Jennie Oh Brown’s Giantess Mines Courage and Love Through Loss

Flutist Jennie Oh Brown’s second solo album Giantess (innova) presents a collection of works dedicated to her late grandmothers, Kwak Sung-Sil and Yoon Chung-Suk–women who grew up, raised families, and survived during a time in Korean history that was ravaged by war and poverty. With this album, Oh Brown remembers these foundational women who loved her, inspired and encouraged her, and who “watched the world change” with pieces that span profound themes of courage, wonder, faith, struggle, and loss.

Shulamit Ran’s Birds of Paradise (2014) is a songful, technically vivacious opener as Oh Brown’s bird song engages in mysterious conversation with the piano (Carter Pann). The flute’s pitch bends are tender, but capture the wonder and mystery of the natural world. Cadenza-like moments are at times heartbreaking, with Oh Brown’s sonic power at full capacity. The third movement is a propulsive, mixed meter finale–a fantastic bird in flight with bursts of resonant high D’s, a formidable feat for any flutist. Suddenly, the central theme returns in all its tenderness; delicate whistle tones devolve into the frenetic churning of wind swept aviation. Throughout all three movements, Oh Brown’s tone is rich and full of heart to the very end. 

Jennie Oh Brown--Photo by Marc Perlish

Jennie Oh Brown–Photo by Marc Perlish

Carter Pann’s two-movement work, Melodies for Robert (2017), performed alongside cellist Kurt Fowler, was written in celebration of the life of Robert Vincent Jones (1920-2016), though its themes can speak to the memory of any life lost. The first movement, “Sing,” is a lyrical celebration, while the second, “Listen,” is a slower, more contemplative call for reflection. 

Wish Sonatine (2015) by Valerie Coleman is a dramatic tone poem that depicts the “Middle Passage” in which Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic by ship to be sold into slavery. It begins with words from Fred D’Aguiar’s poem of the same name, read by Jennifer Parker Harley,  “… I wind the clocks back and turn the ships / Around, not a single bullet, whip, or cutlass. / Sound to deafen our ears for centuries. / No Atlantic road of bones from people / dumped into the sea to form a wake.” With Daniel Paul Horn at the piano, Oh Brown sustains a single note, the unsettling sonic embodiment of a ship on the horizon, soon to approach the shore before the slow melody unwinds and sets the scene. This sensitive, melodic work moves through contemplation, loss, agony, and anger, with a wish to turn back time at its core. Oh Brown’s artistry breathes humanity into this painful history, revealing a spirit of courage and  uncrushable resilience. 

Valerie Coleman

Valerie Coleman

Amazing Grace for Flute and Piano (2019) by Misook Kim begins with an extended solo flute section in the style of a Daegeum, a large bamboo transverse flute commonly used in traditional Korean music. The opening melody travels through spit attacks, shifting timbres, and fluttering pentatonic scales. A piano entrance by Kim rests gently atop the texture of the melodic flute. Motifs from the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and the Korean folk song “Arirang” can be found throughout this stirring work. 

Oh Brown’s full sound and musical sensitivity shines on Plea for Peace (2017), by Augusta Read Thomas, a heartfelt vocalise transcribed for alto flute and string quartet (Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaite, Cristina Buciu, violins; Amanda Grimm, viola; Paula Kosower, cello).  In Carter Pann’s single movement rhapsody, Giantess, Oh Brown showcases her expansive sound throughout all ranges of the flute. The closer, Pann’s Double Espresso (2017), is a show stopping display of virtuosity. Clocking in at just under 2 minutes, this encore piece isn’t for the faint hearted. Oh Brown and Pann (at the piano) truly fly, soaring through relentless runs and flourishes with ferocity and fancy (and taking no prisoners at that). 

Oh Brown holds nothing back in this gripping, wondrous, and soulful album. Not only do these pieces serve as a lasting memory of Oh Brown’s grandmothers, but the collection creates a space for listeners to remember those in their own lives whose selflessness, altruism, struggle, and genuine love built the foundation upon which they now stand.