the choir to talk about their experiences of coming to America. Around 100 people showed up.
“The whole intergenerational idea was one of those things that really interested me from the beginning,” Kapilow says. “There are so few things in our culture where kids, parents and grandparents get to do things meaningfully together and have that kind of meaningful conversation.”
Over the next couple years, numerous interviews were recorded and archived. “We had no idea how it would turn into a piece and a project,” Kapilow says. “But I thought, okay let’s do something with these interviews. But what to do about it?”
He began the process of putting the preserved memories into a creative framework. Khmer artist and singer Sokunthary Svay was brought in to see if she could create a libretto or words for Kapilow to set to music. She did so by adapting some of the interviews into a libretto for two of the work’s middle movements.
“Obviously we couldn’t include everyone’s story,” Kapilow says. “But it was fascinating to see which ones hit her and which ones she brought out.”
Svay’s own story of immigration is of population displacement. She was born in a Thailand refugee camp shortly after her parents fled Cambodia, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Her family came to America in 1981 and settled in The Bronx.
Her story is included in the fourth movement, “We Came to America,” which takes the work’s title.
“Some of the stories are historical and some are contemporary,” Kapilow says. “There’s a Middle Passage story, a Native American story and Sokunthary’s own story woven into poetic narratives. We were very careful to show both sides of coming to America for the first time.”
In the third movement (“What We Left Behind: Home Was, Until It Wasn’t”), Svay mixed memory and metaphor by drawing on creative writing sessions that had asked children what they had left behind when they came to America.
“We got all kinds of answers,” Kapilow says. “They ranged from very specific daily life like garam masala, rice cakes, noodles, cups of samovar tea, cucumber slices, to abstractions like, ‘I left behind my ancestral names and languages,’ or places of prayer, or bleak Russian winters.
“I also asked them to create little poetic phrases and one of the loveliest ones was from a teenager who said, ‘Home was until it wasn’t.’ And that actually became a refrain of the entire movement, which grew out of those questions.”
While the middle movements are documentary in nature, the first two movements address the complexities and disparities of the American Dream myth, particularly the social inequalities and systemic barriers that immigrants encounter.
“I wanted to write about the full spectrum of experience because the demographics of immigration has completely shifted over the years, and each wave of immigration received the same brutal criticism from the people who’d already been there,” Kapilow says.
He started by examining immigration statutes from the 18th century to the present during two years of pandemic downtime. “One of the things that was really clear to me … was that we’ve cycled back and forth over time between what I’d call an inclusionary and exclusionary version of America,” he says. “There were times where we welcomed immigrants and times where we excluded them.
“It’s sort of interesting that the more confident as a country we’ve been, those seem to sync up with the times when we were most welcoming. And the times when we were most divided or the most conflicted, like now, are the times when we became the most excluded or tended to exclude. I wanted both of those things to be somehow represented in the piece, but I didn’t want this to be political in any way.”
The first movement (“Thou Shalt Open Thy Hand”) sets the perspective on welcoming and excluding with a verse from Deuteronomy 15:11 that says, “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to the poor, and the needy in thy land.”
“The whole question of who we exclude and who we welcome has been here since biblical times and that verse seemed to me to say it all,” Kapilow says.
The verse is sung in both English and Hebrew, and the arrangement of the final chorale is based on the original liturgical Hebrew trope melody for those words.
The second movement (“Shall be Excluded”) was taken word-for-word from various immigration statutes to illustrate the discriminatory systems put in place to exclude and castigate immigrants.
“When I read through all the immigration statutes, one of the things that’s most striking is this ever-expanding list in what’s called the ‘Shall be Excluded’ section, a listing of who were considered undesirable aliens, which created a kind of national policy on who we will keep out of the country. Each new immigration document added more and more people on the list of who shall be excluded.”
Kapilow also wished to acknowledge the courage and fortitude required to make the difficult passage to America, and those whose odysseys ended in tragedy.
“One of the things that I found really poignant … is all these people who’d arrive at Ellis Island, often after months and months of these incredible journeys, who had imagined this new life with great hope, and some of them would be turned away.
“There’s a moment I specifically designed intergenerationally as a close-harmony trio for three-part women. So we’ll have nine women onstage made up of kids, teens and adults, each singing this beautiful, plaintive trio together, which is how I imagine they felt when they were forced to turn back.”
The final movement (“Finale: Salut au Monde!”) celebrates equality and advances goodwill through a verse from Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem of the same name, from “Leaves of Grass.”
“It’s a typical Whitman ecstatic text,” he says. “It makes a beautiful bookend with the first movement’s Deuteronomy quote. So it’s a kind of beautiful, joyous, welcoming text, which is sort of the best spirit of America and who we’ve been at the best moments in our history.”
He ends the piece on a questioning note by revisiting the original musical motif set down in the opening measures, but adds the words “we came to America,” spoken by the chorus.
Kapilow is inquisitive by nature, and his project conveys his passion to seek out answers and preserve living memory before it is gone.
He was born in New York in 1952 to parents who had lived through The Depression, “but never once did I have a discussion with them about what it was like to grow up during that time,” he says.
His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, but it was never discussed. “It was kind of a combination of grandparents and parents who often don’t want to talk about their stories, and teenagers who are only interested in themselves.”
He began to piece together his grandparents’ story while writing his third book, “Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim,” and working on “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” a documentary about Jewish songwriters who composed the beloved American Christmas canon.
“The common feature in both of those projects was Irving Berlin,” he says. “As I read about his immigrant story about escaping from pogroms and the incredible journey travelling to America from Russia, I realized his empowering story was really the same as my own grandparents who left Russia as immigrant Jews, but I never really knew much about it.
“Because I knew so little about my own parents and grandparents’ experiences, it was really important to me that these conversations about immigration experiences were intergenerational, and that it be an opportunity for kids, parents and grandparents to have the kind of conversation that they’d rarely ever have.”
The mixed choir is also intergenerational, combining young singers from ages 6 to 18 years with adults.
“I really didn’t want this to be just two children’s choirs or youth choirs,” Kapilow says. “Adult choirs rarely perform with children’s choirs and somehow the idea that these 6-year-olds at the JCC would be performing with all the musicians of the New Jersey Symphony and with the adult choir is something very close to my heart.”
The Thurnauer youth choir will be joined by an affiliate choir — the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, led by artistic director and founder Francisco J. Núñez. Both choruses offer children from various cultural and economic backgrounds an opportunity to study music.
The third choir, Ember Choral Arts, is a semi-professional adult choral ensemble that focuses on repertory by living composers.
“We got involved with Deborah (Ember Choral Arts’ artistic director Deborah Simpkin King) because they’re very devoted to new music and they’re also really interested in the kinds of topics and causes surrounding the music,” Kapilow says.
The work was seeded at a regional level, but Kapilow hopes for “a nationwide conversation on the meaning and value of immigrant communities. What I’d love to have happen is that choirs and orchestras around the country would take up the piece and do their own intergenerational immigrant interviews with their own communities.”
The commission also includes an educational curriculum for elementary, intermediate and secondary grade level students that covers the history of immigration and underscores the value of immigrants and diversity in America.
On Jan. 20 and 21, Kapilow’s work will be followed by Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes” from “On the Town” and “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story.”
Kapilow considers Bernstein “a huge, seminal influence.” He was also his mother’s hero.
“I don’t think there was a room in our house that didn’t have a photo of him!” he jokes. “She was a lifelong subscriber to the New York Philharmonic when he was the music director and she went to practically everything he ever conducted. Just the idea that a conductor could be American, Jewish and also an educator and conductor — and that he could do everything from Broadway to serious classical music — has really shaped a lot of what I’ve done over the course of my career.”
Kapilow holds degrees from Yale University, and The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. At Yale he was a professor and conductor of Yale Symphony Orchestra.
He is best known for his long-running “What Makes It Great?” concert series and Citypieces projects. Both aim to demystify classical music.
“The whole idea of these Citypieces came from one of my first managers who once said to me, ‘The one thing people in America like less than classical music is new classical music.’ So I’ve always been really interested in changing that idea. One of my goals was to make new music really approachable.”
The first Citypiece was in 1996. He asked for public reactions to Claes Oldenburg’s art installation “Shuttlecocks” at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
“Half the city thought it was like defacing a serious art museum with this whimsical joke,” he says. “Other people thought it was the greatest thing ever. The point is, it touched a nerve. And to me, that’s the Bernstein impulse. Find where people meet, and react. The idea that you could be an ambassador for music and try to break down barriers and have music speak to almost anyone, and the ambition to take music to places it otherwise would not go, really grew out of Bernstein.”
He created an interactive musical piece inspired by the Oldenburg sculptures and people contributed ideas, turning the project into a community collaboration.
Other Citypieces included “Summer Sun, Winter Moon” in 2004 for the 200th Lewis & Clark anniversary with Native American tribal communities in Montana, and “Golden Gate Opus” in San Francisco for the 75th anniversary of the bridge.
He is able to draw a clear line from his first Citypiece almost 30 years ago, to “We Came to America.”
“It’s still something I look for: How can you get people interested in a topic and create something out of it? For me, those intergenerational stories at the JCC were really inspirational in the same way as the Citypieces. That’s really the stuff that motivates me.”
New Jersey Symphony and singers from JCC Young People’s Chorus @ Thurnauer, Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and Ember Choral Arts will perform “We Came to America” (with Rob Kapilow conducting) and other pieces at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, Jan. 20 at 8 p.m.; and The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. New Jersey Symphony will present a related program, without “We Came to America,” at NJPAC, Jan. 18 at 1:30 p.m. Visit njsymphony.org.
For more on Kapilow, visit robkapilow.com.
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