The 5 Browns | 04.04.09

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On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give Saturday’s concert about a 5.

Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis

It’s tough making a living in classical music these days, so you can hardly blame aspiring performers for using any marketing device they can come up with. The 5 Browns, a group of Mormon siblings (two facts mentioned prominently in their publicity materials) who perform as a group on up to five pianos, draw on several: they’re a family band, wholesome and good-looking, and differentiate their on-stage personas as effectively as any boy band. Setting themselves up against “the classical snobs” (that’s a quotation from Saturday’s concert), their concerts favor short attention spans, consisting mainly of excerpts (some as brief as a few minutes) from larger classical works, most of which were not originally written for piano. Well, as Stephen Sondheim wrote in Gypsy, “you gotta have a gimmick if you want to get ahead.” If you have several, so much the better.

Judging from Saturday’s concert, which included many children, this approach goes over like gangbusters with the right audience. And the Browns haven’t really invented anything so much as revived an old tradition: the formal concerts we associate with the classical repertoire were not always the norm. Consider, for instance, that concerts by Franz Liszt, one of the great piano virtuosos of the 19th century, typically included not only works written originally for solo piano, but also transcriptions of orchestral works and Liszt’s own “paraphrases” or “fantasies” on popular melodies or the works of other composers. Following in this tradition, the 5 Browns opened with the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, closed with Danse macabre by Saint-Saëns, and included a bit of everything from Chopin to Gottschalk to Milhaud in between. Only the opening and closing numbers of each half of the program included all 5 Browns: in between we heard solos, duos and trios of the siblings in various combinations.

Setting aside the gimmicks for one minute, how was the music? On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give Saturday’s concert about a 5. But if considered as a concert meant to introduce children to classical music, and to inspire young people taking piano lessons to continue with their studies, it was more like an 8. Adults unfamiliar with classical music more complex than Pachelbel’s Canon might find similar enjoyment in it. But I had no warning that the evening would be focused toward children, and regarded simply as a classical music concert it was more like a sampler of encores with no actual substance. Or as they used to say in the Wendy’s commercial, “Where’s the beef?”

Five pianos played at once is itself a gimmick, and once you get past that it’s clear that the resulting sound does have its limitations. Lighter arrangements worked best, and a lovely setting of “Neptune, the Mystic” from Holst’s The Planets showed what could be accomplished with this combination. On the other hand, when everyone was playing fortissimo the sound could get quite bangy, and complex passagework was sometimes blurred. More problematically, no musical personality was evident from either the collective or solo playing: the Browns are technically competent (as are innumerable graduates of our musical conservatories) but haven’t developed individual voices. That may change with time, or they may choose to confine their efforts to the apparently highly profitable venture of charming audiences of limited musical sophistication. | Sarah Boslaugh

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