Picosa Ensemble Gives a Spirited Performance of 225 Years of Music

Chicago’s Picosa makes a large sound for a small ensemble. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

Local chamber ensemble Picosa gave a spirited performance in the PianoForte Studio’s intimate South Loop setting on Tuesday evening. Formed in 2014, Picosa has earned a reputation of having a symphonic sound while still being a small ensemble. It is made up of Flutist Jennie Oh Brown, Clarinetist Andrea R. DiOrio, Violinist Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaite, Cellist Patti Garvey, and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang. Included in Picosa’s makeup is composer Jonathon Kirk, reflecting the ensemble’s penchant for programming contemporary music in addition to somewhat obscure works by more traditional classical composers.  Tuesday night’s program Locus of Movement drew from music spanning nearly 225 years.

This concert, which will be repeated in Oak Brook on March 11, featured guest cellist Kurt Fowler, who started the evening with violinist Brathwaite and flutist Brown performing a rarely heard trio by Franz Joseph Haydn, Divertimento, Op. 100, No. 1. Much of Haydn’s long life as a composer was spent at the isolated country estate of a Hungarian prince in the second half of the 18th Century. This allowed Haydn to crank out an enormous output, a huge portion of which rarely sees the light of a 21st Century day. Mixed in with this output are many fine, underappreciated works; the Divertimentos, which were intended only to be background music for social events, are examples of that.

Jennie Oh Brown was the flute soloist for Euterpe’s Caprice by August Read Thomas. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

This particular Divertimento from 1784 gives prominence to the flute, which Brown played in careful balance with Brathwaite and Fowler, whose violin and cello blended together well. The only thing marring this performance was occasional instances when intonation could have been a bit more precise; it was not bad in any sense, but the consonances seemed a bit off.

Fowler and Brown were joined by pianist Huang to perform Mara’s Lullaby, a lovely work from 2005 by Chicago composer Marc Mellits, who was in the audience. Underpinning this work is a two note phrase, which starts as a descending octave, but changes during the piece. With the feel of a ticking clock, this phrase gives a pensive air that, as luck would have it, was evocative of that particular Tuesday: a forlorn, rainy February day that started warm but ended with spring seeming like a distant hope.

Mellits has written several arrangements for this piece. On this occasion Huang precisely hammered out the octave, which was soon joined by shimmering accompaniment with his other hand and the other instruments. Special attention goes to the cello, which handles the main melody. Fowler gave it a soulful touch, while Brown dutifully provided background color.

Brown had the starring role in the next work on the program, Euterpe’s Caprice, one of two capriccios on the program by Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas, who was also present. This 2-minute flute solo, written in 2008 for flutist Claire Chase, is very evocative of Thomas’ precise style. It is comprised of long notes interspersed with melodic bursts reminiscent of counterpoint, where the long note serves as continuo backing up a vibrant melody. Brown’s captivating performance brought this out.

Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaite was on point in Debussy’s Violin Sonata. Photo by Elliott Mandel.

The second piece by Thomas, Capricci, Hummingbird Romance is a duet that combined Brown with clarinetist DiOrio for a five-minute work originally composed as a wedding gift in 2014. The flute and clarinet have similar ranges, with the clarinet’s being somewhat larger. The work opens with an extended flute solo comprised of short, moderately paced utterances, which is soon joined by the clarinet interweaving with notes that, while similarly pitched, seem to be thriving in their own space. As the work progresses, the musical lines gradually become more coordinated until the climax, when the instruments link at the lower end of their registers and flutter to their highest points. Brown and DiOrio matched up well, carefully navigating their varied scores to create an impression that was very evocative of a mating ritual.

The first half of the concert ended with the last major work composed by Claude Debussy, from 1917. Known mainly for orchestral and solo piano music, Debussy wrote a handful of chamber works of a surprisingly high quality given such a limited output. His music can feel very ethereal; “impressionism” is the word aptly used to describe it. The Violin Sonata in g minor, his only foray into the violin and piano duo, bears this out wonderfully.

Brathwaite and Huang offered a very thoughtful rendition. Brathwaite was on point, with careful phrasing of the various melodies. Huang’s role mostly consisted of back-up chords, but in those instances when the piano exerts itself, he was very crisp, especially in those passages when he rapidly, but clearly, played repeated, single notes.

Pianist Kuang-Hao Huang played precisely throughout. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

The second half of the concert opened with Dviraag, a duo for flute and cello by Indian-American composer Asha Srinivasan from 2009. The work is based on a couple of different melodic motifs, but the overwhelming impact is rhythmic. It was fascinating to see and hear the melodies and rhythms switch back and forth between flute and cello, and Brown and Fowler’s performance made it very compelling.

The last work on the program allowed Picosa chamber ensemble to show off its symphonic sound with a work by Arnold Schoenberg, one of the leading voices in the emergence of nontraditional tonalities at the beginning of the 20th Century. While traditional major and minor keys are comprised of eight notes between an octave, there are actually 12 evenly-spaced notes in that span. Schoenberg composed musical themes deliberately using all 12 of those notes outside of the traditional key structures. The first work to utilize this approach was Kammersymphonie, Op. 9. Originally written for small orchestra, Schoenberg’s student and friend Anton Webern arranged it for a quintet made up of the same instruments that comprise Picosa.

Clarinetist Andrea R. DiOrio offered careful playing. Photo by Elliot Mandel.

While written as a single movement, Kammersymphonie has several sections intended to replicate styles and tempi typically found in multi-movement symphonies. It gave Picosa an opportunity to display many of its ensemble strengths, including the individual instruments playing off the others. Unlike other pieces originally written as quintets, those opportunities were rather limited in this transcription. The one challenge on Tuesday night was balance; it was sometimes hard to make out the flute from the other four instruments. Part of this might have been attributed to the extreme intimacy of the performance space. This issue aside, it was a wonderful display, and a great way to end the evening.

Picosa will be performing Locus of Movement a second time at Mayslake Peabody Estate, Sunday, March 11, 3:00 pm, in Oak Brook. $25 general admission, $23 seniors, $10 student, $0 high school and younger.

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