Only a few pianists have the artistic and technical mastery to win Juilliard’s coveted annual William Petschek Recital Award, which provides a solo debut for an emerging pianist at Alice Tully Hall, this year on April 23. Even fewer pianists have equally promising careers as composers, but Michael Brown, this year’s recipient, is the exception to that rule: he performed the rare feat of completing double bachelor’s and master’s degrees—in piano and composition—concurrently at Juilliard (in 2009 and 2011, respectively). “Playing and composing feed off each other for me,” Brown explained in a recent phone interview with The Journal. “I’d like to think that both in some ways enhance each other.”
Perhaps this mutual enhancement is part of what accounts for Brown’s success in both disciplines. As a composer, he has received such prizes as the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund Award (2011) and the Palmer-Dixon Prize (2009), which is given for the best piece written by a Juilliard student during an academic year. As a pianist, Brown won the Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition in 2010 and was a two-time winner of Juilliard’s prestigious, full-scholarship Gina Bachauer Piano Competition (2007 and 2009).
Yet Brown displays a markedly unpretentious, down-to-earth attitude, perhaps retained from his grounded childhood on Long Island. “I don’t come from a musical family,” said Brown, who cites listening to his father’s tapes of Billy Joel and Mozart at the age of 4 as why he wanted to start playing piano. Since his mother thought he was too small for such a large instrument, he began his musical studies on violin, switching to piano at age 5. By the time he was 8, Brown started composing because, as he recalls, he was “excited about the prospect of creating something totally new from scratch,” and enrolled in precollege at the Manhattan School of Music when he was 13. “I’ve never thought of doing anything but music,” Brown said. “I feel like I’m lucky to have my profession be what I love to do.”
Given that desire, he applied to Juilliard in both piano and composition. “I figured, ‘Why not?’” Brown said. “I didn’t expect to get into both.” But once he did, the transition from public high school on Long Island to Juilliard was “kind of a shock.” In light of the enormity of his later successes, it’s hard to picture Brown as anything less than wildly confident, but he described himself as “very intimidated” when he arrived to study piano with Jerome Lowenthal and composition with Samuel Adler (he later moved on to the studios of Robert McDonald and Robert Beaser). “Just to play in studio class, or even play in a lesson, I would get so nervous,” Brown said. “But that all is part of life—it gets easier.”
Today, Brown has come a long way from those first student days, but he still constantly searches for ways to expand his knowledge, saying “there’s always more you can know.” This manifests itself in a passion for chamber music: “it’s an endlessly, amazingly fulfilling struggle to play chamber music and learn from it,” he said. “I really think you learn a lot about your own playing.” In addition to performing in numerous chamber concerts throughout the year, Brown will return for a second season to play piano at the prestigious Marlboro Chamber Music Festival in Vermont this summer.
Brown’s Petschek program is colorfully eclectic, ranging from the vibrant Spanish music of Albéniz’s Iberia to all 12 of Debussy’s later études. Also included are Schubert’s Sonata in D major, D. 850, known as the “Gasteiner,” as well as one of Brown’s own pieces,Constellations and Toccata, which recently was premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington by Orion Weiss (B.M. ’04, piano), the 2005 Petschek honoree. “I don’t like to program things that are just standard,” Brown said. “I mean, I love [Liszt sonatas and works by Rachmaninoff], but some other pieces also deserve to be heard.”
Brown strives for a level of individualism some feel is less common to the concerts of today. “With recordings and the modern-day fascination of editing note-by-note to get ‘perfect’ recordings, live performances today are suffering from an over-concentration on the wrong principles and in-turn depriving the artist of a unique individuality,” he said, referencing a recent article in The New Yorker about the painstaking process of recording by the 1997 Petschek winner, Jeremy Denk (D.M.A. ’01, piano). Noting that often performers who have something to say, like Glenn Gould or Horowitz, “will polarize people,” he advises fellow performers to “be yourself, and people will like it or hate it, and hopefully both.”