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Classical strength in more than numbers

The 5 Browns, siblings and virtuoso pianists, rack up big sales and appearances worldwide.

July 03, 2006|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

One staffer at the Park Hyatt in Century City to another, explaining why five twentysomethings are posing for a Times photographer on the hotel grounds:

"They're quintuplets."

Well, no. True, the two men (tousled hair, torn jeans, T-shirts, jackets) and three women (long tresses, teeny cap-sleeved blouses, skinny jeans, leggings, a pencil skirt, strappy heels) -- are siblings.

But this fivesome has a different claim to fame.

These are the 5 Browns: classical music's all-American, chart-topping brother and sister act from Utah. One stage, five virtuoso pianists, five concert grands.

The Browns' self-titled first CD-and-DualDisc release on RCA Red Seal spent eight weeks atop Billboard magazine's "traditional" classical chart -- as opposed to the classical crossover list, the domain of Andrea Bocelli and Il Divo. It now hovers around the sixth slot. Their second album, "No Boundaries," has ranked No. 1 since its release in April.

Over the last year, they've racked up 100 concerts, including stops in Asia and Europe. And on Tuesday, they'll make their Los Angeles-area debut -- headlining with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra in "Americafest," the Rose Bowl's 80th annual Independence Day music-and-fireworks blowout.

Sitting in the post-breakfast hush of the Park Hyatt dining room, Desirae, 27; Deondra, 25; Melody, 21; Gregory, 23; and Ryan, 20, seem a bit dazed by their rocketing ensemble career and the kind of media coverage -- People magazine, "Oprah" -- usually reserved for pop artists.

"It's not that often that classical musicians get to talk to the media and stuff," Gregory says.

"We never expected any of this," says Desirae. "Our goal was just to get into Juilliard."

"And we're just trying to take it in stride and appreciate everything that comes along," Deondra says.

"Like Europe," Melody enthuses. "It's been incredible to go to Europe and Asia and -- "

" -- see the world," Gregory chimes in.

"With our best friends -- " says Desirae.

" -- playing the music we love," Ryan concludes.

Not that everyone has been smitten. In a review of their first CD, Entertainment Weekly wrote, "This quintet of piano prodigies revamps stuffy classics for the Rachmaninoff-impaired. They're like the Partridge Family with Juilliard training and minus the groovy van."

But they quickly stress that they have something to offer classical connoisseurs.

If they play Ravel, Liszt and themes from "West Side Story," they also dig into unconventional works by Alberto Ginastera, Lowell Liebermann, Witold Lutoslawski and other moderns.

In addition, Melody points out, the concept of five-piano concerts dates to the 19th century. "So none of this is really new. It's just packaging it in a different way."

Indeed, Desirae, Deondra, Melody and Gregory are all Juilliard graduates. Ryan, the maverick, has a year left at the Manhattan School of Music, after attending Juilliard's pre-college program for five years. All began playing the piano at age 3, however, and love for the instrument and for one another was the spark -- not parental pressure -- they insist.

All the same, parents Keith and Lisa Brown, along with their teachers and "having siblings all doing the same thing," gave them an exceptionally strong support system, Gregory says.

That may be one reason they appear able to take any brickbats in stride. Although they perform solo, duo and trio selections in concert and on their recordings, they know that their primary, five-piano focus is often labeled a gimmick. And while generally acknowledged as serious musicians, they're aware that some observers sniff at their repertoire and clean-cut image.

"But we're seeing some critics accepting what we're doing," Melody says, "because we're getting people in the concert halls."

That's the overriding goal the Browns have set: to bring people, especially their peers and younger listeners, into the fold by proving that classical music doesn't have to be stuffy and elitist.

They don't wear tuxes or "ball gowns" onstage, and they talk to audiences during performances. They groove on World Cup soccer, tennis, "American Idol," MTV and 1950s sitcoms. A sampling of iPods reveals an eclectic mix: Glenn Gould, Coldplay, Kelly Clarkson, 1940s big band, hip-hop and Chinese folk music.

"We try to keep up so that we are sort of part of the pop world," says Melody, "even though we're playing classical music."

Devout Mormons all, the Browns also aren't offended by comparisons to the Osmonds and the variations on "squeaky clean" frequently used to describe them. "We want to be trendy, but we want to still be modest. We're not going to be Britney Spears up there," Desirae says.

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News is one critic who's been impressed. After the Browns appeared with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in April, Cantrell lauded them for proving "that classical music can reach teens and twentysomethings on their own ground, but without posturing or cheapening the product."

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