The 5 Browns put 50 fingers to good use
By Tom Manoff
For The Register-Guard
Published: Tuesday, July 17, 2007
There was a time when I would have considered the 5 Browns more a novelty act than a serious classical ensemble. The five pianist siblings played Friday night at Silva Hall, a concert in this year's Bach Festival.
But times have changed for classical music. And in a world where I've reviewed "Adagio for Strings" arranged for saxophone quartet, and watched the drum-driven "opera" ensemble Il Divo top the classical charts with "Feelings" - well, the 5 Browns look pretty good.
I reviewed their debut CD last year but this was the first time I've seen them perform. The sold-out audience loved every note, and it's clear that the Browns bring new listeners to the concert hall.
To say that they're clean-cut would be an understatement. The 5 Browns exude a kind of freshness and energy once called "All American." It's hard to imagine that they've ever been in a whit of trouble. Perhaps they missed a train once or forgot their lunch money. They are the kids many parents wished they'd had.
And they practice. So the Browns are also the students many piano teachers wish they'd had. They "have fingers," as the saying goes, indicating that they have noticeable aspects of piano technique. And 50 flashy fingers can play a lot of notes.
But with the 5 Browns, good looks are as important as good hands. The boys are handsome, the girls beautiful, and they know it. Although the oldest is 27 and the youngest 20, calling them boys and girls seems apt.
They may be men and women, and "twenty-somethings" is the marketing term, but five kids is the reality. And I'm not using "kids" in a negative way. They seem like they'll never get old. And who would want them to?
I'm not sure how to review them in purely musical terms. I have the feeling that if I say anything negative I'll be lynched. But these kids went to Juilliard, so I'm giving them the respect they deserve by offering more than cheerleading.
Fifty fingers playing five pianos isn't your everyday sound. Nothing happens musically that couldn't be stated with equal success on two instruments. The problem with five pianos is what to do with them.
To that end, the 5 Browns play arrangements of well-known pieces. Some are better crafted than others. And they play them with different degrees of success.
Music from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" - an arrangement they've performed for years - hasn't changed. The melodies are there, but Bernstein's street- smart rhythms are not.
On the other hand, a recent arrangement of Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird" was played with the most interesting musical colors of the evening, a departure from their more monolithic sound.
Their general approach to voicing could improve by cutting back on pedaling - 50 percent perhaps - and by exploring ways to make individual parts emerge from the overall sound.
The Browns play also in trios, duos and solo. While it seems unfair to single out any of the siblings, two of them had special performances this evening.
Melody Brown gave a splendid reading of Lowell Liebermann's "Gargoyles," capturing the eerie spirit of Gothic statuary.
Ryan Brown's interpretation of Alberto Ginastera's "Danzas Argentinas" was a gem of musical honesty. On a night of musical flares and good-natured showmanship, as a musician, the youngest Brown had the purest heart.
The great appeal of the Browns is their confidence with classical music, and their demonstration that it's possible to play it and have fun.
If you were there, perhaps I've left out your favorite moment. Forgive me. I've only got two hands.
Tom Manoff is the classical music critic for Natonal Public Radio's All Things Considered.