The story at first seemed like a cultural curiosity: Five squeaky-clean Mormon siblings come to New York to study piano. All five are admitted to Juilliard, one of the most demanding conservatories in the world, and study with the same teacher.
That was nearly four years ago, when the Brown brothers and sisters received a wavelet of publicity. Recently the story has acquired a new dimension. They signed a five-CD deal with BMG Classics/RCA Red Seal at the end of March, adding layers of complexity to their lives.
The new commitment has forced the family to work out compromises with the traditions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For its part, the church sees the Browns as a powerful means to spread its message.
BMG officials said they did not want to emphasize the Mormon connection, adding that they hoped the Browns, a passel of willowy and comely youths 18 to 25, would boost sales among younger people and reach a new classical audience.
Members of the family said they relished the idea of having a career that kept them together. They said they were happy to serve as emissaries for the Mormon Church. They embrace the idea that their image and a repertory of bite-size classical pieces could attract new classical music listeners.
"How else are you going to get to young kids with this type of music?" said Gregory Brown, 21, who is graduating this year from Juilliard. "They look at Mozart and Bach as something nerdy kids do."
Their father, Keith Brown, said his children would appeal to parents disgusted with what he considers an increasingly trashy entertainment world.
"The kids have a kind of clean youth-culture look that sits well with corporate America and parental America," said Brown, who helps manage his children's careers. He and the siblings were interviewed separately by telephone before a Brown family concert at the Wortham Center in Houston last Sunday.
Along with Gregory, the other performers are his elder sisters Deondra, 24, and Desirae, 25, who have undergraduate and master's degrees from Juilliard and often perform as a duo; Melody, 20, who is also graduating from Juilliard this year; and Ryan, 18, who attended Juilliard's preparatory division before breaking away and starting at the Manhattan School of Music last September.
The BMG contract pays the children a total of something less than six figures, Keith Brown said. The first CD is to be recorded in the summer and released early in 2005, to be accompanied by a concert tour. The performances are to include several arrangements of symphonic works for five pianos and a grab bag of works for one, two and three pianos in various combinations.
The repertory has not been set, but Brown said it would include four orchestral pieces arranged for five pianos, possibly the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" and numbers from "West Side Story." The siblings are being marketed as "the Five Browns."
Gilbert Hetherwick, vice president and general manger of BMG Classics, called their repertory "real, honest classical music without any frills."
"By having a young family out there performing this, we could reach a larger audience by virtue of who they are," he said.
Their teachers say the Browns reveal an appealing mix of enthusiasm, sincerity, modesty and family togetherness.
"They're not nerds," said Phillip Kawin, Ryan's current teacher. "There's an honesty, which I find not to be all that common."
Veda Kaplinsky, chairwoman of Juilliard's piano department and a teacher of all five, said their appeal lay in the ability to draw strength from one another and to operate as a family unit with obvious enjoyment.
"This is a very fun and loving way of bringing music to people," she said.
The family seems untroubled by the notion that individually in a world where Juilliard alone graduates 15 to 20 talented pianists a year they probably would not have received the recording contract or appeared with Oprah Winfrey, on "60 Minutes II" and in People magazine.
"It does help us a lot because we are a family," Ryan said. On the other hand, "we do have to have some talent there," he said.
The spurts of success have caused some agonizing, particularly for Gregory. Nineteen-year-old Mormon men are generally expected to leave on two-year proselytizing missions.
Gregory went through a period of tortured reasoning before deciding that he would leave for his mission this summer, he said. Kaplinsky said she tried hard to keep him from going, arguing that such a long time away from the instrument would effectively end his hope of a successful musical career.
"I didn't want any outside factor to make the decision for him about whether to play piano or not," she said.
Then the BMG offer came through. Gregory consulted with Elder Robert D. Hales, one of the church's 12 apostles, the senior leadership body.Comment on this story
Hales, who the family said was monitoring their careers and personally performed the two elder daughters' marriages, had pointed out that Gregory's taking part in the recording and concert tour could serve the church, and humanity, in its own way.
"It's another sort of mission for me," Gregory said. "I could probably reach more people doing what I do with my family than I could going door to door."
Hales said the church benefited "just by the simple fact of who they are and what they are doing." They embody, he said, Mormon traits of drive and upright values.
As Deondra Brown said, "They've kind of looked at us as a way to help show people what Mormons are about."