Pianist-composer Michael Brown, an artist of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, was the first musician featured in that organization’s new Front Row: Artist Series—a weekly virtual concert series showcasing eight CMSLC artists. The first of these concert videos, which streamed beginning on May 17, featured Brown in Mendelssohn’s Sextet for Piano and Strings; Barber’s Souvenirs, performed with pianist Gilles Vonsattel; and Brown’s own Prelude and Dance for cello and piano, written for his fellow CMSLC artist (and regular duo partner) Nick Canellakis. The home audience got more than a concert showcasing Brown’s talents as a pianist, chamber musician, and composer: paired with the performance footage was a CMSLC video of Brown—shot at the Manhattan apartment he shares with “Daria” and “Octavia,” his two concert grand Steinways— in which he talks about his life during the Covid-19 lockdown. “I’ve always wanted to learn Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata,” Brown says. “It’s the hardest piece ever, and now I’m getting the time to actually learn pieces like that.” The quarantine video shows him practicing the “Hammerklavier,” going about his daily rituals—frying eggs, making pour-over coffee, washing kale with soap, donning a facemask—and learning a new skill: tuning his own instrument.
Brown also made a little bit of musical history this spring as the first artist to collaborate virtually, rather than live and in person, with educator/musicologist/composer Rob Kapilow on Kapilow’s long-running What Makes It Great? program. Each edition of WMIG focuses on a specific “great” work from the classical canon, and in this case it was Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. Formatted as a split-screen video recorded simultaneously by Brown and Kapilow in their respective homes, the program was produced by Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts. On the left screen, Brown is seen at the keyboard of “Daria”—first illustrating Kapilow’s points about the “Pathétique,” then performing the work in its entirety, and finally joining Kapilow to field questions from a live chat audience. Introducing the program is Kathy Schuman, Caramoor’s vice president for artistic programming & executive producer. The program was streamed live on May 3, 2020, and is archived on the Caramoor website.
More than a virtuoso performance and a deep dive into one of Beethoven’s iconic early works (Kapilow calls “Pathétique” the “first pointedly individual masterpiece” by that composer), the What Makes It Great? video provides, in its Q&A segment, a window into Brown’s life as a pianist-composer—as well as a glimpse of his quarantined existence and the reality of delayed performance opportunities during the time of Covid-19. To keep his pianos in tune, Brown says, he’s currently going the DIY route with a phone app and a tuning hammer purchased on Amazon Prime. In answer to a six-year-old listener who wonders how many hours a day he practices, Brown stresses quality practice over the number of hours spent. He offers a tip on how to relax the forearm in negotiating difficult left-hand tremolo passages in the first movement of “Pathétique.” And he reveals how the study of Beethoven’s five piano concertos has informed the writing of his own Beethoven-inspired Concerto for Piano and Strings. Originally set to debut this season at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, one of its co-commissioners, the concerto is awaiting its premiere in the 2020-21 season.