Rarely does one see five grand pianos in one room, let alone on one stage. Enter the 5 Browns, a classical piano quintet. Siblings and Juilliard graduates – they were the first family to be enrolled at the Juilliard School simultaneously – it is clear this family has talent. Performing individually and together, this young ensemble has a vivacious and affable approach to classical music.

The 5 Browns © Bryan Hernandez-Luch
The 5 Browns
© Bryan Hernandez-Luch

It’s hard not to talk about the sheer size of the 5 Browns: five pianos, ten hands, 50 fingers, 440 keys. But even solo, the 5 Browns shine. Deondra and Desirae effortlessly performed Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Witold Lutoslawki on two pianos; and Melody was able to show off her personal flair in Nikolai Kapustin’s fast-moving, jazzy passages in the Concert Etude, Op.40 no.3. Ryan’s fingers flew across the keyboard in Robert Muczynski’s contemporary Toccata, Op.15, a marathon piece chock-full of dizzying runs and tone clusters to make the piece sound distinctly like a car crash, a real-life incident that also inspired this manic music. And Gregory, looking very dapper in a bow tie, performed Nocturne in C Minor, Op.48 no.1 with the unnatural calm Frederic Chopin’s music requires, capturing the emotional instability that wavers beneath the melodic theme but also flairs up as the piece progresses.

The 5 Browns performed with the musical precision expected of Juilliard graduates, and those on stage at Carnegie Hall. They never skipped a beat. In the tone poem by Camille Saint-Saëns, Dance macabre: Bacchanal for Five Pianos, arranged by Greg Anderson, the orchestral colours written in the original score nevertheless shone through. One could easily hear the twelve strokes of midnight, hammered out on a single note, and the familiar Dies irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem mass. Plus, there were rattling bones of dancing skeletons; a part normally played by the xylophone was played on the inside strings of the piano.

Proving that five pianos can do justice to orchestral music, the real highlight of the evening was Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. An infamous, sometimes overplayed piece, the 5 Browns played off their unique attribute – their arrangements for five pianos – and presented Stravinsky’s iconic work in a brand-new fashion.

The famous opening line, normally played on a bassoon, rung out in the upper register of a solo piano, soon to be joined by the other four pianos. Keeping up with the complicated, interlocking rhythms, which constantly change and are almost always counterintuitive, the 5 Browns expelled all of their energy into this pagan dance. At times, one of the Browns was slapping the side of the piano to accompany the heavy, block chords thundering in the middle of the dance. Fierce, complicated and agitated, The Rite of Spring is incredibly complex; but the 5 Browns attacked it head on… and performed the piece on five pianos!

All in all, the 5 Browns nailed their debut performance at Carnegie Hall. Both daring and fun, the 5 Browns are a rare combination and a thrilling piano quintet.

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