The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra outperforms The Five Browns on the underwhelming opening night of the new season.

October 8, 2012
1 Comment


By Jacob Stockinger

What is the key to the best-selling success of the brother and sister pianists known as The Five Browns (below), who were the guest soloists with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night’s season opener?

I wish I could say the key is the music.

But it isn’t.

That key was revealed in the one encore, a solo for all five, that they played at the end of the concert, after they had performed a Mozart three-piano concerto and a work specially composed for all five of them by Nico Muhly.

Up to that point the very large audience in Overture Center’s Capitol Theater had applauded the gracious and appealing family quintet with a relatively quiet enthusiasm.

But by the of the solo encore – a flashy, trashy, souped up five-piano version of Mozart’s “Rondo a la Turca” or Turkish Rondo finale from the solo piano sonata in A major, K. 331 — the audience was on its feet. The public had been wowed.

And why not? Cascading scales, fast octaves, repeated notes and complex finger work are all impressive physical feats, even when they serve as little else than musical filler. It all bought back memories from my youth of bestsellers and fellow chart-busting duo-pianists Ferrante and Teicher (below), who scored a similar commercial success but long ago were artistically forgotten. Remember them?

And that pretty much tells the story. The Five Browns (below) are certainly more serious; but they too are nonetheless more about showmanship than musicianship. In the end, they make lucrative recordings and have had  10-year concert career because they provide a novelty or musical sideshow, and not because they are great musicians. Show biz saves them, not great interpretations. In short, they are more about entertaining than enlightening.

That is not to say that individually they are not fine musicians. After all, these two brothers and three sisters must have plenty of talent since they all attended Juilliard and all showed the chops to play very well as soloists.

But sometimes more is just more or even too much, and this one of those times. Playing the piano is not the same as making music.

When you want to open a new season with great attendance, a wise orchestra marketer once told The Ear, the statistics are clear: Choose a piano concerto.

After all, everyone loves the piano; there are plenty of piano concertos that are both popular and great; and a lot of piano students and frustrated amateur pianists will buy tickets. A great piano concerto is soul-stirring and dramatic, a metaphorical battle, like a football game with the University of Solo Pianists against the University of Big Orchestras.

But five very good pianists are not necessarily five times better than one great pianist. That point was proved in a concert that, overall, was musically underwhelming or disappointing.

True, given the soloists, the modest program of minor youthful works and no masterpieces was well-chosen –- a vintage blend of unknown pieces by well-known composers that has become the signature of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below).

Sewell opened the concert with a light and sprightly version of the 19-year-old Mozart’s Overture to “The Good Shepherd.” It was energetic, well voiced and transparent — what you look for in fine playing of even minor Mozart. And even minor Mozart has plenty of charm, if not substance.

Then Sewell led the orchestra in an energetic and convincing reading of Mendelssohn’s rarely heard youthful Symphony No. 1. You hear hints of the great “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies and the “Hebrides” Overture, and you see the 15-year-old Mendelssohn, who loved accessibility and clarity, mastering the past — including the taste for counterpoint that led him to pioneer the revival of J.S. Bach. He was indeed a fast learner, but still a student — not a master.

The second half was devoted to The Five Browns.

It started with the most impressive and substantive work of the evening: “The Edge of the World,” four pieces – described as “Four Nocturnes for Five Pianos” –- by the “young” 30-year-old up-and-coming American composer Nico Muhly (below).

While not a prodigy on the order of Mozart or Mendelssohn — and the unifying theme of the evening’s program was youth – Muhly has created a very atmospheric, if episodic, piece that reminded The Ear of Minimalists such as John Adams and Steve Reich, only with more variety, nuances and finesse.

It seemed to me a very difficult work, at least as I heard it in what was only its second public performance. The Browns have had a lot of time to rehearse and master it, and they play it impressively.

But even more impressive to me was how, with a lot less time, Sewell and his orchestra players (below) kept the difficult rhythms and played with conviction all those notes that can quickly become repetitive and boring. Given what they did with Mozart and Mendelssohn as well as Muhly, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turned out to be the best part of this concert and clearly outperformed the guest soloists.

Some will see Muhly’s work as great contemporary music. To me, it is competent music that will probably find a place in the repertoire as an oddity, much like The Five Browns themselves. It seems the 21st century equivalent of a piece for a monster concert by Louis Moreau Gottschalk or perhaps the contemporary Verbier Festival in Switzerland. But I suspect that Muhly, who has written successful movie scores and operas, has composed better music and has a big future ahead of him.

Who writes a piece for five pianos except on a weird commission to make money or honor a friendship or both. (Muhly was at Juilliard while the Browns were.)

Take a listen to other works at YouTube (at bottom) or at his website:

The Browns finished the program with Mozart’s early Three-Piano Concerto, which is pleasant enough but, again, no masterpiece when compared to Mozart’s 26 other piano concertos. Here again we heard Mozart Lite.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Five Browns was their unwillingness to bang. Until the very end, they did not indulge in silly pyrotechnics and virtuosity or in competitions of the “Anything You Can Play, I Can Play Louder” school. Their playing showed a lightness and clarity that helped, a subtlety and cooperation that proved especially productive in Mozart’s music.

In the end, it all made me wonder, and want to hear, what just One Brown could do individually with a truly great piano concerto. Plus, I ended up really wanting the WCO’s “Masterworks” series to program at least one masterwork per concert.

Here are what other local critics had to say:

Here is what John W. Barker had to say in Isthmus:

Here are Mike and Jean Muckian in their blog Culturosity for Brava Magazine:

Here is what Greg Hettmansberger had to say in his “Classically Speaking” blog  for Madison Magazine:

And here is what Lindsay Christians had to say for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

One last PS: In case you looked at the orchestra pit and wondered about the five Steinways provided for The Five Browns: The Ear was told the pianos – two concert grands and three smaller grands – travel with the pianists. They are Steinway artists. And membership – along with best-selling siblingship – has its privileges.


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