A world-class pianist makes for a great addition to a symphony performance. But what about five? East Texans will have the chance to hear for themselves when The 5 Browns accompany the East Texas Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 18.
Consisting of siblings Ryan, Melody, Greogry, Deondra and Desirae, the five have spent more or less their entire lives playing piano. Each started banging away at the keys at the age of three, but it wasn’t until they simultaneously attended Juilliard (a first in the school’s history) that they decided to band together. Deondra, Melody and Gregory took some time to speak with the Tyler Morning Telegraph about themselves and their musical exploits.
“Eventually, we were just like, ‘Hey why not try pooling our efforts to play as a group and see if people would be interested in that,’ and it’s just sort of taken off since then. It’s been a really cool 10 years since then,” Gregory Brown said.
Cool is definitely one way to describe a career that so far has included three No. 1 albums on Billboard’s classical music charts, playing for symphony orchestras across the country and the world, having their own PBS special and even performing a commissioned five-piano concerto
written by famed composer Nico Muhly.
It wasn’t until they had begun auditioning for various record labels that the idea of five simultaneous pianos was bandied about, but the result was music and a performance style that is unlike almost anything else. Something that unique, though, comes with its own set of challenges.
“You are right, sometimes there is a bit of corralling between the five of us,” Melody Brown said. “But we each have the same training, but we all have different opinions and different musical tastes. So we’ve had to realize that there is an odd number of us, which is a great thing for our group so we just take a vote on things.”
With the five of them working so closely, one would suspect that sibling rivalry might rear its head from time to time. Stereotypical images of the younger Browns steeling themselves against the bossier, dominant elder Browns can be easily conjured, but would ultimately be a false picture of how they work as a unit.
“Sibling rivalry definitely has not been a factor for the five of us. A lot of people find that hard to believe but it’s the truth,” said Gregory Brown. “We’ve all been in this together, we’ve all had pretty much the same career so it wouldn’t make sense to be competitive. … I think when we first started there was the question of if the older ones would take the lead and the younger ones would follow along. But after a few relatively heated arguments we realized that probably wasn’t the right thing to do. So we make a point to keep everything very equal among the five of us.”
Much as they might disagree, though, the result is something that is unique to their group, but that still retains strains of individuality.
“When you hear us performing, it’s really a combination of five different artists’ opinions in each piece, so it’s nice to feel like you still have a voice within a bigger group,” Melody Brown said.
So what does a quintet of this sort play? At the ETSO concert they’ll play everything from Verdi’s “Nabucco” overture to Gerswhin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” to a “Star Wars” suite by John Williams. However, they often find themselves gravitating toward a lot of Russian fare as it is quite accommodating to the large sound they can produce.
“As a group we tend to these exciting, post-Romantic pieces. The stuff you hear in films and on TV commercials. A lot of it tends to be Russian music, we realized,” said Melody Brown. “We love Stravinsky and Prokofiev and we realized that at one point we have almost a full Russian program. … As individuals, we tend to gravitate toward different things. I myself, I love everything from Mozart to Brahms, and Gregory likes a lot of Baroque music. Each of us has differing tastes, but as a group we tend to go for the big, exciting Russian music.”
But even as big as their five Steinways can sound, there are still moments that allow for the individual to shine.
“Desirae and I, our forte is two-piano playing, so at a point you’ll hear just the two of us. Gregory and Melody and Ryan do their own thing. But with this particular show in East Texas it’s going to be celebrating ensembles, or two or three or four or five of us with the orchestra,” Deondra Brown said. “In a typical show we’ll break it down and have individual moments where we can all shine and show what our passion really is with our own side.”
Gregory Brown said it was surprising that their quintet even worked at all, as the question of if they could gel as a group loomed heavily. But as it turns out, they have something of a “telepathic communication,” as he describes it, when on stage that feels exclusively the result of playing with his siblings.
“I think that’s why it works. In being siblings, we know each other better than most chamber groups know each individual member and we’ve had similar training so we understand each other as musicians,” he said. “To the point where, we’ll be on stage and we, just by glance or body movement or with sound, we can communicate that way and we understand each other. So if someone’s doing something different than they did the previous night, we’ll be able to keep up.”
The 5 Browns will take the stage with the ETSO at the University of Texas at Tyler’s Cowan Center at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18. For tickets or additional information, call 903-566-7424 or visit www.etso.org .