Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

22 March 2007

Five Topless Pianos

I wrote this piece for my Dramaturgy II class. We're doing criticism (well, a little of it) in there now. Anyway, I am kind of pleased with it.

Perhaps the most extraordinarily talented musical family since the Von Trapps recently appeared together at Florida State’s Ruby Diamond auditorium. Each of the 5 Browns—siblings, ranging from ages twenty to twenty-seven—is a trained, classical musician. Each of them attended New York’s Juilliard School in rapid succession, a first in the school’s history. Each of them also plays the piano. And on Wednesday the five performed for a completely packed, totally enthusiastic house of just under fifteen hundred.
The evening opened with a five-piano transcription of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a piece so ubiquitous in popular culture that even the audience member claiming complete ignorance of “classical” music will immediately recognize it. The Browns perform the piece together, on five pianos—without tops—arranged in a spiral. The interpretation of the Rhapsody immediately feels revelatory. No one has ever seen anything like this. The audience teems with excitement and the Browns play as if they are having the time of their lives. The siblings are in constant eye contact, grinning and winking at one another as they play. This is a family that spends an inordinate amount of time together, and the siblings’ affection for each other is evident from the outset.
As the Gershwin piece ended (a version some six minutes shorter than the standard orchestral one), the audience erupted into applause. The Browns took their bows and the youngest, Ryan, aged twenty, introduced himself and his older brother Gregory, aged twenty-three. Ryan then introduced the group’s next piece, Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña.” The boys play the piece on separate, dueling, pianos. Ryan spends his introduction speaking about the piece’s composer, its genesis, and where we might have heard the piece before: Zorro movies. With a wink, Ryan then professes a benign interest in Catherine Zeta-Jones. The audience applauds again and the boys commence.
“Malagueña” is lovely, and rare enough that the two-person format still finds new avenues to explore. When it ends, the boys rise to deafening applause. This is followed by the entrance of Melody, aged twenty-one, who enters to applause and introduces her piece: Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles. Melody introduces the piece, following the format of her brother: she tells us about the composer, what to look for in the music, and why she responds to the piece on a personal level. The audience applauds again after her introduction. Melody’s responds to this second round of applause (what was it for?) with a combination of bewilderment and awe. The evening continues following this pattern. Each Brown’s introduction to his or her piece displays a deep respect for the music and a passion expressed vividly during performance. The Browns also seem amazed and humbled by the audience’s praise, as though playing the piano were the easiest thing in the world.
After intermission, before the second half of the program, stagehands set up five chairs in front of the five pianos, and the 5 Browns hold a discussion with the audience. The audience asks the family questions. Where are you all from? Why the piano? Your parents must be amazing; who are they? The Browns’ answers are rehearsed and cheerful. They are personable, delightful individuals, and as a family appear nothing short of miraculous.
It is this—the story of the incredible 5 Browns—that appears to have made them popular. There is no shortage of fine pianists in the world, and the 5 Browns format has allowed these five pianists, as a combined unit, to find some measure of fame. (The Three Tenors did this successfully in 1990.) The music, however, is no better off in quintuplicate. Though the solo and duet pieces—the largest part of the program—feel unique and discriminatingly selected, the pieces performed by the 5 Browns together sound, by contrast, rather limp. Stravinsky’s Firebird feels dated and without surprises on five pianos; the instrument is not particularly adept at sneaking up on an audience. A medley of Leonard Bernstein’s score to West Side Story feels equally stale, and it becomes clear that while the five-piano format may have nothing intriguing to add to the music of Copland or Rimsky-Korsakov, new interpretations of modern music are not really the point. The 5 Browns is a gimmick. Certainly, each of the siblings is an extraordinarily talented musician, but this show isn’t really about music. The 5 Browns is a piece of theatre: a display of talent comparable to the routine of a brilliant juggler or acrobat from Cirque du Soleil.
Here lies the explanation for those numerous rounds of applause. In a country where dominant media constantly tell us stories about high school students who murder their classmates and college students who abuse alcohol, the Browns emerge as positive role models for young people. A family of five white, home-schooled siblings who love one another and go to the ice cream parlor after the show instead of the bar are to be regarded with awe. The Browns are, more than anything else, a kind of twenty-first century freak show: a form of entertainment that has been popular with audiences since long before Franz Liszt ever sat down to a piano.