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Quintet of piano-playing siblings keys into a new generation of fans

Paul Horsley [The Kansas City Star]

It's easy to be the 5 Browns. All you need are discipline, good looks and piano lessons starting at age 3.

Or at least that's what you might believe when talking with the five cheerful offspring of Keith and Lisa Brown. The five are the hottest act in classical music.

They are serious, Juilliard-trained pianists ages 21 to 27 who don't shy from casual dress. They always take time during their concerts for questions from the audience.

What separates the Browns from most cheesily hyped classical crossover acts is that they are all sophisticated musicians. Each studied with one of Juilliard's all-time great teachers, Yoheved Kaplinsky.

But the quintet of scrubbed, smiling keyboard whizzes has delighted not just kids but their parents and grandparents since its debut in 2005. If the sales of their CDs are a sign, these young `uns might do more for classical music than Leonard Bernstein, Pavarotti and Joshua Bell combined.

Their first CD, "The 5 Browns," spent 13 weeks in the No. 1 spot on Billboard's classical chart. This year's "No Boundaries" was knocked off the No. 1 spot after 21 weeks there by Bell's new CD. They've been in People, Entertainment Weekly, Keyboard and Cosmo Girl and on every talk show you can name, from Oprah's to Jay Leno's. (The most nerve-racking was Martha Stewart, Melody Brown said, "She's such a perfectionist.")

Their message for their fans: Classical music has been getting a bad rap. It's as cool as anything on your iPod.

"It's not the music's fault; it's the establishment's fault," said 27-year-old Desirae, speaking on Ryan's cell phone as the five drove across Wyoming to their next concert.

"They try to make it so elitist when, in essence, classical music has what every other genre of music has - joy, anger, love, hate. What we're trying to do in our concerts is make it about the music. We dress the way we normally dress, and we talk to the audience and let people know this music is not just for upper crust."

They play some barn storming ensemble numbers on five pianos provided by Steinway & Sons. Their "Rhapsody in Blue" on the latest CD is a convincing version of Gershwin's classic. And they also break out into solo, duo and trio numbers.

It's part of keeping things interesting, for the audience and performers.

"We didn't lose our solo repertoire in the process," said Gregory, 24. "As long as we have the best of all possible worlds, I can imagine us doing this for a while, as long as people want to hear us."

Lisa Brown didn't set out to create five pint-sized pianists. But when each child turned 3, the parents bestowed upon him or her the "honor" of starting piano lessons. As they grew up, it felt as natural as brushing one's teeth.

Could any family do the same? Maybe, the Browns say.

"If anybody spends a long enough time working hard at something, they're bound to get pretty good at it," 26-year-old Deondra said.

"It's mostly nurture and a little bit of nature," Desirae added. "Chances are pretty high that if you have the combination of dedicated parents and teachers who really care and you work seriously, you can achieve something. I think talent does have a little bit of an impact."

Lisa Brown was a classically trained opera singer from Houston, where all five of the children were born, and she knew about music and early childhood development. She would sit with the children for hours every day well into their adolescence, by which time they began to run off to Juilliard. The whole family moved to New York for a time while the Browns became the first family ever to have five students at Juilliard at once.

One of the first purchases the Browns made as a young couple was a Steinway upright piano. Now that the Browns are a traveling ad for Steinway, the company transports five concert grands for their tours.

When it's not practical, a local Steinway dealer provides the pianos. Now that four of the five Browns have finished their New York schooling, they've settled into domestic life at home in Salt Lake City.

In their spare time they love rock music (Coldplay, Gorillaz), tennis, skiing and dating . (Desirae and Deondra are married, but the other three are "available," they say.)

Are they in competition with one another ? Yes and no, Deondra said.

"We grew up competing against each other in different competitions. If you didn't win, you'd want your sibling to win. It's great for us to be there for each other."

As their fan base grows, they are recognized in the most surprising places, 21-year-old Ryan said. Recently he and 22-year-old Melody were driving across Utah, and some young girls in an adjacent car recognized them and held up a sign in the window: "Aren't you Browns?"

If anyone can break down barriers between classical music and new audiences, it's probably going to be the Browns and others like them.

"At our concerts, little kids who don't know what classical music is are dancing in the aisles," Gregory said. "This is the age of the iPod, so why not have some classical music on it, too?"

___

© 2006, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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