Browns put good rap on classical

Juilliard-trained musicians continue to win over fans

October 09, 2006|By McClatchy/Tribune

It's easy to be the 5 Browns. All you need are discipline, good looks and piano lessons starting at age 3.

Or at least that's what you might believe when talking with the five cheerful offspring of Keith and Lisa Brown. The five are the hottest act in classical music.

They are serious, Juilliard-trained pianists ages 21 to 27 who don't shy from casual dress. They always take time during their concerts for questions from the audience.

What separates the Browns from most cheesily hyped classical crossover acts is that they are all sophisticated musicians. Each studied with one of Juilliard's all-time great teachers, Yoheved Kaplinsky.

But the quintet of scrubbed, smiling keyboard whizzes has delighted not just kids but their parents and grandparents since its debut in 2005. If the sales of their CDs are a sign, these five might do more for classical music than Leonard Bernstein, Pavarotti and Joshua Bell combined.

Their first CD, The 5 Browns, spent 13 weeks in the No. 1 spot on Billboard's classical chart. This year's No Boundaries was knocked off the No. 1 spot after 21 weeks there by Bell's new CD. They've been in People, Entertainment Weekly, Keyboard and Cosmo Girl and on every talk show you can name, from Oprah's to Jay Leno's. (The most nerve-racking was Martha Stewart, Melody Brown said, "She's such a perfectionist.")

Their message for their fans: Classical music has been getting a bad rap. It's as cool as anything on your iPod.

"It's not the music's fault; it's the establishment's fault," said 27-year-old Desirae, speaking on Ryan's cell phone as the five drove across Wyoming to their next concert.

"They try to make it so elitist when, in essence, classical music has what every other genre of music has - joy, anger, love, hate. What we're trying to do in our concerts is make it about the music. We dress the way we normally dress, and we talk to the audience and let people know this music is not just for the upper crust."

They play some barnstorming ensemble numbers on five pianos provided by Steinway & Sons. Their "Rhapsody in Blue" on the latest CD is a convincing version of Gershwin's classic. And they also break out into solo, duo and trio numbers.

It's part of keeping things interesting, for the audience and performers.

"We didn't lose our solo repertoire in the process," said Gregory, 24. "As long as we have the best of all possible worlds, I can imagine us doing this for a while, as long as people want to hear us."

Lisa Brown didn't set out to create five pint-sized pianists. But when each child turned 3, the parents bestowed upon him or her the "honor" of starting piano lessons. As they grew up, it felt as natural as brushing one's teeth.

Could any family do the same?

"If anybody spends a long enough time working hard at something, they're bound to get pretty good at it," 26-year-old Deondra said.

"It's mostly nurture and a little bit of nature," Desirae added. "Chances are pretty high that if you have the combination of dedicated parents and teachers who really care and you work seriously, you can achieve something. I think talent does have a little bit of an impact."

As their fan base grows, they are recognized in the most surprising places, 21-year-old Ryan said. Recently he and 22-year-old Melody were driving across Utah, and some young girls in an adjacent car recognized them and held up a sign in the window: "Aren't you Browns?"

If anyone can break down barriers between classical music and new audiences, it's probably going to be the Browns and others like them. "At our concerts, little kids who don't know what classical music is are dancing in the aisles," Gregory said.

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