The Rite Time

Stravinsky’s masterwork on five pianos

By Ben Finane

Behind the scenes. The 5 Browns record The Rite of Spring at Skidmore College's Arthur Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs, NY.                                                                        Photos by Bryan Hernandez-Luch

We have to be careful of the repertoire we pick,” says Desirae Brown. “There are some things that just will not work on five pianos — like Barber’s Adagio for Strings.”

This gets a warm laugh from the crowd at the Chautauqua Festival in upstate New York. The “we” here is Desirae and her younger siblings — Deondra, Greg, Melody and Ryan — five pianists from Utah who all attended the Juilliard School and have been playing together for the past decade under the billing The 5 Browns. They’re all here, speaking to Listen before their concert that features a five-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by Jeffrey Shumway.

“Almost from day one,” says Deondra Brown, “when we started playing five pianos, one of our big dreams was to play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, particularly because the percussive effects are so evocative and violent. I’ve never had more fun onstage than playing The Rite. We just rock out.”

With the Rite centenary this year (see Vol. 5, No. 1, “The Rite of A Hundred Springs”), anything goes. And the five-piano arrangement is not such a crazy idea — not when you consider that Stravinsky’s criminally underperformed ballet Les Noces is scored for four pianos and percussion and that The Rite in fact debuted as a work for piano four-hands.

            "I’ve never had more fun onstage than playing The Rite. We just rock out.”

Ryan, the youngest Brown, defends the arrangement. “The fact that the five of us are playing on the same instrument helps to bring a bit more unity.... I wonder if it has something to do with being able to tap into only five people rather than a whole bunch of people? It might make The Rite a bit more human that way.”

The unified piano sound certainly cuts the noise and makes Stravinsky’s angular
melodies and nimble rhythms easier to track. In performance, the music remains visceral, which may have something to do with the Browns’ preparation.

Greg Brown notes that the group watched videos of ballet performances that captured the “primal, barbaric nature” of the work. “Seeing the visuals,” says Greg, “helps bring a new light and energy to the piece.” Individually, the Browns would throw on some headphones and play their own parts with various orchestral recordings to “see how it feels.” Then, when they gathered to rehearse, each would present his or her ideas — and those that made the cut crafted the interpretation.

The 5 Browns perform without scores. Memorizing The Rite made for “a very monumental task,” according to Desirae. “It’s amazing to delve into the music that deeply, not just notes and dynamics but really try to personally to bring up images and feel the pagan, ritual Russia seep into your bones and to become someone there — sacrificing to the gods of Spring.” She laughs. “In some ways, I feel that musicians are actors, there to try and translate those emotions and feelings. So once you memorize the score, you can become it. That’s one of the great benefits to memorizing and to really knowing the music.”

Those benefits can be heard on The 5 Browns’ first release for the Steinway & Sons label, The Rite of Spring, which includes the Rite along with arrangements of Holst’s The Planets (Mars, Jupiter and Neptune) and Saint-Saëns’; Danse macabre. The latter arrangements are by Greg Anderson of the stalwart piano duo Anderson & Roe, who, like The 5 Browns, knows a thing or two about piano as a team sport.