Review: Picosa Offers Beautiful Tango on Monday Night

Picosa gave an enjoyable performance at Allen Hall in DePaul’s Holtschneider Performance Center on Monday night. Made up of Jennie Oh Brown on flute, Andrea R. DiOrio on clarinet, Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaite on violin, Paula Kosower on cello, and Kuang-Hao Huang on piano, this quintet performed Beautiful Tango, a program of contemporary music by several composers they knew. In addition to pieces for the full ensemble, they offered duos with pianist Huang and each of the other players. Picosa has a composer-in-residence Jonathon Kirk, but his work was not on Monday night’s program.  

Tangos appeared in the opening and closing works, both by Miguel Del Aguila, a composer with whom they had recently worked. The evening started with his duo for piano and cello, Tango Volante, op. 133. It opened slowly with crashing, dissonant chords on the piano and a quiet melody on the cello. After some fits and starts, it built into a faster tango rhythm. Huang and Kosower interacted well off one another, trading the moments of tonality and atonality and carefully ending as it had started.

Up next was Emotiva, a duo for violin and piano by Chicago composer Clarice Assad. Braithwaite and Huang paired nicely in this passionate lament written at the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. Assad has a great way to express such emotions, and the performance captured the melancholy of this difficult period.

The full ensemble took to the stage for one of the evening’s high points, Sweet Air by David Lang. In the notes Lang recalled taking his eldest son to the dentist, who called the laughing gas used to ease the pain of a dental filling “sweet air.”

In Picosa’s performance, Sweet Air was a lush, minimalist soundscape created by Braithwaite and Kosower furiously plucking the violin and cello, while Brown and DiOrio sounded quick notes on the flute and clarinet. Huang’s piano covered the sound like a loose, sheer blanket. Over time the notes gradually changed, creating subtle melodies. The only breaks over several minutes were for the musicians to turn the page of their music. Instead of air, it reminded me of water running through fountains, with ripples and waterfalls.

Later in the concert, Huang and Brown played piano and flute on Xavier Beteta’s Mecanicas Celeste, a duo based on atonal and tonal chords. Most interesting were the lengthy scale-like melodies Huang played on piano and Brown echoed on the flute. The notes came off even and clear, very precise and crisp.

Closing the concert was the full ensemble playing Miguel Del Aguila’s suite, Salon Buenos Aires, op. 84 no. 2. Its three movements encapsulates a wide spectrum of sounds from Argentina. The opening ‘Samba” has a psychedelic feel and includes vocalizations to Samba rhythms.

The second movement “Tango to Dream” is what really resonated. It ended (and started) in a dream, with Huang standing up to pluck the piano strings while Braithewaite and Kosower made wispy sounds with their bows and DiOrio and Brown blew air. Soon Brown took her flute apart and played only the mouthpiece. Before long, the tempo increased, and a wonderful tango rhythm emerged. As the title promised, dreamy it was, especially since it ended the way it started.

The final movement, “Obsessed Milonga” describes it perfectly. It was passionate way to end the evening. 

Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.