Meet the Music Makers: Michael Brown

Michael Brown headshot in front of stone wall

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

UChicago Presents: Where have you been quarantining the past seven months? Have you been in New York since March?

Michael Brown: I have been in New York most of the time. I mean, generally New York. During the springtime I was definitely holed up in my apartment here in when New York was in really bad shape. But then I actually did get to go to some other places. My brother has a house in Westchester, so I lived there for a little bit for the summer, and I also went to Moab Music Festival in Utah for three weeks, in late August and September – my one summer festival that actually did happen – which did outdoor concerts, socially distanced, which was really cool. And I played the Pathétique Sonata in 45 degree weather, where the piano came down the Colorado River on a boat, and it was raining…  So I've had some weird experiences, I would say.

UCP: You have said you have been doubling down on writing for piano and focusing on solo performing repertoire. Have you had any opportunities to play with other musicians in the past seven months?

MB: Actually, yes. I have a regular cello duo with Nicholas Cannelakis, who you heard in Chicago play the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time [with clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein and violinist Elena Urioste, in 2018]. He and I formed a little quarantine pod – we live in three blocks from each other – so we do hang out, and we do rehearse, and we did make a couple of videos over the summer. And he was in Moab with me as well, so we performed some of my own pieces and Beethoven’s Cello Sonata. So aside from playing with him, that’s pretty much it. I played some piano four-hands in Moab as well, with the artistic director there, Michael Barrett, and that was super fun. We rehearsed on two pianos for social distancing, even though we played four-hands repertoire. And then everybody got tested. So we actually did perform on one piano –with masks!

So it's been an interesting time, but I'm hopeful that things will happen. I'm supposed to go to Kalamazoo in November to premiere my piano concerto, which is for piano strings, which was originally supposed to take place in May, but is now scheduled for mid-November. Crossing our fingers that that will happen with cases rising, but that's supposed to be a socially distanced string orchestra with me. So that that may feel overwhelming, coming from only playing with one other person.

UCP: During this “Beethoven Year,” when the world is celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth, I especially appreciate that your program features Beethoven’s works alongside those of his teacher, Haydn, and those who bear Beethoven’s direct influence. Do you feel artists have a responsibility to contextualize the work or the composers they perform?

MB: You know, I'm not sure. I think that the responsibility of the performer is to convey art truthfully and in a way that is personal to them. So if that means performing all thirty-two of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, like one of my friends did recently, then that's what they could do. For me, I find the program that you'll hear a little bit more satisfying, a little bit more interesting, and more of a story about Beethoven coming out of this world of Haydn and what happened from there, and relating that to other tribute pieces to Haydn alongside my own little piece, which is based on the same theme.

I’ve played so much Beethoven that it's all part of my world. So for me, when I put together a program, I imagine what I would like to sit and listen to. It might be a great master playing the three late sonatas of Beethoven, but I’d say I gravitate more towards the kind of variety program that does contextualize the music at its center. It also makes it a little bit more interesting to prepare that way – to practice multiple styles at the same time, and notice the ways they feed off of each other like that. I think it keeps it fresh.

UCP: Your two 19th-century Steinway D pianos, Octavia and Daria, are like characters in the Michael Brown Extended Universe. What’s their story?

MB: I really like that, “characters in the Michael Brown Extended Universe,” I'm going to keep that and quote you on that! Except I would change one word – I would take out “extended,” because they're in my immediate universe – they're literally with me all the time.

I mean, it's a long rambling story, but they're just beautiful. Daria is on loan to me. She's the thirty-first Steinway D ever made, in 1884, and she's just gorgeous, really gorgeous. She used to be at the Manhattan School of Music. She's Brazilian rosewood – and notice they're female –and the shortened version of the story is that she was supposed to be a very short term loan, but I loved having a nine-foot grand, so I went on Craigslist and I found Octavia. I took my trusted piano tuner with me, and we took the piano apart and she said it needed a total rebuild. So I bought that piano, had her rebuilt, and named her Octavia… but Daria is still with me, all this time later. So now I have two, and I decided, Why not? It only takes up half my living room…

UCP: Only half?

MB: Only half! They're both gorgeous. Octavia is sort of like me “workout” piano. That's what I practice on, because she's a little heavier and she's a little less easy to sound good on. And then Daria is for, you know, when I have people over, I can play a Chopin nocturne or something like that. So they have different purposes.

UCP: It’s wild to me that you were able to find a 19th-century Steinway D on Craigslist.

MB: And for very cheap, mind you, very cheap. And if you get it rebuilt by the right people, it's a really beautiful thing. So I feel very lucky. I'd be very lucky if I just had Octavia, which I assume one day will just be the case. But for now, I have two.

UCP: What have you been listening to lately?

MB: I’ve been listening to tons of LPs – that includes anything from Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy to lots of Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk and other jazz musicians. Perhaps more of that, even. When I do finally just listen to music for pleasure, and it’s not listening to review a sound mix of myself or something like that, I try to listen to something I don't know so well, something out of the box. So for me, that would be jazz, and/or huge orchestra pieces by great composers that I don't know, that's what I like to do. Scriabin’s Fifth Symphony, I discovered recently is really cool. So things like that that I didn’t know has been part of my pandemic life, I guess.