Michael Brown
Thursday July 12, 2018 7:00pm

Michael Brown, piano


Michael Brown is a pianist on the rise. Recently named an Emerging Artist of 2018 by Lincoln Center, Brown is not only “a young piano visionary” (The New York Times) but an exceptional composer as well. In his Caramoor recital, he celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s centennial with a composition of his own titled 100 Chords for Bernstein alongside selections from West Side Story. Also on the program are pieces by Haydn, Medtner, and Copland.

“One of the leading figures in the current renaissance of performer-composers” — The New York Times

Michael Brown, piano


Haydn Fantasia in C Major, H. XVII: 4, Capriccio
Medtner Second Improvisation for Piano, Op. 47
Michael Brown 100 Chords for Bernstein
Bernstein Four Movements from West Side Story (arr. L. Smit)
Copland El salón México (arr. L. Bernstein)

Champagne Toast with Caramoor’s CEO for Members at the Composer’s Circle Level and above

Michael Brown

Michael Brown, piano

Artist Website  Watch

Equally acclaimed as a pianist and composer, Michael Brown has been described as “one of the most refined of all pianist-composers” (International Piano) and “one of the leading figures in the current renaissance of performer-composers” (The New York Times). His unique artistry is reflected in his creative approach to programming that often interweaves the classics with contemporary works and his own compositions.

Winner of a 2018 Emerging Artist Award from Lincoln Center and a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Mr. Brown is an artist of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, performing regularly at Alice Tully Hall and on tour. Mr. Brown’s engagements have taken him across four continents, with regular appearances with orchestras such as the Seattle, North Carolina, Maryland, and Albany Symphonies and recitals at Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, and the Louvre. He was selected by pianist Sir András Schiff to perform on an international solo recital tour, making debuts in Zurich’s Tonhalle, and New York’s 92nd Street Y. A consummate chamber musician, Mr. Brown also performs regularly with his longtime duo partner, cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

Pianist and composer Michael Brown is a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and is the winner of a 2018 Emerging Artist Award as well as the recipient of a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Mr. Brown has been appointed the Composer-in-Residence for the New Haven Symphony from 2017-2019, a position that includes a symphonic commission, as well as the opportunity to mentor promising young composers. He has also received commissions from the Maryland Symphony, Bargemusic, Concert Artists Guild, Shriver Hall, Norton Building Concerts, and a consortium of three gardens including Wave Hill, Longwood, and Desert Botanical. He also has written for various performers including Osmo Vänskä and Erin Keefe, and pianists Jerome Lowenthal, Roman Rabinovich, Adam Golka, and Orion Weiss.

A prolific recording artist, he can be heard as soloist with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot in the music of Messiaen, and as soloist with the Brandenburg State Symphony in Samuel Adler’s First Piano Concerto for LINN Records. Other albums include an upcoming release of Mendelssohn and Beethoven on First Hand Records (FHR), an all-George Perle CD (Bridge), a debut solo recording (CAG) and collaborative albums with pianist Jerome Lowenthal (CAG), cellist Nicholas Canellakis (CAG), and violinist Elena Urioste (BIS).

Mr. Brown was the First Prize winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition, the recipient of the Juilliard Petschek Award, and is a Steinway Artist. He has appeared in festivals such as Marlboro, Music@Menlo, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Ravinia, Bard, Music in the Vineyards, Chamber Music Sedona, and Moab. He has earned dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano and composition from The Juilliard School, where he studied with pianists Jerome Lowenthal and Robert McDonald and composers Samuel Adler and Robert Beaser. Additional mentors have included András Schiff and Richard Goode, as well as his early teachers, Herbert Rothgarber and Adam Kent.

A native New Yorker, he lives there with his two 19th century Steinway D’s, Octavia and Daria.

About the Music

Program At a Glance

Michael Brown’s characteristically offbeat program falls neatly into two parts. The first consists of a pair of freely inventive, fantasy-like works dating from the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The jovial high spirits of Haydn’s compact C Major Fantasia owe much to his incorporation of a popular ditty called “Do Bäuren hat d’Katz valor’n” (The Farmer’s Wife Has Lost Her Cat,) while the monumental Second Improvisation by the Russian late-Romantic composer-pianist Nicolas Medtner takes the form of an elaborate set of variations purportedly depicting an intricate and sometimes forbidding world of water nymphs, birds, wood sprites, and other denizens of the forests and fields.

The second half of the program begins with a brief centenary salute to American composer Leonard Bernstein that Brown wrote last year. After 100 Chords for Bernstein, Brown will segue into a short piano suite based on themes from Bernstein’s iconic musical West Side Story. The suite’s arranger, Leo Smit, first met Bernstein in 1943. They were brought together by none other than Aaron Copland, whose El Salón México — a colorful, rhythmically exuberant evocation of south-of-the-border dance-hall music — Bernstein had recently transcribed for solo piano. Like Brown, Bernstein and Smit excelled as both creative and recreative artists. As Smit once told an interviewer, “When I’m playing somebody else’s music, I’m a pianist-composer. When I’m playing my own, I’m a composer-pianist.”




Fantasia in C Major, Hob. XVII:4, “Capriccio” (1789)

About the Composer

Haydn achieved proficiency on all the keyboard instruments of his day — clavichord, organ, and harpsichord, as well as the comparatively newfangled fortepiano. Although he didn’t acquire a piano of his own until 1788, the dynamic and expressive features of his later keyboard works suggest that he had long been writing with the more powerful instrument in mind. In fact, Haydn composed almost all his music at the keyboard. As he put it, “I get up early, and as soon as I have dressed, I kneel down and pray to God and the Holy Virgin that things may go well today. After some breakfast, I sit at the Klavier and I begin to improvise.”

About the Work

In the late 1770s and early 1780s, Haydn expended the bulk of his creative energy on satisfying Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s passion for opera. (His long-time patron maintained a resident opera company, as well as a marionette theater, at his castle in Hungary.) But the popular demand for Haydn’s instrumental music was burgeoning, and in his spare time he continued to write keyboard works, string quartets, and symphonies. The C Major Fantasia dates from early 1789, not long before he left the prince’s employ to pursue a highly lucrative freelance career in Vienna and London.

A Deeper Listen

Haydn’s improvisatory prowess is apparent in this lighthearted jeu d’esprit, based on an Austrian folk song. He informed his publisher that he composed the Fantasia — which he called a “capriccio”— “in a moment of splendid good humor,” adding that its “tastefulness, singularity, and special elaboration cannot fail to win the approval of connoisseurs and amateurs alike. It is only a single movement, somewhat long, but not too difficult.” With its rushing torrents of sixteenth notes, abrupt dynamic contrasts, bold modulations, and unpredictable starts and stops, the Fantasia is as free in form as it is in spirit. It opens with a sprightly turning figure that pops up repeatedly as a kind of signpost.



Second Improvisation for Piano, Op. 47 (1925-26)

About the Composer

Medtner was steeped from childhood in Russia’s late Romantic musical culture. He began his piano studies at age six and graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1900, seven years after his fellow composer-pianist (and future benefactor) Rachmaninoff. A few years later he gave up a promising career as a touring virtuoso to concentrate on composition. Medtner’s extensive catalogue of works — all written for the piano, either solo or in ensemble — includes fourteen sonatas, three concertos, and dozens of short character pieces, plus assorted chamber works and more than 100 songs. He expounded his deeply conservative philosophy of art and life in The Muse and the Fashion, a passionately antimodernist diatribe published in 1935. Like Rachmaninoff, Medtner was antipathetic to the Bolshevik regime and left Russia in 1921. After a prolonged period of vagabondage, he settled in London, where he spent his last years pining for his homeland.

About the Work

A colleague of Medtner’s once remarked that “the very simplest things seemed complicated to him, and he would embark on a philosophical analysis of them.” This tendency to overelaborate, to privilege complexity over simplicity, is manifest in the slippery chromatic harmonies, densely woven textures, and multilayered rhythms of the Second Improvisation. Composed in 1925-26, while Medtner was living in Paris, the work is dedicated to the organist Marcel Dupré, one of the few French musicians who befriended him and appreciated his uncompromising genius. Op. 47 is structured as a set of fifteen variations on a theme that Medtner identifies as “The Water Nymph’s Song,” evidently alluding to Rusalka, the fatal temptress of Slavic folklore, who had also inspired one of Medtner’s Three Improvisations, Op. 2, some thirty years earlier.

A Deeper Listen

Medtner’s Romantic sensibility is reflected in his fondness for poetic titles. Yet the programmatic monikers he assigns to the Op. 47 variations are decidedly cryptic, evoking generalized moods and images rather than a specific narrative. The lyrical theme — delicate, dreamy, and faintly exotic — hints at the entrancing song that lured sailors to their deaths. The first variation (“Meditation”) sounds a darker, more turbulent note, but the gathering gloom is swiftly dispelled by music of a capricious character, such as the chirruping grace notes of variation 3 (“Feathered Ones”) and the mock-serious march of variation 5 (“Humoresque”). At the work’s midpoint, in variation 8, Medtner plunges us into the bosky half-light of a forest, setting the stage for sylvan creatures to cavort through the next three variations. The gnomes’ swirling gyrations abruptly give way to majestic, hymn-like chords in variation 12 (“Invocation”). The nymph’s song returns in variation 14, a pool of limpid lyricism amid the murky waters of the surrounding variations, and a brief coda recaps the work’s enigmatic contradictions.


b. 1987

100 Chords for Bernstein (2017)

Like Leonard Bernstein, whom he acknowledges as a significant influence on his own music and music making, Michael Brown is a versatile composer-pianist of conspicuously wide-ranging tastes and talents. In writing this two-minute-long tribute last year in honor of Bernstein’s one-hundredth birthday, he took his cue from Bernstein’s own Anniversaries for solo piano, a long-running series of miniature homages to various people who played important roles in his life, including Aaron Copland, Leo Smit, Stephen Sondheim, and the conductor Sergei Koussevitzky.



West Side Story Suite (1957) arr. Leo Smit

About the Composer

Bernstein rocketed to fame when, as the New York Philharmonic’s twenty-five-year-old assistant conductor, he stepped in for an indisposed Bruno Walter to lead the orchestra in a nationally broadcast concert in 1943. The success of his jazzy musical On the Town the following year transformed him into a Broadway celebrity as well. By 1958, when Bernstein became the Philharmonic’s first American-born music director, he was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. A musical magpie, he delighted in knocking down cultural and stylistic barriers. In addition to four more Broadway shows, including West Side Story, Bernstein wrote three symphonies and other music for the concert hall, as well as such hybrid works as the operetta Candide and the wildly eclectic Mass, a “theater piece” for singers, dancers, and instrumentalists.

About the Work

West Side Story is so familiar today that it’s easy to forget how breathtakingly original it seemed when it opened on Broadway in 1957. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the show projected the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers onto a street-gang rivalry between the all-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins combined elements of European opera, Latino music and dance, and American popular musical theater into what has been described as a “Broadway opera.” In 1968, the American composer-pianist Leo Smit — who had met Bernstein in 1943 through their mutual friend Aaron Copland — arranged excerpts from the score as a four-movement suite for solo piano. A

Deeper Listen

By contemporary Broadway standards, West Side Story was daringly dissonant; listen for the ominous tritone (the interval of an augmented fourth) that pervades the Jets’ sassy, hard-charging music in the opening movement of Smit’s suite. The jagged, relentlessly syncopated rhythms of “Jump” are similarly edgy; at one point the music seems to dissolve in a kind of pointillistic haze. “Cha-cha” sets Bernstein’s ballad “Maria” to the relaxed, slyly shuffling rhythm of a Cuban dance. The suite ends with an extended riff on “Cool,” freely reimagined for the piano in an idiom that reflects Smit’s personality almost as much as Bernstein’s.



El Salón México (1932-1936) arr. Leonard Bernstein

About the Composer

Copland was at once a folksy nationalist and a sophisticated citizen of the world. His studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1920s expanded his musical horizons (it was there that he developed an appreciation for African-American jazz), and from then on his work embraced a wide spectrum of classical and vernacular elements. Between the wars, Copland made his mark on New York’s new-music scene with works like the bluesy Music for the Theatre and the knotty Piano Variations. He won lasting popular acclaim in the late thirties and early forties with the Americanist ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. And as a senior statesman of American music, he continued to plow fresh ground in such later works as the twelve-tone Piano Quartet and the waltz-inspired Dance Panels.

About the Work

El Salón México takes its name from a popular dance club in Mexico City that Copland visited in 1932 with the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. Memories of his first trip south of the border resonated long after he returned to the United States. “In some inexplicable way,” Copland recalled, “while milling about in those crowded halls, I had felt a live contact with the Mexican ‘people’ — the electric sense one gets sometimes in far-off places, of suddenly knowing the essence of a people — their humanity, their separate shyness, their dignity and unique charm.” Chávez’s successful premiere of El Salón México with the Orquesta Sinfónica de México in 1937 led to a recording by the Boston Symphony and a publishing contract with Boosey and Hawkes. When Boosey proposed capitalizing on the popularity of the orchestral work by issuing a piano arrangement, Copland nominated Bernstein, a twenty-year-old student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. Bernstein jumped at the chance to work with the older composer, to whom he wrote: “Never have I come across anyone capable of such immediate absorption of musical material, possessing at the same time a fine critical sense with the ability to put that criticism into words successfully … I tremble when I think of producing something like the Salón.”

A Deeper Listen

Bernstein’s solo-piano arrangement (he later made a version for two pianos) is all the more effective in that Copland’s exuberant, jazz-tinged style was close to his own heart. Although El Salón México is rooted in authentic Mexican folk music, Copland explained that “my purpose was not merely to quote literally, but to heighten without in any way falsifying the natural simplicity of the Mexican tunes.” Bernstein couldn’t possibly reproduce the kaleidoscopic orchestration of the original score, with its large and colorful array of string, brass, wind, and especially percussion instruments. Instead, he wisely chose to emphasize the piano’s natural aptitude for clangorous brilliance and sharply etched rhythms. In exploiting the full registral expanse of the keyboard, and an equally wide range of dynamics, timbres, and pedaling effects, he ingeniously captured the essence of Copland’s widely spaced harmonies, pungent dissonances, and exuberantly shifting meters.

— Harry Haskell