Monday, September 15, 2014

The 5 Browns play 440 keys — and the Palladium

The family of siblings known for their unprecedented acceptance into Juilliard has built that student prominence into a career that offers five attractive young pianists capable of a simultaneous musical attack — a benign semi-automatic weapon in the culture wars.

The 5 Browns went to Juilliard, then things got even better.

Ryan, Melody, Gregory, Deondra, and Desirae Brown opened the classical season at the Palladium Saturday night. Their bouncy charm won over a large audience. In the course of a two-hour program, they were arranged in different configurations at the five Steinway grands, so everyone got a look at every one of them. Three solos and a duet (Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme of Paganini) relieved the focus on the sonorous simultaneity of the five.

If this program is typical, the 5 Browns  specialize in music that is certain to make a virtue of dense, busy textures and lots of flashy activity. From the solos on up, an abundance of deft fingerwork was on display.

Gregory offered Chopin's galvanic Nocturne in C minor, op. 48, no. 1. Two other solos bore the designation Toccata (or its diminutive, Toccatina), and provided worthy solo displays for Ryan and Melody, respectively. Nikolai Kapustin's Toccatinaa had deeply embedded jazz inflections, while Robert Muczynski's Toccata, which Ryan described as his "rage piece," was a torrent of two-handed abrasiveness, stylishly brought off.'

Working from arrangements by Greg Anderson and Jeffrey Shumway, the 5 Browns bookended intermission with two 20th-century masterpieces — Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (Part 1) and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

The Stravinsky was revelatory. Its melodies were handled with care, from "The Adoration of the Earth" on. But especially potent were the final movements of the score's first part, starting with "Procession of the Wise Elder" and ending with "Dance of the Earth."

I usually don't comment on audience response, but I found it a little dismaying that "The Rite of Spring" received lukewarm applause, while "Rhapsody in Blue" got a warm, sustained ovation, as if hearing it were an enormous relief. There must have been considerable muttering about the Stravinsky during intermission, judging from the disparity of response. I don't disdain "Rhapsody in Blue," but I'm surprised that "The Rite" is still treated as somewhat alien and ugly, worthy only of a polite, arm's-length reception.

The concert opened with three excerpts of "The Planets," Gustav Holst's orchestral portrait of the personalities behind the planets' names more than anything particularly astronomical.  For the sake of a concert arrangement for pianos, it made sense for the serene "Neptune" to be placed between the bellicose "Mars" and the triumphant heartiness of "Jupiter."  But it was hard to hear the latter two movements out of order. The performance was particularly fetching with the addition of the Brown women's voices in "Neptune," replacing the wordless women's chorus of the original.

Ragtime strutted onstage for the encore, ushered in by the volcanic energy of the program's last scheduled piece, Anderson's arrangement of Mily Balakirev's "Islamey." The tune behind the title is fairly rudimentary, and only its elaborate decoration and the intricacy with which it's treated keep the listener's interest up.  Those qualities are sufficient even when the amazement of hearing one pianist perform it (the original tour de force) is spread among five of them. The din became a little blurry, but that's not unknown in solo performances. As long as the energy keeps churning forward, "Islamey" makes its effect, and so it did here.

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