Humility characterizes Michael Brown’s assessment of his musical beginnings and even his noteworthy musical activity today.
The 27-year-old pianist and composer of “Manhattan’s Washington Heights” said he is the only musician in his family. His parents worked in education and his siblings “did their own thing,” Brown said during a phoneinterview from Chicago.
Brown was working with the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which does winter concerts, and the oldest outdoor music festival in the United States, he said.
“I was sort of the black sheep of my family. I heard this folk singer Raffi on TV when I was 2. I got very, sort of ... I would just stand and listen to music for hours,” Brown said.
He began to play the violin when he was 4, and decided by the time he was 5 that he wanted to pursue piano instead. He told his mother, who arranged for him to study privately on Long Island.
From there, Brown began to compose music.
“I started writing pieces that were probably terrible, but I had fun with them,” he said. “I got more serious about both (piano and composing). There was never a question if I would do something else in my life. It was, ‘This is it.’ I just had this desire to do this.”
As Brown composed, people also exhibited a desire to hear his compositions.
Brown will premiere his most recent work, “Flourishes,” which was commissioned by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, during the November Masterworks concerts Saturday, Nov. 8, and Sunday, Nov. 9, at The Maryland Theatre.
The premiere of ‘Flourishes’
Brown, who earned dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano and composition at The Juilliard School, said he thought about offering a pre-existing piece for orchestra without piano for performance by the MSO, but he liked the idea of challenging himself to write a piece that he could play, as well.
“I just thought, I am a performing pianist and I also write music. It would be cool to link those two activities together. I used to play other people’s works for piano and orchestra, and I thought, ‘What an interesting challenge. What could I come up with?’” he said.
What he came up with over the past months is a piece “about little gestures, little flourishes, spells that grow into larger sections and become dramatic gestures,” Brown said.
“It’s sort of little snippets of material that grow and attach to larger things, kind of like the Big Bang Theory. Things are floating around and somehow they come together and make sense. Or not make sense. At least they make sense in my mind,” he said.
Brown said “Flourishes” also employs devices typical to standard concertos. The work has four sections — one that is slow and dramatic and a second that is fast. The third is a cadenza, in which the piano is highlighted as the pianist plays alone.
“The cadenza is used in most standard Mozart and Beethoven concertos. It’s where the soloist kind of takes the spotlight for a little while, then leads in to the fast music that comes back at the end, where it is kind of wild, big and vivacious,” he said. “So within whatever modern sound, if you will, I wanted it to be based in a little bit of tradition.”
Approach to playing and composing
Brown has played on four continents at venues including Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium, London’s Wigmore Hall, The Louvre in Paris, Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher and Alice Tully halls, and at numerous music festivals. He has been described by the The New York Times as “one of the leading figures in the current renaissance of performers-composers” and as “a young piano visionary.”
He won first prize in the 2010 Concert Artists Guild Competition and earned acceptance into The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Two program in 2015.
Still, he cautiously referred to his piano playing and composing as “activities,” rather than “skills” or “talents.”
“I think that it probably is a skill or talent or something,” he said. “I don’t know what other people say. But I feel like anything like piano playing or whatever activity you do, you have to do on a regular basis or you lose your chops a little bit. It’s not quite like riding a bike. I mean it is, but certainly playing piano, you have to do every day. It is very much a physical skill. You need to have very sufficient time to do that.”
In addition to practicing playing the piano, Brown said pianists should spend time thinking about music and listening to scores.
Composing requires inspiration and action, he said. Besides composers having a knowledge of the craft and composition, they need to have “a wide knowledge of the world.”
“You need to read Shakespeare or something like that,” Brown said. “Like Woody Allen, one of my favorite filmmakers, I don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to hit me. I sit down and force myself to come up with something. Some days I am on to something, it’s clicking. Other days I write something and throw it in the garbage. I just sit down or stand up and do it.”
The Masterworks Concert
Brown said he is “delighted” that the MSO took an interest in his work. He started writing sketches for his commissioned piece, which became “Flourishes,” last spring. As he was practicing the works of composers like Beethoven or Schubert, he said, he began to improvise.
“I have a tendency when I’m practicing to sketch ideas that I come back to later. So I just started sketching some ideas down in my own handwriting,” he said. “Over the summer, they developed into larger sketches. Basically, I spent a lot of days off, late nights and super early mornings, and I was able to finish it.”
Brown arrived in Hagerstown and began practicing the piece with the MSO on Tuesday. He anticipated that the process would be “a little exploratory,” that he would “maybe even want to change some things.”
Brown frequently works with smaller chamber ensembles, with which he can more readily gather all the musicians.
“When you write a piece for orchestra, it’s not as easy to get a whole orchestra into your apartment,” he joked. “With a chamber ensemble, you can be like, ‘Can you show me this on a cello?’ You can work more one-on-one to make it more fitting for their instrument.”
In addition to the “Flourishes” premiere, the Masterworks concert will feature Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major with Brown as soloist, as well as Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major with Brown as a member of the orchestra. Brown said playing in three capacities at the concert is unusual and exciting.
“What I love about this program is that it’s really nice that they are presenting me in this way. It’s equally important to me that this program showcases both of what I feel I am about,” Brown said. “Playing Beethoven and the new music side of things, doing both of what I love, is kind of what makes me kick in life. And that’s what I want to keep doing.”
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