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The 5 Browns, Mormon siblings Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody, and Ryan, who are all concert pianists, performed an interesting and eclectic concert to open the Asheville Bravo Concert Series. A hands-down media sensation, they are the only siblings to have attended the Juilliard School simultaneously, and as performers on the same instrument, they are certainly a rarity. Ranging in age from 23 to their upper twenties, they champion the cause of classical music to a new generation of concert-goers, and their casual, slang-inflected banter, hip clothes, and glitzy light show reflect this mission. The fact that there were many empty seats — this despite Asheville Bravo's efforts to distribute tickets to various student and community groups — indicates that the Browns have their work cut out for them.
It was not always this way, of course. In the heyday of the piano — the nineteenth century — piano concerts and artists were all the rage. Pianists such as Beethoven forced on his audiences a new and increased attention span. Liszt, a classical musician with rock star sex appeal, blazed new musical paths with his stunningly original works, including his virtuosic transcriptions of other composers' orchestral works, thus enabling a hearing of new music for people who would probably never hear the original orchestral incarnation. People fought for admission to these events and women routinely fainted during the performances, simply overcome with emotion. Sadly, piano concerts have become more and more anachronistic as other media clamor for our attention. There's another problem, and it's huge — fewer and fewer people are actually studying the instrument beyond a few years.
The evening featured opening and closing pieces for all five pianos within each half of the program. Thereafter, there were works for two pianos, a few solo pieces, and one work scored for a single piano, "six hands." The entire program, performed from memory, consisted of well-known and mostly high-energy classical works, some of it selected movements of larger works, and all of it programmed to dazzle while falling within easily digestible time segments. The Browns' five Steinways were arranged in a semicircle with all the noses nested together. All the lids were down and each instrument was amplified, resulting unfortunately in a tinny and inferior, "synthetic" sound quality. Projected against the back wall was a series of abstract colors in patterns not unlike those of the Windows Media Player screen that were either still or set in motion at some point in a piece. With the exception of the opening work (arranged by Jeffrey Shumway), all arrangements on the program were those of Greg Anderson, a contemporary and former Juilliard classmate.
The program opened on weighty notes — the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 — heavily arranged with copious basso tremolos and thick inner workings, resulting in their signature massed, orchestral sound. Next was the Grande Tarantelle, Op. 67, by Gottschalk, originally for piano and orchestra, played nimbly by Gregory and Ryan. Melody played the first solo, Brahms' introspective Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2. Desirae and Deondra took the stage for the "Valse: Presto" from Rachmaninov's Suite No. 2, Op. 17, for 2 pianos. Gregory returned and stormed through Prokofiev's Toccata, Op. 11, garnering some of the evening's longest applause. Closing the first half was an interesting and rousing arrangement of three movements of Holst's The Planets: "Mars, The Bringer of War"; "Neptune, The Mystic" (which included some vocalized sounds as well as plucked strings); and "Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity."
After answering some questions about their careers as well as their personal lives from the audience after intermission, the concert continued with the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Ryan was showcased in Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66. Desirae and Deondra performed with abandon the "Braziliera" ("Mouvement de samba") from Milhaud's Scaramouche Suite for two pianos, Op. 165b. Another novelty was Rachmaninov's "Valse and Romance" for six hands, originally written by the composer for three sisters and played beautifully and expansively by these three sisters, crowded together at one piano on two benches. The concert concluded with a calculated audience favorite, an arrangement of Saint-Saëns' symphonic poem "Danse Macabre," in G minor, Op. 40. After extended applause, the group returned and played as an encore an arrangement of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King."
What's not to like about a group like this? They are young, talented, and so earnest in their outreach, especially to young listeners. One is tempted to ponder what life must have been like for them growing up in a house filled with five concert grands and constant practicing. Now their parents' basement is "practice central" for the group (five Steinways there, as well as in five separate rooms throughout their house), when they're not at their individual homes, where Steinways are also present. One also has to marvel at how harmoniously the 5 Browns work together — and how easy they make it all look!