Jennie Oh Brown ’91, flutist, is artist in residence and artistic director at the Epiphany Center for the Arts in Chicago, executive and artistic director of ensemble collective Picosa, and a faculty member at Wheaton College. She served as executive and artistic director of Ear Taxi Festival in 2021, a celebration of Chicago-centric 21st century music featuring 600 artists in performances throughout the city.
Brown is an active performer throughout Chicago in many contexts, including performances with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and Chicago Opera Theater. Her solo album, Giantess (Innova 2019), was featured in the Chicago Tribune’s “Best Classical Albums of 2019.” Additional albums were also released to critical acclaim, including her first solo album Looking Back: Flute Music by Joseph Schwantner* (Innova, 2015) and the Heare Ensemble’s Vox (Innova, 2020) in honor of George Crumb’s 90th birthday. Upcoming performances for Brown include Anchorage Opera and as a featured artist for the Chicago Flute Club in 2023.
She serves on the board of Chamber Music America (CMA) and is program chair of the upcoming 2023 CMA national conference. She is a member of the diversity and inclusion and historical flutes committees of the National Flute Association, and she is a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Which professors influenced you the most during your time at the Bienen School of Music?
Without question, the professor who had the greatest influence on me during my time at the Bienen School, and who is still very special to me to this day, is Walfrid Kujala. He is simply a consummate pedagogue and an artist of world-class caliber.
In addition to giving me thorough preparation for my performing and teaching career, he inspired me with his commitment to board service, his dedication to writing and speaking with utmost clarity and thought, and most importantly, his conviction to treat others with respect and kindness in all circumstances.
Now, 30 years after graduating, I still see him at my concerts and am the grateful beneficiary of his very generous encouragement. Without exception, I think about his teaching every day of my professional career, and I remain so profoundly grateful for his continued friendship and presence in my life.
Jennie Oh Brown and Professor Emeritus Walfrid Kujala
Tell us about a particular experience that impacted you during your time at the Bienen School of Music.
I had so many truly incredible experiences while a student, especially in concerts, but it is often the interactions with Bienen faculty that stand out to me in my memories.
Remembering former principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Clark Brody, I recall approaching him in the hall one day to share with him how much I loved his performance in Van Cliburn’s recording of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Fritz Reiner. His clarinet solo in the second movement is simply a divine moment in a recording that I’ve now listened to hundreds of times. Mr. Brody was startled at my mention of the decades-old recording, and he wistfully responded with gratitude, sharing how it was among the most important highlights of his career. I was so moved to hear his recollection of this experience, and how, even in a stellar career as celebrated as his, the joy of a musical life remains with these rare and exquisite artistic moments.
What lesson did you learn at Bienen that has continued to resonate with you in your career?
Rhythm, rhythm, and more rhythm. What is truly unifying in music as a “universal language” is rhythm. We all know those unmistakable moments when artists “lock” together in performance, feeling the pulse collaboratively in an organic yet fluid way, or when we have those wonderful a-ha moments when we truly understand polyrhythms or complex rhythmic patterns and modes. There are so many nuanced ways of understanding rhythm together.
My comprehension of rhythm was foundational to my studies with Walfrid Kujala, John P. Paynter*, and Victor Yampolsky especially. It is now essential to my artistic process and a crucial core skill in my collaborative work. I credit my studies at the Bienen School of Music with giving me the tools necessary to learn often incredibly complicated works quickly and perform them with courage and confidence.
Describe one of your career highlights.
It’s probably strange to say that I’m currently living a career highlight in my full-time role at Epiphany Center for the Arts. I never knew, when I was in the thick of undergraduate life, that I could have a career that meets such a range of both my skills and passions in the field. As artist in residence, I will be pursuing long-time bucket list recording projects featuring the Bach Cello Suites (transcribed for flute) and works by Korean composers in addition to other fun performing projects in development. It’s also providing a residency for Picosa in one of Chicago’s most beautiful spaces. As artistic director, I’m developing educational opportunities and curating a concert series that opens the doors to Chicago musicians, and more. The team at Epiphany is dedicated to diverse programming across its music and visual arts programming, which also resonates with my passion to create and contribute to an artistic world that better reflects our Chicago community and beyond. I’m happy to be in touch with Bienen School alumni who are interested in Epiphany Center for the Arts!
What music have you been listening to lately?
Often, I listen to new album releases from friends or whatever is coming up in my concert schedule. However, I also have my musical equivalent of “comfort foods” that I turn to especially on long drives. These are albums that I discovered during those early years of my serious musical life and still hold a lot of affection for me.
Van Cliburn performing Brahms and Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerti
Mahler 2 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic
Rachmaninov Cello Sonata with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax
Bach Mass in B Minor – varied performers
David Bowie – Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust
Third Coast Percussion* – Perspectives
Jennifer Grim – Through Broken Time
Shawn Okpebholo – Lord, How Come Me Here
*Denotes fellow alumni; Joseph Schwantner ’66 MMus, ’68 DMus; John P. Paynter ’50, ’51 MMus; Third Coast Percussion - Sean Connors ’06 MMus, Robert Dillon ‘02, Peter Martin ’04 MMus, ’11 DMus, and David Skidmore ’05