What happens when you add two brothers and three sisters to a frightening amount of talent? Well, The 5 Browns and fifty fingers! This set of sibling superstars brought down the Carolina Theatre on almost every number, from the very first opening explosive rendition of the major themes from Gustav Holst's The Planets. Warlike Mars, dreamy Neptune, and joyous Jupiter all sparkled in the ten hands of the Brown siblings.
The programming featured a nice mix of solo, duo, and five-piano — which is really what the audience came to see — repertoire. Ryan's solo performance of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5, was not as polished as it could have been, but his enthusiastic ensemble work showed him to possess a fantastic balance of personal touch and ensemble awareness. Gregory's "Hungarian Rhapsody" showed a virtuosic mastery of technical flair. Melody's presentations, however, showed an astonishing level of musical maturity. Her interpretation of Henry Cowell's "The Tides of Manaunaun," the most daring programmatic choice of the evening, demonstrated her ability to help an audience connect emotionally to some "less accessible" music. She also played an arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni of Bach's organ chorale prelude "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gemein," S.734. The typical Baroque filigree was complemented by her feathery touch, and her clear declamation of all three distinct lines was extraordinary.
Desirae and Deondra's two duos were not quite as showy, but no less delightful. They played a movement from Brahms' Sonata in F Minor, Op. 34b, and Patrick Russ' arrangement of the main title from the score of To Kill a Mockingbird by Elmer Bernstein with equal sensitivity. Both of them exhibited exceptional expressivity as well as almost uncanny communication. These sisters don't use exaggerated nods or dramatic breaths to cue each other; their intuition and subtlety give an illusion of almost telepathic communication.
One of the characteristics of this family's performances is their commitment to keeping classical music relevant to today's audiences. The emphasis on film music certainly kept listeners fully engaged, but it is also the Brown's overall attitude towards the music that they play that keeps their performances riveting. Most of the pieces on the program were accompanied by some sort of verbal introduction, giving both historical context as well as a personal viewpoint. Gregory pulled out what looked like an iPod when quoting Franz Liszt and made a few references to Loony Tunes in his introduction of the "Hungarian Rhapsody," and the commentary throughout the night was characterized by good-natured teasing. The Browns' ability to have fun and make serious music without compromising artistic integrity is what makes their ensemble so charismatic.
The five piano arrangements were simply one treat after another. After the dramatic opening number, the next full ensemble piece was John Novacek's Reflections on Shenandoah. The first section featured an unusual compositional device which was surprisingly effective: all five pianos alternated playing an F-sharp drone in the middle register. Something about the circular stereo effect and the tiny variations from player to player and piano to piano made what could have been just a repeated note into a dynamic line. Most of the other five-piano rep was film music, including a chilling set of Bernard Herman themes from Alfred Hitchcock movies. Arranged by Patrick Russ, the suite included selections from Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Another suite from Star Wars was a clear audience favorite; the honky-tonk Cantina theme incited a burst of applause in the middle of the suite. "Atonement" was another arrangement by Greg Anderson. Dario Marianelli, a significantly more pianistic composer than Williams, had incorporated typewriter rhythms into the main theme, in keeping with the constant recurrence of a typing sequence throughout the film.
The final work on the program, Camille Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre," an arrangement, also by Greg Anderson, for five pianos, was a fantastically creepy and wildly energetic witchy romp. The stubbornly demanded encore was an imaginative arrangement of Mozart's "Alla Turca," full of technical fireworks and creative and quirky innovations. It was perfectly characteristic of the whole evening: great classical music, family style.