When American pianist Michael Brown listened to the radio as a teenager, he fell in love with a specific contemporary classical piece: the First Piano Concerto by composer George Perle. There was something about this composer’s work that attracted his curiosity and fascination; it made him sit down at his piano and learn another one of Perle’s pieces for piano: Six Celebratory Inventions. He felt a strong connection and knew there had to be more. In 2003, the young pianist was able to arrange a meeting with the then-living composer, and play for him. He had simply contacted Perle’s publisher, and was invited to visit at his Central Park West apartment shortly thereafter. For Brown, this turned out to be the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship with the composer, which, after Perle’s death in 2009, continued with his widow Shirley. Michael’s admiration for Perle’s work – which has left trace influences on Michael’s own compositions – led to many performances of Perle’s repertoire, frequently sprinkled into Michael’s performance programs. It has recently culminated in Michael’s release of his George Perle CD on the Bridge Records Label, which is committed to exploring the stylistic development of Perle’s work. It includes two world premieres: Perle’s Classic Suite and Chansons cachées, the material for which Michael found scattered behind a bookshelf while visiting with Shirley.
Michael had known from the beginning that his love for the piano was equally balanced with his fascination of composing. That’s why he did not hesitate to apply for a challenging dual-track curriculum at Juilliard. Michael graduated in 2011 with a double master’s degree and the school’s William Petschek Piano Recital Award, having studied under both pianists Jerome Lowenthal and Robert McDonald, and composers Samuel Adler and Robert Beaser. Today, Michael continues to wear different hats.
Michael has received rave reviews of many of his recitals. The New York Times has described Michael as a “young piano visionary.”The Times also lauded him as “one of the leading figures in the current renaissance of performer-composers” in an announcement of his May recital/CD release event at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, presented by the Concert Artist Guild. “Michael Brown, the winner of our 2010 competition, is an unusually thoughtful and insightful musician, equally at home with traditional repertoire and contemporary music. As a composer he brings a special sensibility to his performance. He also has deep appreciation of stylistic subtleties which leads him to especially interesting programmatic concepts,” offers Richard Weinert, President of the Concert Artist Guild.
When it comes to repertoire choices, Michael savors the eclectic combination of traditional classical music with an added contemporary flavor, connecting both soundscapes within his recitals. Michael only recently began adding his own compositions into the mix as well. Michael’s identity as a composer is rooted in his musicianship, but also comes from a place of spontaneity. As an artist, he dives right in. “As a pianist and composer, I struggle with inspiration all the time – you should not wait for it to happen, just write and fail, learn from working hard rather than waiting for the divine spark,” he said during our meeting at a noisy restaurant, at the Time Warner Center. (photo credit: Ilona Oltuski)
Michael often looks to literature for inspiration: “About 5 years ago,” he says, “I wrote a piece for piano and cello called Five am. It is based on a poem by Alan Ginsberg, describing these awkward moments in time, the beginning of day for some, and the end of a long night for others, full of frenzy, yet a haunting search for inspiration, spirituality, or drugs.” The piece ended up in a commissioned, collaborative film production for the 2013 Morab Music Festival. It features the young artist, pianist Roman Rabinovich, with Five am performed by Michael and his duo-partner, cellist Nick Canellakis. Their friendship and collaboration began when the three musicians had met at the 2008 Ravinia Summer Chamber Music program: “Nick, passionate about film, decided we should make a short movie that would feature my piece (performed by us) and Roman, and his paintings.” “It is really difficult to perform the piece live, while the film is featured, you can’t see each other well, and it’s tricky to get cues, necessary in each chamber music performance,” he says.
Michael also became the first guest on the pilot of Conversations with Nick Canellakis, a series of satirically inclined interviews with musicians that generally focus on specific characteristics or recent news of the interviewed artists. Michael was featured on three consecutive episodes, and ended up as Nick’s sidekick on the series of entertaining chats, which grew to attract many famous artists ready to be grilled by Nick, and willing to be exposed to YouTube’s large viewership.
“These interviews are comedic and personal glimpses into the life of musicians, who do very serious things. The humor lies in the way we edit our conversation into a 4-5 minute frame, showing funny parts and awkward situations, putting them on the spot, and letting them be seen in a different, more casual, and human way.
“Of course we try to sway the conversation in our favor, but we also talk about relevant issues with each particular artist: Leon Fleisher’s left hand repertoire, David Finckel leaving the Emerson String Quartet, Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra….”
While Nick takes a more aggressive lead in the conversation, Michael is happy to be “the nice, loving guy,” the “wingman,” a role he feels fits him perfectly. Their latest conversation features the famed comic musical duo Igudesman & Joo, whose initial YouTube success has translated into a huge following of their concerts worldwide. (photo: courtesy of Nick Cannelakis)
“They are funny, indeed,” says Michael, who feels the model for their Conversations is somewhat based on the humor in Zack Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns. “But, they also are great musicians. If that would not be the case, no one would really take them seriously. Their shows work because the music works; it allows them to be wacky.” And that is the thing Michael wants to be known for: being the wingman, in all kind of collaborations, and making great “music he loves.”
Michael and Nick, who have existed as the Canellakis-Brown cello-piano duo since 2009, are planning to record their first Duo CD for CAG Records in June. Canellakis’ beautiful tone and alluring musicianship is featured in many performances with Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society. The two artists just performed together as part of the Musicians Emergency Fund concert, held at Alice Tully Hall on May 17th, as well as in different chamber group settings, including a mini-residence at Brooklyn’s Barbès event space.
“I love many aspects of performance. With solo repertoire you are in control, but when you travel with collaborators, it’s so much fun, and both Nick and I are very much about chamber music.” So it comes as great news that Michael will be joining Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society Two for the 2015-18 seasons.
Another project in the making for Michael is an all-Schubert collection CD for the Naxos label, as well as a four-hand album for CAG Records with his own former teacher, pianist Jerome Lowenthal, which will have a lighter, French flavor inspired by Michael’s transcription of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris for four-hands piano.
“I also really enjoy an interdisciplinary approach to all the arts, and then, composing for my artist friends who approach me is really rewarding,” he says. Apparently, many of his musical friends show their support, and not only by showing up in great numbers at his performances; commissions are starting to come in, by young musicians like Orion Weiss and Adam Golka, and others will surely follow, ensuring that Michael’s output will be heard by many.