When Aristotle insightfully pronounced that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” the Greek wiseguy probably wasn’t thinking about the hundreds of keys, hammers and strings that comprise a piano. Especially since no one had even heard of one until 2,000 years later.
But if the Chalkidikian sage had witnessed the intricate musical tapestries woven by The 5 Browns and their 10 fingers, it would have been nothing short of an extraordinarily “wholly” experience.
The five piano-playing siblings – Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody, and Ryan – have been a revolutionary force in classical music and an ongoing global phenomenon since the 2005 release of their self-titled debut album. In addition to the top-selling “The 5 Browns,” the remarkable musicians have hit no.1 on the Billboard Classical Albums chart with two other albums – “No Boundaries” and “Browns In Blue.”
Individually and collaboratively, The 5 Browns have performed in famed venues throughout the world, including the Grand National Theatre in China, Suntory Hall in Japan, The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Symphony Center in Chicago and at Alice Tully Hall in New York.
This month has been exceptionally momentous for the gifted pianists as they made their Carnegie Hall debut on Oct. 18 and released their new live album, “The Rite of Spring – The 5 Browns: Live at Arthur Zankel Music Center” on Oct. 29.
I caught up with Deondra Brown as The 5 Browns were anticipating the album’s release and their long-awaited Carnegie Hall appearance. Even though the quintet has played in a number of breathtaking venues, she was particularly thrilled to be playing at “the Hall.”
“We’ve performed all over the world but there’s nothing quite like Carnegie Hall in a musician’s mind and to be able to go back home in a sense, because we spent many years at the Juilliard school in New York City.”
“Desirae, my sister lives out there with her husband in New York and so does my brother Ryan. So it’s still kind of a home away from home. And to be able to come home and play in the hall that we grew up attending concerts of legends in the piano world is…I mean, you pinch yourself thinking, ‘Wow (laughing).’”
Or pinch one of your siblings perhaps? Life on the road can be demanding in the best of circumstances. But the challenge of getting along for five Juilliard-trained artists can present an entirely different test altogether.
“The funny thing is, I don’t think we would be able to continue performing together – we just reached about our 10-year mark together as a group – if we didn’t get along. But with that said, we know each other well enough to know if it’s getting later in the tour and somebody’s getting more homesick and needs their own space.”
“We learned a lot about each other over the years. We realize to keep our relationships home with our spouses healthy and to keep our relationships with each other healthy, we each have our own hotel rooms now. So, we have our privacy.”
“And then, everyone’s living in different parts of the country. So once we’re not on tour anymore, everyone’s gonna go their separate ways and spend time doing other activities with their spouses and families at home.”
Notwithstanding the occasional need for privacy, The 5 Browns’ professional accomplishments together are remarkable. But the most astounding thing to consider is that the young performers have already been playing together for 10 years.
“It’s an amazing thing to look back over the past 10 years. Each milestone that we’ve hit over the past decade, we were like, ‘Oh it doesn’t get any better than this,’ or ‘If we woke up tomorrow and we didn’t have a career anymore, we would be able to say that it has been an amazing ride.’ We just appreciate each little step along the way.”
“It’s been crazy to realize 10 years later that we have been around for a while and we see these up and coming artists coming into the business. We feel kind of like ‘grownups’ now and that’s why this album that’s coming out is exciting for us. Because it’s a different side of us as individuals, we’re more grown up, and you see a darker, more serious side to us.”
“It’s kind of like us coming to the aftermath of everything that’s happened in our personal lives and being able to say, ‘Look we’re still here, we’re still enjoying performing together and we’re not going anywhere any time soon.’”
The musical family’s resolve has certainly been tested with some of the very personal challenges that have played out publicly over the last few years. But the steadfast Browns look at the events positively.
“It’s just made us very in tune with our emotions. We always were. But you feel that there’s a lot about you the audience already knows. It was scary at first – the first tour after everything went public – to be up there. You feel exposed.”
“But we realized since then that it just makes us more human. Hopefully people will look at us and realize and say, ‘Hey look, they still have a lot of joy in their lives, they’re still happy, they’re still functioning together as a family and they still love being around each other.’ There is light at the end of the tunnel, even when you’ve been through terrible things.”
Without question, the quintet’s closeness as a family has helped them weather the various storms. And of course when you have extremely talented brothers and sisters, there are times when the closeness fosters encouragement – and times when it creates constructive competition.
“You’re right. We’ve been such a support for each other. Even now when I'm listening to one of my brothers and sisters play, I look at them and I think, ‘Wow, that’s amazing talent there and that’s amazing what they’re doing.’ It makes me just want to try harder, to do better, to keep challenging myself and pushing myself.”
“And I think that’s how it was growing up for us. People always wondered about a ‘sibling rivalry’ kind of thing. It was more of, it just pushed us to do better. It wasn’t like we were tearing each other down or any of that. But now that we’re a group, it’s kind of an ‘all for one’ thing because we want each other to succeed.”
The 5 Browns’ classical musical accord makes for some mind-boggling performances. But that doesn’t mean that they agree on everything musical away from the stage.
“Even in terms of what we listen to on our iPods – similar in some ways but vastly different in other ways. For instance, Ryan likes to do a little bit of composing and he’s the closet composer a little bit. We almost never get to hear anything he’s working on. But I think he has hopes of one day writing something for the five of us, and so he will keep to himself. Every once in a while we’ll hear a melody or something that he’s working on.”
“Melody really loves Bach and she’s in this Bach stage right now, which is an amazing stage to be in. And then Gregory, he’s into Chopin a lot lately. He’s more introspective in the types of pieces that’s he’s picking. Desi and I play together a lot. We were trained as a two piano team. Our personalities are pretty vastly different. It’s interesting that we work together so well as a team despite that.”
It should be readily apparent that The 5 Browns “sweet spot” is classical. But a listen to their respective iPods might produce a surprise or two. Perhaps a little “Enter Sandman” from Metallica?
“We don’t have as much Metallica (laughing). But we all love Coldplay. Gregory is really into some of the old bluegrass stuff right now from the ‘50s and ‘60s, The Carter Family even. Melody is so much into indie bands. She follows the indie circuit a lot and will go to some concerts when they pop up here in Utah.”
“We all love jazz. We have ‘jazz envy.’ We wish we could play it, but we appreciate it and admire those who can play it well. We’re not so much into Top-40 kind of stuff, but we love anything that’s good quality and thought out.”
“One thing we do have in common is – especially since we’re from Texas – none of us likes country music (laughing). It’s funny because we can appreciate good quality music of every genre but country music. We appreciate it but it’s not quite our cup of tea (laughing).”
What is their cup of tea is playing some of the most impossibly complex pieces in the history of music. It’s difficult enough to successfully meld five different musical instruments. But imagine the ridiculousness of blending five pianos – something that The 5 Browns are able to do with seeming ease.
“Obviously, we only know playing five pianos together. But the piano is a percussion instrument, so it’s very obvious if pianos aren’t together with each other. Because we don’t have contact with the string like string players do – we hit a key which hits a hammer which hits a string – we have to be able to line up precisely in order to stay together. It poses a lot of problems for multiple pianos.”
“There are some pianists who don’t even enjoy playing with other pianos because it’s so intricate. But for us, the fact that we’ve all had similar training growing up over the years and being a family of musicians who all play the piano, we’ve played in different combinations growing up as kids. So it’s something more familiar to us.”
“And we’ve always had a great time on stage together. Talking with our friends back at Juilliard who are performers, they’re like, ‘It’s amazing that you don’t have to travel around by yourselves.’ It’s a lonely world as a pianist, but the fact that we get to travel together and have such great times together is ideal.”
It would seem to be a Herculean task simply to master the give-and-take required for their sophisticated compositions. But the talented artists continue to push the envelope, constantly challenging themselves musically.
“That is one of the biggest things as a group that we discuss together. Since we’ve been playing together for 10 years now, we want to continue to challenge ourselves – as we have each step of the way up to this point. We want to continue to challenge ourselves and grow as artists and musicians and still feel happy and content performing.”
“In order to do that, we always try to find projects that are interesting or something that’s on a dream bucket list – as is this recording that’s about to come out – and continue to push ourselves in a way that we haven’t before.”
“Our last album was the best Hollywood scores that we’ve grown up listening to and we thought, ‘Oh, that’s not going to be too bad. It’s little league scores, they can’t be too difficult.’ But we asked the arrangers to challenge us and to date it was some of the most difficult stuff that we had played at that time. Each step of the way we want something different and new so that we can continue wanting to be out there and feel like we have something to say.”
If the last 10 years of excellence are any indication, The 5 Browns will be saying things for years to come…
You can experience one of The 5 Browns’ unbelievable performances, Flight of the Bumblebee here: http://youtu.be/BStf7HibDco.