Flutist Brown launches CD with contemporary program

Tue Nov 12, 2019 at 10:27 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Jennie Oh Brown performed music from her CD “Giantess” Sunday at Constellation. Photo: Forestt Strong Lafave

Jennifer Oh Brown is not only an exceptionally talented flutist. She is also an extremely busy performer and contemporary music promoter. 

Brown is artistic director of Picosa, an adventuresome chamber music ensemble that opened a season of concerts at DePaul University’s new Holtschneider Performance Center this fall. Earlier this year she launched New Music Chicago Presents, a monthly series of concerts of 21st century music at the Chicago Cultural Center. Next year Brown and composer Michael Lewanski are heading up plans for Ear Taxi Festival 2020, which will expand on the original 2016 incarnation, by showcasing music by more than 60 composers.

And, on Sunday night at Constellation, Brown was onstage herself, with a concert previewing her new CD, “Giantess,” featuring works by Shulamit Ran, Augusta Reed Thomas, Carter Pann, Misook Kim and Valerie Coleman.

The tone Brown draws from her flute is meltingly beautiful—rounded, seamless through all registers, robust. And beauty of tone was the focal point of pieces she performed Sunday from her new CD. 

All were composed during the past four years, and most include stretches of the restless, unsettled harmonies so typical of contemporary music. But there was very little harsh dissonance or the extended techniques that can transform the flute into an instrument of high-frequency shrieks and guttural groans.

The evening’s essentially introspective mood was set by the first two pieces, Amazing Grace for Flute and Piano by Misook Kim and Valerie Coleman’s Wish Sonatine for flute and piano, both with pianist Daniel Paul Horn. In Kim’s work, bits and pieces of the traditional hymn—a fragment of melody here, a snatch of rhythm there—floated by atop a mysterious, faintly Far Eastern harmonic haze. Kim was inspired by a traditional Korean instrument called the daegeum, a large bamboo transverse flute, and in the opening pages Brown deftly evoked its breathy sound and wide-ranging depths and heights. 

Based on a poem by Fred D’Aguiar about the horrors of the Middle Passage slave trade, Wish Sonatine was full of vibrant musical portraits. Horn’s roiling piano churned like ocean waves–dissonant and unpredictable on the surface, implacable and relentless in its depths. At times Brown’s flute rode in sync with waves, surrendering to their irresistible force.  At times she pulled away with all the despair and breathless urgency of a prisoner struggling to escape. 

Ran’s Birds of Paradise opened with extravagant flurries from the flute. Like giant, wheeling birds, they soared and plunged, their flights punctuated periodically by a single, short piano chord. In the contemplative middle section, Brown’s flute stretched into long, meandering melodies atop understated piano accompaniment. 

Thomas’s Plea for Peace, composed for flute, string quartet and piano (Kuang-Hao Huang), continued the meditative mood. The brief piece is somber, but there was an underlying sense of purpose and dignity even as the flute fell into moments of deep lament. With sympathetic murmurs from strings and piano, the flute was never alone on its journey. 

Three pieces by Colorado-based composer Carter Pann—Melodies for Robert, Giantess and Double Espresso–rounded out the program. His music is unabashedly lush and full of romantic sweep. In Giantess, Huang’s piano provided a powerful backdrop of big, open-hearted chords for Brown’s honey-toned flute. Double Espresso was a joyful romp, with Brown’s non-stop flute darting and swooping like a bumblebee against Huang’s cheerfully galloping piano.  

A note about Constellation: It can be difficult to keep up with Chicago’s contemporary music scene. It’s vibrant but scattered, with concerts at venues throughout the city and various dates and times throughout the year. 

Constellation, 3111 N. Western, has a long tradition of presenting contemporary music, especially on Sunday nights. Not every Sunday night, and sometimes you can catch contemporary ensembles there during the week. Constellation’s schedule is a welcome fixed point for sampling performances. constellation-chicago.com

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