When does a family start playing Christmas music? Not even The 5 Browns agree.
“I can’t bust out anything Christmas-y until after Thanksgiving,” said Greg Brown, middle sibling in the Utah-raised piano quintet. The oldest, Desirae, agrees with him.
Deondra, the number-two sibling, confesses to being “a closet Christmas music listener. My daughter and I tend to flip on [the Christmas radio station], every once in a while, to kind of prepare for the season before Thanksgiving is over.” Ryan, the youngest of the family, sides with Deondra, while sibling number four, Melody, is silent on the topic.
This year, though, the Browns have a reason to break out the carols early: The group is releasing its first album of holiday music, “Christmas with The 5 Browns,” in stores and online Friday, just hours after the Halloween trick-or-treaters have gone to bed.
“We’ve actually toyed with the idea for a long time,” said Melody, 35. After their last studio album, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in 2013, “it was like, ‘Maybe we should try some kind of lighter fare.’ And so Christmas just seemed like the right fit. A lot of our audience and fans have been asking for a Christmas album for 15 years.”
“Over the years, we’ve gradually been accumulating more Christmas arrangements for the five pianos,” said Greg, 39. “Finally, we were able to find little solos, and duos, and in one piece with three people on one piano. Eventually, we ended up with a full album.”
Most pop performers, Melody said, “are not able to do a lot of the older-school carols. … These pieces that are more of the Christmas canon that you don’t hear as much outside the classical sphere.”
The tricky part is adapting works for pianos. “For some of these more choral pieces, one of the challenges is thickening it up enough for five pianos,” Greg said. “It’s really important that anything we play on five pianos necessitates five pianos. We don’t want to be just playing the same parts.”
The Browns credit arrangers — Greg mentioned Jeffrey Shumway, a Brigham Young University professor who adapted “O Holy Night” and “Carol of the Bells,” and Greg Anderson, who reset Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” — for turning orchestral and choral favorites into piano-ready works.
There were few arguments in dividing up the labor, the siblings said. They all agreed, Melody said, that Greg should take on the solo for “Silent Night,” while Ryan, 34, said he took the solo for Bach’s “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” because “that’s a piece I’ve loved ever since I was a kid.”
The first four tracks of the new album are from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” Suite — a work the Browns often heard in childhood, attending Ballet West’s annual performances. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas unless I hear ‘The Nutcracker,’” Ryan said.
Deondra, 39, picked up the sheet music for “The Nutcracker” Suite from Shumway, she said, “and to see how excited he was with how it turned out made me very excited about learning it. And then to hear it come together was something very musically challenging but also something very satisfying to play.”
Deondra has another reason to be excited by “The Nutcracker” this year: Her daughter will be dancing for the first time in Ballet West’s production of the holiday chestnut.
“Most of us are going to be in Utah for Christmas, so we get to see her dance,” Deondra said.
It’s rare for all five Browns and their children to get together for the holidays, because of geography — Desirae, 40, lives in New York; the brothers both live in the Washington, D.C., area; and Deondra and Melody still live in Utah — but “we do get four very often,” Melody said.
Desirae, Melody said, is usually the odd one out. She and her husband have two children, and he is a violinist who often is working through the Christmas season. (This year, he will be in rehearsals for a “West Side Story” revival opening on Broadway in February.)
Over the last decade, the Brown siblings have adjusted to not including their parents in their holiday plans. Their father and longtime manager, Keith Brown, in 2011 pleaded guilty to three felony counts, admitting in a plea deal to having sexually abused his three daughters for several years. Keith, who is serving a 10-years-to-life sentence at the Utah State Prison, still receives support from his wife, Lisa — and the siblings have cut off contact with their mother because of it. (The siblings’ ordeal and recovery was detailed in a 2018 documentary, “The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness.”)
Deondra, who with Desirae has formed an advocacy group for sexual abuse survivors, added, “what I love is the fact we can still come together as a family, and enjoy events together and celebrate holidays together. It may look a little different than it used to, or [than] the typical family. But I feel like we still appreciate being together. Even though we don’t have those parental relationships, we have each other, and we step it up for each other.”
Deondra’s favorite tradition is that “we draw names every year, around Halloween, and we try to make a gift for that person. Some of us are very artistic and creative, and some of us really aren’t, like me. The fact that we try, and it’s something personal and sometimes very funny, makes the holidays very meaningful.”
“Usually our thing is that we spend Christmas Eve together,” Melody said. “We’ll do a big festive dinner. That’s sort of the ambiance of the whole album, taking you to our dinner, where there’s music playing in the background.”
MUSIC FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Six more new Christmas albums to consider this season:
Idina Menzel, “Christmas: A Season of Love” • The Broadway star already has a place in the secular holiday song pantheon, as the voice of Elsa singing “Let It Go” in “Frozen.” Here, she belts out big-band renditions of “Sleigh Ride” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” sings to a Latin beat on the Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas,” and demonstrates her skills on a medley of “O Holy Night” and “Ave Maria.” (In stores and online now.)
Lea Michele, “Christmas in the City” • The “Glee” star celebrates the holiday, and her home of New York, with renditions of 11 classic Christmas songs. One highlight: a duet with Cynthia Erivo on “Angels We Have Heard on High.” (In stores and online now.)
Ana Gasteyer, “Sugar & Booze” • The actress and former “Saturday Night Live” player indulges her musical side with a lively retro-swing mix of classics and new songs — like the title track, which celebrates the high-calorie, 80-proof aspects of Christmas parties. (In stores and online now.)
John Legend, “A Legendary Christmas: The Deluxe Edition” • The EGOT-winning musician (and Utahn-by-marriage, thanks to wife Chrissy Teigen) is rereleasing his successful 2018 Christmas album. One new track is intriguing: a duet with Kelly Clarkson on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with the infamous date-rape lyrics reformed. (In stores and online Nov. 8.)
Letters to Cleo, “OK Christmas” • The recently reunited alt-rock band provide an antidote to holiday sentimentality with a fast-rocking cover of The Kinks’ acerbic “Father Christmas.” Also on this four-track EP is a near-country rendition of “If I Get Home on Christmas Day,” a song popularized by Elvis Presley. (In stores and online Nov. 15.)
Meg & Dia, “December, Darling” • Another Utah musical act, the alt-rock sister duo (which released its first album in eight years, “happysad,” in August) is putting out an album with a mix of classics and new songs — including the romantic title track. (In stores and online Nov. 15.)
— Sean P. Means