Piano party of five

The 5 Browns are five classical pianists who certainly give credence to the claim that talent runs in the family: The 5 Browns are siblings. They are Ryan, 20; Melody, 21; Gregory, 23; Deondra, 25; and Desirae, 27. They studied at Juilliard, one of America’s best conservatories, during the same five years.

The 5 Browns performed at the Byham Theater downtown last Wednesday in a concert presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. It’s easy to see why the Browns are so popular — their introductions and their music reveal boundless enthusiasm for what they do. Their body language (bobbing their heads, swaying their bodies during the performance) showed their pleasure. They were having loads of fun playing classical music, which was enjoyable to watch and hear.

They also related the music to the audience. Gregory and Ryan said that the “Malaguena” from Andalucia Suite by Ernesto Lecuona reminded them of the movie The Mask of Zorro and “brought back fond memories of Catherine Zeta-Jones.” Melody shared her thoughts about gargoyles before she played Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles. Gregory also related Franz Liszt, a virtuoso pianist in his day, to modern pop music superstars. Gregory noted that Liszt suggested turning the piano sideways during performances so that women could see him play. The Browns draw people to them and, in turn, to classical music. The program stated: “The Browns have discovered that almost a third of their audience has seldom, if ever, attended a concert of classical music, and another third is college-age or younger.”

The Browns exude an aura of youth, and they flaunt that youth in the face of tradition. Rather than wearing tuxedos and fancy dresses, they dressed more casually. Gregory expressed discomfort at always having to wear a jacket, so he took it off and threw it across the stage; he then played a piece that paid homage to Jerry Lee Lewis. He donned black biker gloves and played a crazy piece culminating in hammering the keys with his arms — and a foot.

The 5 Browns perform together in various permutations, the grandest and most unique being when they all play at once. Each has a distinct, separate part of the music to play on a different piano. Compositions written for five pianos are rare, so most of what the Browns play are five-piano transcriptions. Wednesday’s program included transcriptions of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and Bernstein’s “Scenes from West Side Story.”

The 5 Browns owe much of their fame to the fact that they are all talented siblings, and also that they play five-piano music. The five-piano idea is striking visually, but the transcriptions used by the Browns were weak. Five pianos were not needed to accomplish the pieces’ musical demands. The works themselves, originally orchestral, do not take advantage of the possibilities afforded by having five pianos.

It would be nice to see the Browns commission some five-piano music, rather than just play transcriptions, as five-piano music has some intriguing possibilities. The piano typically produces a very clear, transparent sound that can be very percussive and sharp; five-piano music can be very dense and contrapuntal and at the same time remain clear. The piano’s pedals allow for a smooth, connected sound that is sustained for a while after a key has been struck. When notes are pedaled on different pianos, the sonority becomes very round and sounds like a choir of woodwinds or brass. Given this, pianos can generate a variety of interesting sounds that lend them great potential. Pianos also have great overtones. When a low note on the piano is struck, it implies other notes up the keyboard. The piano also allows chords and harmony to overlap, creating opportunities for sonorities. During the Browns’ performance, the piano lids were kept closed. This is necessary for the five-piano music due to balance, but the piano lids were kept closed during solos and one-piano, four-hand music also, which was very frustrating as the sound was dim and one-dimensional.

The Browns also play in conventional permutations. Gregory and Ryan played a two-piano work, while Desirae and Deondra played a one-piano, four-hand piece. These two genres are common. The Browns also scattered some solos throughout the program; Gregory played Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6” and Melody played Liebermann’s Gargoyles.

Individually, the Browns never gave the listener an opportunity to question their virtuosity, even during terribly difficult points in the music; however, their ability to play together and interact during the five-piano music has not yet reached full maturity. “Rhapsody in Blue” suffered from a slow tempo and some hesitation. “Scenes from West Side Story” showed the Browns at their best, when they were so comfortable that they could treat the performance as a casual conversation rather than a scripted, practiced affair. Some fantastic pedaling in the Stravinsky piece created wonderful sonorities akin to woodwinds. In general though, brilliance was sporadic rather than frequent.

The solos were fine enough. Some of the playing sounded very student-like; there was a limited range of articulation, virtually every note was pedaled, and expression was limited. But let’s not kid ourselves-the Browns would likely not be a phenomenon if each pursued a solo career. There are so many pianists out there who are young and exponentially more talented than the Browns, such as Lang Lang, 24, who has played with major orchestras around the world, or Jonathan Biss, 22, who is a rising chamber musician and concert pianist who will appear with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra the weekend of March 22.

The Browns are a fun introduction to classical music. Being a family that plays five-piano music is unique and they execute this idea well. The classical world, though, has much more to offer than transcriptions and gimmicks.