On June 1, Steinway Artists The 5 Browns gave a performance at Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Concert Hall in Tallahassee, Florida, making history by bringing together five showcase Steinways, premiering them all together on stage for the first time.
The 5 Browns (from eldest to youngest: Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan), have a historic past of their own as the first family of five to ever be admitted to The Juilliard School. Their rise to fame came when People Magazine labelled them as the “Fab Five” in addition to being featured on 60 Minutes and Oprah. They had toured extensively prior to their debut at Florida State’s Ruby Diamond Concert Hall, which included such prestigious spaces such as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Grand National Theater in China. Their latest projects include music videos for each of their songs performed exclusively on Steinways, and the recording of their seventh album.
Playing on art-case Steinways is no easy feat, and are, as Deondra Brown refers to them, “a beautiful distraction.” Each instrument is uniquely designed with characteristics that give it a personality of its own.
The Chihuly Steinway, designed by master American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, is impossible to miss with a lime green exterior, neon yellow and orange keys. The Model D was originally unveiled by Steinway in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The cover features a series of winter images made up of bright colors that represent the Olympic spirit and a translucent glass top and piano desk, the first ever of its kind designed by Steinway. It provided a cheery, visual aesthetic to compromise the Browns’ playing, but also presented a new kind of challenge to the Juilliard graduates.
“I’ve been playing Steinways all my life, and it was a bizarrely cool experience to have a Steinway feel foreign under my hands again.”
“The yellow keys, positioned where the black keys normally are, are lighter than the orange, which is the opposite of how a standard piano's black and white keys are situated,” explained Greg Brown. “I've been playing Steinways all my life, and it was a bizarrely cool experience to have a Steinway feel foreign under my hands again.” The piano provided an interesting perspective on how a simple differentiation in color and can affect how even the most talented of pianists must change their technique and hone their skill.
The replica of the White House Steinway added its own glamour next to the Chihuly in its decked out gold exterior. This instrument, symbolically given the serial number 100,000, was a gift by the grateful Steinway family to their adopted home, the United States of America.
Presented by Theodore Steinway to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, the first White House Steinway was initially played by Steinway Artist Josef Hoffman and occupied a special place in the East Room, which became the musical heart of the executive mansion. This piano ignited a golden age of music and an appreciation for classical tunes in our nation’s home, as Teddy and Edith Roosevelt hosted countless performances every year.
It paired well with the Alma-Tadema Steinway, a replica designed by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and dubbed the “grandest piano of all time.” The Alma Tadema Steinway was also the first hand craved art case piano that sparked DeVoes’ unique relationship with Steinway & Sons, and his desire to learn more about the pianos. Nothing quite compared to its two thousand and two hundred inlays of mother-of-pearl and an exquisitely hand-carved case, top lid and legs. Just as the White House Steinway has its own painting representing America receiving the Muses, the Alma-Tadema features an elaborate rendering of Sir Edward J. Poynter’s classic oil painting, “The Wandering Minstrels,” just above the keyboard.
The Steinway Peace Piano, created for UNICEF in 2004, provided a plain yet elegant contrast next to its piano “peers.” The original instrument was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, a renowned art deco designer from the early twentieth century. Thousands of different languages are spoken in the world today but the Steinway Peace Piano united everyone under one voice — the universal dialect of music. In keeping with the theme of peace, hand carved doves grasping olive branches adorn the instrument’s case directly above each leg. Steinway Artist Lang Lang had the pleasure of unveiling the instrument in 2004 at the UNICEF House in New York, immediately after he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Last but not least was the sharp and angle-oriented 500,000th Steinway, created by Wendell Castle in 1987. The piano boasts over eight hundred signatures of the living Steinway artists at the time it was built, including but not limited to the legendary Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, and Roger Williams. This piano made a cool contrast with the other pianos with its clean cut corners and pointy edges, and gave the audience a rather calming visual break compared to the gaudiness of its companions.
Despite the alluring diversion that the pianos created, the Browns did not disappoint. Their performance offered a compelling, eclectic mix of songs played ranging from classical works including Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird to the jazz-infused Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Ryan Brown performed one of his compositions, a three-minute piece titled The Factory. The youngest Brown drew inspiration from Nils Frahm, a German composer known for combining classical and electronic music. He described the piece as stepping into a machine factory in the early morning hours just as the machines have come to life. He incorporated a syncopated bass and melody and a drone that was being constantly interrupted during the piece. The short yet sweet segment gripped the audience’s attention and offered a fresh and fun sound to the program.
The Browns also had the opportunity to connect with members of the DeVoe family and learning about DeVoe’s extensive collections of cars, pianos, and more at the Tallahassee Automobile Museum. Mr. DeVoe’s wife, Mrs. Shirley Moore, stole Melody Brown’s heart: “After the first concert was cancelled because of Hurricane Hermine,” Melody explains, “Shirley, one of her daughters, and a few grandchildren travelled out to Bob Jones University to attend a concert we gave there. We were so humbled and moved that they would drive six and half hours to come and see, support, and love us as they did,” she says. “Thanks to DeVoe and his family, the converging of our family with theirs will be something we cherish for a lifetime.”