This is difficult to write, but PICA's TBA: 07
festival-opening performance last night in Pioneer Courthouse Square of Rinde Eckert
's new work, On the Great Migration of Excellent Birds
, was one of the most tired, uninspiring and woefully under-rehearsed live performances seen in Portland all year. It was also, for PICA and for Portland, a hugely missed opportunity.
It is tough to report this because Eckert is a music and theatre man of immense talent, and one whose works I have admired previously (his Orpheus X
at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre a few seasons back was a transcendent experience).
For his PICA commission, Eckert envisioned an outdoor meta-choral work involving several hundred singers from the region, and invoking the movement of flocks and herds, of humans and birds. In a program note, Eckert wrote that he saw the TBA commission as "an opportunity to take Portland on a great migration, using movement, sound, movement, noise, words."
Eckert evokes much of this beautifully in his colorful, imaginative choral soundscape. Simple marching melodies alternate with lush four-part choral writing on Eckert's own text ("Even in sleep the murmuring of the excellent birds / Who has not wanted to be among the excellent birds"). Singers rustle choral scores, jut out their arms and hands like tall cranes and convincingly mimic bird noises. But there is no cumulative impact; it doesn't add up. This may also be attributed to the composer's decision to cut several minutes of key music from the work due, according to advance reports, to the low level of commitment from the producers and singers involved.
The hastily-assembled "Rinde Indie Choir," prepared and conducted by an anonymous woman with enthusiastic if unclear gestures, did not hold up their end of the bargain. That choir numbered less than 100, including a few faces from respected Portland choirs. But in the bustle of downtown Portland, and with far fewer voices than the composer asked for and the work needed, discerning text, pitch and musical gesture was challenging (just listen to the performance clip below). It was a fuzzy and forgettable performance in a buzzing downtown square. The applause was scant, but polite.
It is hard to imagine how Eckert – who has a long relationship with PICA – feels about his experience here, and whether he is likely to come back again.
Only—wait for it
—time will tell how the rest of the fest shapes up.