July 22, 2008

The 5 Browns Take Davies Hall’s Pianos By Storm

By Jackie Burrell, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jul. 22--One could be excused for mistaking the 5 Browns for the cast of some "Gossip Girl" spinoff. Their sophisticated, but still fresh-scrubbed faces are splashed across People magazine and Entertainment Weekly, their albums top Billboard's charts and paparazzi snap them on the red carpet.

But it was Rachmaninoff and Grieg who made these Juilliard-trained, piano-playing siblings stars of the classical music world. And this weekend, they're putting all five of their grand pianos on the Davies Symphony Hall stage for a Gershwin-heavy "Summer in the City" concert of duets, trios and piano quintets.

The Browns may be old pros now -- they each made their symphony orchestra debut at age 9. Today they tour internationally and have released three classical music CDs, including last year's chart-topping "Browns in Blue." So it's no surprise they started their musical training as preschoolers.

Desirae, now 29, plinked her first ivory key at age 3. Deondra followed suit, then Gregory, Melody and Ryan, the group explains during an interview via speaker phone that reveals their comfort with what must be, by now, their 500th media interview. Responses rotate through the quintet, and each reply is prefaced by a quick, "This is Desirae. I think ..."

So the question of piano practice logistics in their childhood home in Utah is deftly fielded by Deondra.

"There wasn't enough time for all of us to rotate on the one piano,"

says the 28-year-old.

A second piano led to a third. And then more, as the Mormon family's daily three-hour practice sessions monopolized the available ivories.

"Five Steinway pianos was a big investment, but it was important to all of us," says Deondra. "They were scattered all around the house, so we could practice."

It wasn't the only thing the siblings did, of course. They studied, and played video games and baseball -- dad Keith, a self-employed businessman who manages their careers now, coached their teams. But the five Steinways were a constant.

"My very first memory was me sitting there, listening to my older sisters play piano, and I was about to turn 3," says Gregory, now 25. "So many of my earliest memories have to do with playing the piano."

It was only later, when Desirae was 15 and performing at an international music competition that she realized it was a "calling".

"I felt like I really connected with the audience," she says. "I wanted to do it with my life."

By senior year of high school, she had set her sights on Juilliard, "the Harvard of music," she says. And Deondra had accelerated her schooling so they could apply together.

Soon, it was a family tradition too.

"They kept telling us over and over how incredible the training was -- 'Juilliard has a pre-college division. We totally think you should come out and audition,'" says Melody, now 24. "So we did that and we all ended up getting in. My parents couldn't just send three little kids out by ourselves, so they moved out."

These days, the 5 Browns mix concert gigs and recording sessions with school tours, hitting the road with music folders crammed with Rachmaninoff and Liszt, and a Wheaton moving van loaded with pianos.

"It's been really important for us to take this music to the next generation, into college campuses or elementary schools," says Deondra. "They're so excited about the music."

And they continue to do all those things regular people do, such as reading books, seeing movies, playing ball or just hanging out together.

"We think it's important to have a balance in our lives," says Ryan, now 22. "It's important to take those other influences into our music."

After the Davies concert, it's back to New York to prepare for a Japanese tour and a new season of concertizing. But summer has a little latitude.

"It's the classical music off-season," says Gregory. "We usually take the time to learn new music, downstairs in the basement of my parents' house -- on five pianos."

Contact Jackie Burrell at [email protected]

The 5 Browns in concert -- what: Five siblings, five pianos, one "Summer in the City" concert -- WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday -- WHERE: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness, S.F. -- TICKETS: $20-$50, San Francisco Symphony Box Office, 415-864-6000, or online at sfsymphony.org/summer.


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