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Hey WCO: Why 5 Browns When Fewer Would Do?

October 6, 2012

Take five energetic, attractive Juilliard School-trained siblings, tether them to five matching Steinway concert grand pianos, add to the mix an accomplished chamber orchestra, and you’d be right to expect the soundtrack to the Second Coming to come pouring forth.

So what happened when The 5 Browns met the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Friday at the Capitol Theatre in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts? And why did a stage so full of talent yield an evening of lukewarm results?

The 5 Browns – Ryan, Melody, Gregory, Deondra and Desirae – helped Maestro Andrew Sewell and his musicians open the 2012 – 13 Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Masterworks season with a mixed bag of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Nico Muhly, a Juilliard classmate of the Browns whose composition, The Edge of the World for Five Pianos and Orchestra, was written especially for the quintet of young musicians.

Muhly’s work was interesting in that contemporary patchwork sort of way, with plenty of aural texture, atmospheres and mood. But he may have done his friends the Browns a disservice by saddling them with something demanding so little from so substantial a number of them. More on that later.

The WCO was in fine fettle throughout the evening – in fact these days it’s only news if they are NOT playing at the top of their game – and the evening’s opening half brought us two works that proved the orchestra’s worth.

Mozart’s Il re pastore, K. 208, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11, shared the distinction of having been written when each of the composers was in his teens (Mozart was 19 and Mendelssohn only 15). Each work demonstrated traits that would show up in the composers’ later works and made for a musically substantial first half.

The second half was preceded by the rise of the five Steinways from the orchestra pit and the arrival of the nattily dressed young pianists, who one critic once accurately described as “button-down cute and somewhat otherworldly.” The Muhly work , which would be their cornerstone for the evening, was divided into four movements that are said to represent the composer’s idea of The Edge of the World – Iceland, the American West, old maps of a flat earth and the dome of the night sky. Not exactly a match in terms of context or objects, but we got the idea.

Like much of Muhly’s work, the composition was a pastiche of motifs, many of them understated and nuanced, and a blend of aural imagery, including the insistent clang of a railroad crossing signal. Each of the Brown’s talents came into play, and none can challenge their classically trained technique. However, there was really very little for each of them to do, and the composition could easily have been executed by, say, a Brown-and-a-half without compromising the piano’s role in the work.

The composition, which ended not with a bang but a whimper, was greeted by polite, albeit bewildered applause. Ryan, Gregory and the brunette (sorry, but you were never introduced to us by name) came back to perform Mozart’ Concerto No. 7 in F Major for Three Pianos, K.242. The three-movement work, which Mozart had written in 1776 with three specific pianists in mind, was expertly delivered by the 3 Browns and WCO and well received by the audience.

Still, there was no overly enthusiastic audience response. What can these five young players really do? Maestro Sewell brought them back for a brief encore of Mozart’s Turkish Rondo, the very popular final movement of the composer’s piano sonata in A Major, K. 331 in hopes of meeting the challenge.

The piece had been tricked out and arranged for the Brown’s unique configuration that capitalized on the familial give-and-take among the performing sibs. At he end the audience jumped to its collective feet. Apparently, that was the degree of theatricality they had expected, and they rewarded it promptly with enthusiastic applause.

In the end, WCO gets points for its usual excellent playing and for introducing us to yet one more contemporary composer of interest. But we’re still waiting to see what The 5 Browns can really do.

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