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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Concert Review: The Family That Plays Together

The 5 Browns Debut at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Waiting for their Steinways: The 5 Browns perch on a piano.
Image © 2013 The 5 Browns.
The piano transcription has always been the unloved middle child of the keyboard repertory. Sometimes, playing an orchestral work can reveal harmonic complexities or make the composer's intent clearer to the ear. Other transcriptions can drain a work of its vitality and reduce orchestral colors to mere dexterity and flash.

Both of those extremes were on display on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, which saw the debut of sibling pianists The 5 Browns on the main stage of that historic auditorium. These Utah-raised, Juilliard-educated pianists (Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan) offered a program that was almost entirely composed of piano transcriptions, featuring their signature sound of five Steinway concert grands, nosed up against each other in a vast circle of keys, hammers and strings.

The concert opened with Gregory Anderson's transcription of three movements from Gustav Holst's orchestral suite The Planets. Cherry-picking Mars, Neptune and Jupiter creates a fast-slow-fast structure from that celebrated work. The staccato rhythms of Mars climaxed with a mighty set of percussive explosions from the bass registers of the five pianos.

Neptune was a total contrast. The last movement of the work was ethereal, with diaphanous vocalizations from the three sisters adding to the otherworldly quality of Holst's soft, descending arpeggios. And Jupiter was a triumph, with the multiple pianos capturing the rhythmic vitality and brilliant flashes of orchestral color that make this the most popular movement of the entire suite.

The centerpiece of the program was a two-part performance of The Rite of Spring, in a transcription by composer Jeffrey Shumway. Stravinsky's savage ballet was stripped of its orchestral colors and depth, with the pounding of pianos substituting for the chug of cellos in "The Adoration of the Earth." Upper-register cadenzas replaced the solos and asides for woodwinds and brass, and "The Dance of the Earth" was powerful and electrifying.

With all that energy built up, the siblings chose to take an interval between the two halves of the ballet, emerging for the second part of the work in different concert attire. Luckily, this didn't interfere with the dramatic flow of the Rite. The pianos growled out the bass chords that anchor "The Procession of the Sage", leading to the build-up before the final "Sacrifice." These last passages were played with rhythmic precision and tautness, although for this work, five pianos and fifty fingers cannot create the sledge-hammer impact that Stravinsky's orchestration gives this particular work.

The space between these athletic exercises in quintuple pianism was filled with showcases for one, two or even three Browns. Gregory Brown played a lovely and very correct Chopin Nocturne. John Novacek's Reflections on "Shenandoah" had washes of near-orchestral color that blurred the simple gifts of the original folk tune. The three sisters sat down at one piano for Rachmaninoff's Two Pieces for Six Hands, giving an insight at some of their early keyboard education. And Ryan (the youngest) treated Robert Muczynski's difficult Toccatina as a challenging piano competition piece--which is precisely what it is.

The five Browns returned to the stage together for Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre. Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy and a brilliant pianist in his own right--so perhaps the idea of Mr. Anderson's transcription made logical sense. But there was a sense of diminishing returns in this performance, with the pianos having trouble generating the spooky violin solos and percussive details--particularly the xylophone part--that make the full orchestral version a great piece of Halloween ear candy. Far better was the siblings' choice of encore, a rousing, humorous take on John Williams' "Cantina Band" piece from the original score of Star Wars. This was played with a combination of virtuosity and joy, the quintessence of what piano transcription is all about.

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