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Classically Friendly

by Shawn Stone on December 7, 2011

The 5 Browns
Proctors, Mainstage, Dec. 6

Photo by Andrew Southam

In concert, the 5 Browns employ a level of musical democracy that would do an “occupy” general assembly proud. The three sisters and two brothers—Desirae, Deondra, Melody, Ryan and Gregory Brown—alternate solo, duo and group performances throughout the program. From piece to piece, they exchange places on the five glorious Steinway pianos that form a circle at the center of stage; the result is that the audience can appreciate each sibling’s technique at some point in the evening.

The siblings, who were the first quintet of family members ever accepted en masse by Juilliard, have been “famous musicians” for almost a decade now, but they still seem like kids. “Kids,” as in fresh-faced young adults who haven’t lost their enthusiasm for what they do, and continue make a sincere effort to share said enthusiasm with the audience.

Tuesday evening’s show at Proctors was only their second holiday concert. Melody Brown explained this just before launching into the second song of the opening set, a curiously not swinging, but still pleasing, solo take on “My Favorite Things.” All 5 Browns had just opened the show with a shimmering arrangement of the “Rondo alla Turca” from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. It was notable for not employing a “wall of sound” approach, but rather layering the sound of five pianos in a pleasing, dynamic way.

This set the tone for the evening. Movements from classical works seamlessly alternated with sacred and secular Christmas songs, each piece introduced by a Brown.

This is popular classical music at its most welcoming; the skill of the players prevents it from becoming trite. And while I may have found myself ignoring some of the musical pictures the Browns tried to describe in the intros to each piece, I appreciated the effort to connect with the audience.

Highlights of the first set were Ryan Brown’s insistent performance of a Rachmaninov prelude, Melody Brown’s swirling Elegy No. 4 by Busoni, and the straight and “trippy” versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite by the whole quintet which closed the first half of the show.

After a not quite brief-enough intermission, the selections really began to jell musically. A clever, pleasingly cacophonous 5-piano arrangement of Harold Arlen’s music from The Wizard of Oz opened the second half, followed by Gregory Brown’s wistful performance of Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” and Gounod’s Ave Maria (performed by the group). Desirae and Deondra Brown followed with a rousing version of the scherzo from Brahms’ Sonata in F minor; and then things took a reflective turn with Ryan Brown’s take on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Gregory Brown’s performance of two hymns by Max Reger (including “Silent Night”).

After a playful finale—a witty arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” you can watch all five of them perform Dec. 9 on NBC’s Today Show—and a standing ovation, the 5 Browns gave us a little of Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” for an encore.

Then they were off to the merch table to meet the crowd and sign CDs. Judging from the long line, the 5 Browns have a lot of friends in Schenectady.