“We’re not proselytizing,” insists Desirae Brown, one of The 5 Browns’ quintet of pianists who will open this year’s Brevard Music Festival.
“But people ask what makes us happy, and our faith is a big thing.”
The Brown siblings, ranging in age from 20 to 27, could be classical music’s answer to the Osmonds — good looking, stylish, perky and quickly garnering an enthusiastic following. They’re also family oriented (all five went to the same college and now perform together), enthusiastic members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormon Church, just like Donny, Marie and company. (See below for an eye-opening list of Mormon musical acts.)
But the 5 Browns aren’t out to bring the masses over to their religion — they’re far too busy converting the masses to classical music.
Before classical was cool
What stands out about siblings Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan is their sense of style. They look like an ad for JC Penney — the girls in torso-hugging tops and dark-wash jeans, the boys in patterned button downs with loosely knotted ties. They all have expensively mussed hair and impeccable taste in shoes. They should be marketing khakis or shampoo or hybrid cars, because it’s hard to look at them and not want to buy what they’re selling.
Except, what they’re selling is Paganini, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. “We’re … trying to be portrayed as ourselves,” asserts Gregory. “There’s sort of a stigma about classical music: old guys in tuxedos. We’re trying to break that barrier.”
“On stage we talk to the audience like they do at pop concerts,” Melody chimes in. “We explain about the pieces, which helps the audience relate. I know people who haven’t been to classical concerts [before] who are looked down upon because of what they’re wearing or [that] they don’t know the etiquette. We’re trying to make it more casual.”
“The Browns were classical before classical was cool,” enthused Pop Entertainment in a recent article. “The excitement for the Browns — especially by young people, whose collective knowledge of classical music wouldn’t fill a thimble — revived an art form that was dying of neglect for decades.”
This may be a bit of an overstatement. “All you have to have is a radio,” viola maestro Miles Hoffman told Xpress last summer. The NPR commentator also pointed out that contemporary composers keep the classical genre alive with “different musical languages.”
And there’s been an onslaught of crossover artists in the last decade, hoping to bridge the gap between Beethoven devotees and Britney fans. Josh Groban introduced pop fans to “Alle Luce Del Sole,” Celtic Woman presented quasi-ethnic traditional melodies encased in lush orchestration and slinky evening gowns, and violin virtuoso Joshua Bell somehow managed to make the soundtrack to Ladies in Lavender seem sexy.
Which is to say that the nattily clad Browns aren’t the first to blow the dust off a Gershwin composition. But they’re careful to keep to their camp, pointing out that there’s no pop issuing from their pianos.
Says Gregory: “Some crossover musicians have helped pave the way for people like ourselves who are truly classic.”
Their emotional rescue
Though the siblings claim to listen to everything from Top 40 to hip-hop (and, according to Melody, “Ryan sometimes messes around [with other styles]; he plays this cheesy pop stuff — we’re all like, ‘Stop!'”), they seem to agree on classical as a shared first love.
“Classical really spoke to all of us,” says Desirae. “Our parents gave us the chance to branch out if we wanted to. They gave us the opportunity to try other instruments.”
The story goes that Desirae (the oldest Brown) was six when she realized that everyone else in the world didn’t play piano. In the Brown household, each kid started taking lessons around age three — the age most of us are trying to figure out how to tie our shoes.
“Classical [is] probably the most eclectic of all the music out there,” Gregory states. “It’s probably the greatest emotional vehicle of all the [styles] of music.”
So, the Brown kids stuck with their piano lessons and, according to the group’s bio, “Each of the children, by as early as age nine, had made a debut with a major symphony orchestra.”
Age nine, for what it’s worth, is third grade. The age most kids are mastering a two-wheel bike, struggling with “Oh Susannah” on the flutaphone and thinking about sleep-away camp for the first time.
The family that plays together
When the Brown clan started heading off to college, the eldest two — Desirae and Deondra — earned full rides to New York’s prestigious Juilliard School (natch), and soon Gregory, Melody and Ryan followed suit. “It’s been about nine years that [at least] one person in our family has been at Juilliard,” confirms Gregory, who, with Melody, recently graduated.
“We’ve all gotten along pretty well, for the most part,” adds Deondra. “We’ve always been good friends, and it was fun to see each other in the halls at school. We ate lunch together.”
Sticking together is a major theme for the Browns, who relocated their home base from Utah to New York when the kids got into Juilliard. And their close-knit connection serves them well career-wise, too. In 2005 their self-titled debut earned them a slot among the top classical artists for the year, and a deal with Steinway means that as they tour a van loaded with five grand pianos, hand-selected by the quintet of virtuosos, follows them from concert to concert.
But how long will the family schtick work? With a newly released album, No Boundaries (RCA, 2006), in stores and a lineup of shows awaiting them, the end isn’t in sight.
“I want a family eventually,” says Desirae, who, like Deondra, is married. But she says she doesn’t want a family yet, maintaining that the whole group is still very young.
But they’re hardly surgically attached. “Even while we were at Juilliard we each studied as solo pianists,” she says. “If someone wants to move away, branch out, start a family, that’s okay.”
For now love of each other and classical music — and faith — keeps them together. “I think [Mormonism] goes beyond anything else,” Desirae says. “It pulls us together — we have that in common. It makes us realize there’s a bigger picture.”
The 5 Browns perform a Variations concert at Brevard Music Center’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium on Saturday, June 17, opening the 70th Annual Brevard Music Festival (see accompanying full schedule). 8 p.m. $25, $30 and $35. For tickets, see brevardmusic.org or call 862-2105.
On the immaculate iPod
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claims more than 12 million members — which is like the entire population of Tokyo. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that musical talent has emerged from the temple (Gladys Knight and Warren Zevon among them). What may surprise is that these devout artists have found ways to uphold their Christian principles and squeaky-clean values while still rocking out.
• The Osmonds — The ultimate family pop band, originally formed by brothers Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay, this group rose to teenybopper-idol status in the ’60s and ’70s. The band spawned the careers of younger sibs Donny and Marie and the Osmonds Second Generation (the — count ’em — eight sons of Alan).
• Randy Bachman — The front man of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, he kept his ’70s-era rock band drug, tobacco and alcohol free.
• Low — Indie rockers from Duluth, Minn., who hate being labeled “slowcore.” Vocal duties are shared by husband-and-wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker.
• Landing — Indie rockers from Connecticut headed by husband and wife Aaron and Adrienne Snow, who met at Church of Latter Day Saints-run Brigham Young University.
• Arthur “Killer” Kane — The late bassist for punk band the New York Dolls was famous for his motionless performances. A decade after the Dolls broke up, he converted to Mormonism.
• Mick Ronson — The late British guitarist and composer was best known for his work with David Bowie during the ’70s glam-rock era. Low’s Sparhawk claims Ronson’s Mormon faith caused him to have problems with some of Bowie’s stage antics.
• Aquabats — An eight-man West Coast ska outfit, two of whom are Mormon.
• The Killers — Top-40 rockers are fronted by Brandon Flowers, a Mormon from Las Vegas.