ALPINE The first thing people assume is that it was all planned.
The 5 Browns, the all-sibling classical piano quintet from Utah, was surely the result of stage parents who aspired to raise five piano prodigies and pack them off to Juilliard, followed by appearances on "Oprah," "60 Minutes" and "The Tonight Show," followed by a recording contract and worldwide concert tours.
Which is exactly what happened, but no one saw it coming.
Who would invite financial ruin on themselves to make it happen? Keith and Lisa Brown, both in their early 50s, don't even have a house to call their own they're living in her parents' home in Alpine.
The Browns made this up as they went along, one thing leading to another, Keith and Lisa as surprised as anyone each step of the way. Nobody could have planned it. It's preposterous. It's like planning to produce all five starters for the Boston Celtics.
"If we had planned it, we would have had them play different instruments," Lisa says.
But it happened anyway, and Desirae, 29; Deondra, 28; Greg, 25; Melody, 24; and Ryan, 22, have given stodgy classical music a shot in the arm. Their three CDs have spent several weeks atop Billboard's classical music charts, and their concert tours sell out in nearly all 50 states, Japan, Germany, France, Korea, Mexico and England.
In concert, the Browns treat their fans to a musical circus act featuring 50 flying fingers. The Browns play in various combinations solo, duet, duo,
trio, six hands, quintet. When the three ladies play "Clair de Lune" on one piano, their long, slender white arms look like six swans gracefully nodding to the keyboard. Otherwise, the Browns play with almost violent passion, attacking the keyboard, heads hammering or lolling to the music, eyes closed or stealing looks at each other to maintain their timing, which is so impeccable that five pianos sound as one. They play their entire program from memory, without sheet music.
There has never been anything quite like them. There weren't even any five-piano arrangements when they began their professional careers five years ago. They retained, among others, Jeff Shumway, a Brigham Young University professor and fellow Juilliard alum, to do create special arrangements.
This is not your father's classical piano concert. Stiff, formal performers have been replaced by smiling young adults exchanging lively banter with the audience. Between each number, one of them approaches the microphone and explains, like, the history of the next, like, number, or, you know, like how they feel about the next piece in a way that's, like, humorous, endearing and informative.
"It's supposed to be entertaining," Deondra says. "It's not a funeral."
To accommodate the younger audience's shorter attention span, the arrangements are shortened no full-length sonatas or 15-minute pieces and they tend to play the more recognizable and melodic classical pieces, something you might hear in a movie or commercial (think "Clair de Lune" from "Ocean's 11"), although they mix in some more obscure pieces to satisfy the connoisseurs in the audience.
The five Browns sit on the edge of the stage at intermission to field questions from the audience, or to show a video that tells their story.
During performances, they alternately wear cocktail dresses/coats and ties and jeans and tennis shoes with shirts untucked. The audience dresses much the same.
"Why not take this pure music and reset it in modern times?" Desirae asks. "It doesn't have to be a museum in tuxes."
The Browns even add a dash of pop showmanship. Egged on by members of the audience during a concert in Salt Lake City last winter, Greg played Aaron Kernis' "Superstar Etude No. 1" with his fingers, hands, elbows, forearms and feet, beating the keys at warp speed, punctuated by a "yahoo!," leaving dazzled neophytes wondering, "What did I just see?"
Welcome to classical music, MTV style. This was all part of the plan to capture a modern audience for classical music. Just as they were launching their professional careers early in 2003, Greg wrote a letter to Joel Diamond, a Grammy Award-winning producer and manager in Los Angeles, explaining the direction the group wanted to pursue.
"I have been very troubled with the way things have been going in the classical music world," he wrote. "The audience for our art is growing thinner and thinner because its devotees are growing older and older. So far, few attempts have been made to bring this music to a new and younger audience ... these few attempts were ultimately unsuccessful ... because they failed to be accepted by both the classical world and the pop world."
"My family has been given a rare gift that I know could help change the way classical music is perceived by Americans. We have ... studied at the most elite music school in the country; this gives us validity in the classical world. We also happen to be young, we're outgoing and we have a modern look, and, according to most people, we have an intriguing story; this gives us appeal and marketability in the pop world. I truly believe that (we) can be this vehicle that could help save classical music by introducing it to a new generation ... We could make true classical music not only popular again but cool."
Everything they do is calculated to take their music to a new generation interviews for teen magazines, TV appearances, a book, the shortened arrangements, the casual stage attire, music videos.
They have created several videos, one of them a rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue" in an old World War II hangar in Wendover and another featuring a spectacular performance of "Firebird" at sunset on the Bonneville Salt Flats in what was a production sleight of hand. After boxing and hauling five 9-foot Steinway grand pianos from Wendover to the Salt Flats, the group's crew raced to assemble them again before sunset. They had time for only two takes.
"We market it like a pop album, but the music is classical," Melody says. "A lot of older people say, 'We've never seen so many young people at a classical concert; this gives me hope for your generation."'
Performing 80 to 120 concerts a year, the Browns are booked through 2009. They say they could book 200 concerts annually, if they didn't choose to have a home life; instead, they tour for two weeks, return home, then tour for two more weeks and so on. They'll be performing in Las Vegas on Sept. 8.
"Their concerts sell out, and half the audience are kids," Diamond says. "There's no question that they have brought classical music to a younger audience.
"They could be booked every weekend and play during the week the whole year if they wanted," Diamond says.
They have appeared with Jay Leno and Martha Stewart and on "The View," "Good Morning America," "Oprah," "CBS Morning Show" and they've been profiled twice on "60 Minutes." They are scheduled for an appearance with Larry King and at a concert in Carnegie Hall.
The Browns flew to China to negotiate a deal for TV and newspaper coverage, widespread distribution of their CDs and concerts in the country's eight biggest cities. This is a country where some 50 million children take piano lessons.
A book will be published about the quintet, due to be released in February, with the forward being written by King.
"I still look at it, like, how did all this happen?" Lisa says.
Well, for one thing, Diamond got sick one night about 10 years ago, or maybe none of this would have happened. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Like so many Latter-day Saint families, the Browns wanted their children to learn piano. Lisa studied opera and wanted to expose her children to music, if for no other reason than to keep them busy. They began lessons as preschoolers, and by 8 or 9 years old they were accompanying church choirs.
They had five pianos in the house. The kids each practiced more than three hours daily, filling the home with scales, repertoire, and finger exercises.
"There was nowhere to go to talk on the phone except in the garage or outside," Lisa recalls.
If you were wondering if it is possible that five children practiced piano all those years without complaint or threatening to quit, the answer is no. Ryan, who once hid for several hours to avoid practice until a familywide search discovered him in a cardboard box, told his parents one day that he might want to quit.
"But when my parents asked me, 'Do you really want to quit?' it hit me," says Ryan. "Wow, I didn't want to quit."
"Who wants to work when you could be outside playing?" Greg says. "We ended up loving it because we started playing so young, and we understood that it was to express emotions through sound and the joy you get with that."
As the kids grew older and piano became more demanding, the Browns discovered there wasn't enough time in the day for five children to practice piano, attend school, do their homework, eat meals and get to bed on time, even after waking up at 4:45 a.m. daily. They were setting school records for tardy slips.
"They didn't have time to be kids," Lisa says.
The Browns turned to home schooling, with Keith and Lisa sharing the teaching duties. They started the day at 6:30 a.m. and were finished with piano and school by mid-afternoon.
"They were free to play," Lisa says.
The Browns were no piano geeks. They liked pop music, sports and school activities. Football was off limits for Greg and Ryan because of the injury risk to their hands, but they played baseball through Pony League, albeit while wearing ski gloves at the plate during the spring piano contest season.
"We were worried about inside pitches," Keith says.
After earning their diplomas, Desirae and Deondra planned to study music at BYU, but on a lark Keith suggested a grander scheme.
"Why not try the conservatories?" he said. The girls scoffed: "We're not good enough. Our teachers say it's really hard."
Keith arranged auditions at the six best conservatories in the country Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; Boston Conservatory; New England Conservatory of Music; Manhattan School of Music; Juilliard; and Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Cleveland simply hoping that one school would accept both girls.
As the Browns tell it, the other kids who showed up for the auditions were throwing up in the bathroom and doing breathing exercises in the hallway, while the Brown girls were giggling and "joking around," oblivious to the import of the proceedings and the burden of expectation.
Both girls not only were accepted by all six conservatories, but they were offered full-ride scholarships by five of them and a half-tuition by Juilliard. After consulting experts, they chose Juilliard, reasoning that the school's prestige would guarantee a professorship or command high private-instructor fees.
With their father unable to afford half their tuition at Juilliard, where costs were well more than $20,000 annually, the girls took out student loans. After one semester at Juilliard they urged their siblings to join them. The other three children auditioned for Juilliard's pre-college program, and all three were offered full scholarships.
"Usually kids arranged to have guardians there, but we wanted to be with them," Keith says. "We had two choices: Turn down the scholarships or pack up and leave."
The Browns packed up their five pianos and moved to New York.
This was financial insanity. The Browns had long ago mortgaged their future for their children's music, paying for private lessons, Steinway pianos, travel to contests, home schooling, sheet music, piano tuning and maintenance, all multiplied by five. They were paying more for piano lessons each month ($1,000) than for rent ($850).
"We were nearly broke when we left Utah," Lisa says. The situation worsened in New York, where their cost of living tripled. They burned up their scant savings to pay moving expenses and survived by maxing out credit cards. Keith, who had sold exotic automobiles in Utah, sold Steinways in New York to augment his income.
The family was united in New York, but that lasted only three years before they ran out of money and returned to Utah.
"It broke us," Keith says. By then, Greg and Melody were old enough to be admitted to Juilliard while their parents and Ryan returned to Utah, where Lisa's father offered them a rent-free house and a job.
But money was still flying out the door. Ryan continued to attend Juilliard's pre-college program by commuting to New York. For two years he flew the redeye from Salt Lake City to New York every Friday, attended consolidated classes on Saturday and flew home Sunday night.
Then fame found the Browns. The BBC learned there were five siblings attending Juilliard two in the master's program, two in the undergrad program, one in the pre-college program. What were the odds?
Geri Halliwell (aka Ginger Spice) showed up with a camera crew to do the story. This started a run of herd journalism. The London Telegraph did its own story, then the New York Times, "Oprah," People Magazine, "60 Minutes" and more than two dozen other major news agencies. The camera crew from "60 Minutes" followed the Browns around Juilliard for five months.
"We thought it was a 15-minutes-of-fame deal," Keith says.
The publicity brought the Browns a few invitations to perform. It probably would have gone no further than that if fate hadn't lent a hand.
Diamond had actually learned about the Browns a decade earlier. Unable to sleep one night because of an illness, he was channel-surfing when he saw Ryan performing in a PBS talent contest and decided he would be a perfect addition to a boy band he was trying to assemble. After failing to find BrownRyan through TV contacts, he finally tracked him down the old-fashioned way by calling every BrownRyan residence in the Utah phone book.
Keith politely rejected the boy-band idea, explaining that Ryan was a classical musician and still in school. But as they closed the conversation, Keith said, "Just so you know, there are four more just like him."
Diamond, whose 36 years in the music business has been in pop, was intrigued. For the next three years he contacted the Browns periodically with various pop-related proposals, all of which were rejected. When pianist/vocalist Norah Jones collected five Grammys with her debut album in 2002, Diamond sensed the time was right for the Browns' classical act.
He called Keith, asking if he could set up a two-day showcase for record labels and booking agencies. Diamond had the connections to pull it off. The five Browns performed one day for label executives and the next day for booking agencies in a New York Steinway store. Sony, BMG, Atlantic, Universal, Columbia, William and Morris, and IMG were there. Within a week, every one of them had contacted the Browns to sign them.
"I've been in this business a long time, and let me tell you it's rare to get callbacks from every label and agency wanting them," Diamond says. "I knew there was something special here."
The Browns signed with BMG (which later merged with Sony) in March 2004 and released their first CD a year later.
"It was Joel Diamond's efforts and connections that resulted in a record deal and led to concert tours," Keith says. "Otherwise, probably none of it would have happened."
It could be recipe for trouble five siblings, thrown together for weeks at a time, combined with the irritations of travel, erratic sleep, hotels, the occasional bad meal, and the drudgery of rehearsals, not to mention the potential for jealousies on stage. The Browns paint a different picture.
"We'll be out on the road for 10 days, and when we get back, the first thing we do is call each other to go to a movie or to go skiing," says Melody.
Says Desirae, "People think we need our time away from each other. But a couple of days into our break, we're calling each other 'Hey, guys, want to get together and do something?' It sounds lame, but we are friends."
From the outset, they laid out a plan to preserve the friendship. They instructed their arrangers to make their arrangements challenging and equal, not emphasizing one person.
In recent years, the Brown children gave up their New York apartments and returned to Utah to facilitate the group's rehearsals. They practice in their parents' house, where there are five pianos in one basement room as well as single pianos in four rooms upstairs.
It's a family business. Lisa sorts through music to compile music to submit to arrangers for the 5 Browns to perform. Keith devotes himself full time to co-managing the group's concert and travel schedule.
They have managed their business around ever-changing personal lives. The three sisters of the group are married, and two of the couples share a house next door to their parents' home. All except Ryan have master's degrees. After completing Juilliard's pre-college program, Ryan was leery of the inevitable comparisons to his siblings and chose to attend Manhattan School of Music over Juilliard, ending a nine-year run of Browns enrolled at the famous conservatory. He dropped out a year short of his undergrad degree to pursue a professional career with his siblings. Greg is pursuing a doctorate in piano performance at the University of Utah.
"We've come to the realization that things will change through the years," Melody says. "We're going to want to start families. We'll constantly be re-evaluating schedules and making sure everyone is happy in the group."
Melody married two months before she had planned, simply because it was the only hole in the group's schedule. The wedding occurred two days after a concert and five days before the start of another tour.
"We've struggled our whole lives with trying to have balance," Melody says.
The five Browns are happy, charming, sweet-natured and remarkably poised, confident young people unspoiled by the attention and life on the road. When the five of them sat for a lengthy interview at their home, they began nearly every answer by identifying themselves "This is Desirae ... " mindful that the interviewer was just learning to place their names with faces.
"They were kind of embarrassed by the contract and the attention when they were at JulliardJuilliard," Keith says. "They were never the best at JulliardJuilliard. They've succeeded because they have something different."
"They have a certain charm, and it's reflected in their performances. When they're on stage, people connect with them."
They have a strong sense of purpose, and their record label, Keith says, "has let the kids do their thing the way they dress, their music, photographs ..." BMG spent $25,000 on photos of the group in Central Park for their debut CD. The Browns rejected them as being too formal.
"The kids didn't look like themselves," Lisa says. "They looked like somebody else's kids who resembled them." BMG president Gilbert Heatherwick listened to their concerns and told them, "You've got a point. The first CD is how you represent yourselves." The Browns spent $1,000 to hire their own photographer, Utah's Debra McFarland, for the photos that decorated their first CD.
"We didn't want to be difficult," Desirae says. "But we almost looked too pretty. We're just normal kids."
Normal kids who performed in front of 65,000 people in the Rose Bowl for the 2006 Fourth of July celebration and for 21,000 in the LDS Church's Conference Center for the 95th birthday celebration for the church's late president, Gordon B. Hinckley. Normal kids who cut CDs and travel all over the world."It's been one of those rare times when all the stars lined up," Diamond says.