Accordion: Not just for polkas anymore, say fans

Blame it on Lawrence Welk.

If you're unfamiliar with that name, members of the American Accordionists' Association will give you an extra-warm welcome to their festival in Baltimore this week.

Accordionists in this country have long struggled with the legacy of Welk, the bandleader known for "champagne music" and polkas. His TV show, which aired from the mid-1950s to the early '80s, and then for what seemed an eternity in reruns on PBS, always gave a prominent role to the accordion. That wasn't necessarily a good thing.

In the words of composer Nicolas Slonimsky, the Welk style had "a rudimentary sound quality that made him a favorite with undiscriminating audiences." That, in turn, made him a favorite target of discriminating parodists.

Drape an accordion around your neck, talk with an Eastern European accent, perform music blandly and, presto, you've got comic material.

This was most indelibly demonstrated by Eugene Levy and John Candy on the 1980s"SCTV" show, when they portrayed the ever-so-sweet Shmenge Brothers, who could polka-fy anything with their band, the Happy Wanderers — even the theme from "Jaws."

Such jabs, not to mention the zany material of accordion-toting"Weird Al" Yankovic, did no favors for an instrument that was once about as ubiquitous as a piano in American homes.

"Visually, it's not the sexiest or coolest-looking thing," says Chris Gorton, an award-winning accordionist from Rhode Island who will be at the Baltimore festival. "And the fact that it is so associated in this country with the polka is part of the stigma. But that's changing."

So much so that Linda Soley Reed, Connecticut-based president of the American Accordionists' Association, says that the instrument "is enjoying a renaissance." Joan Grauman, a board member who lives in Frederick, puts it more plainly: "It's not a nerd instrument anymore."

For evidence, start with all the pop and rock performers who have incorporated the accordion into their sound over the years, such as Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Billy Joel, They Might Be Giants, The Decemberists, Arcade Fire and Gogol Bordello.

This week brings fresh proof that the instrument is cool again: John Powell's film score for "Ice Age 4: Continental Drift," opening nationwide Friday, uses an orchestra of 18 accordionists.

The instrument still has a role in a lot of folk and ethnic music beyond the polka. It's a staple Cajun ingredient, for example, as well in the styles known as "musette" and "Gypsy jazz" that emerged in France.

"The accordion has really never been away," Gorton said, "but it's in the background. If you listen carefully, you'll hear it still being used a lot in commercials. You just never see it."

Accordions will be readily visible at a downtown Baltimore hotel as members of the 74-year-old American Accordionists' Association converge for their annual festival and competition, a five-day event that also includes concerts and workshops. A different host city is chosen each year.

About 400 people have registered, "the largest turnout we've had in years," Reed says.

The association has 375 single members, along with associate memberships that bring the total to about 1,000. The group's mission is simply to foster an appreciation for the accordion.

"The founders of the association in 1938 were determined to take the accordion to Carnegie Hall," Grauman says, "which they did one year later, in April 1939. Three thousand people turned out. People drove from as far away as Canada to get there."

Thanks to exposure on the vaudeville circuit and then radio, the accordion enjoyed a popularity that would hold steady through the 1940s and '50s. There were accordion schools, accordion bands. It seemed as if one child in every family studied the instrument.

"It was a little bit of overkill," Grauman says. "And it became less popular once the guitar came in."

Sgt. Maj. Manny Bobenrieth successfully auditioned for the one accordionist slot in theU.S. ArmyBand in 1986 and now runs the band's Strolling Strings, which performs during the festival. He started on the accordion just as it was going out of fashion in 1964, when he was 5.

"It wasn't by choice," says Bobenrieth, who lives in Potomac. "My father made me. His father had played it. So did my grandfather on my mother's side. In junior and senior high, like anybody else, I wanted to play sports, but my father never let me consider quitting the accordion. But I really enjoyed it."

He has recorded a collection of music by Astor Piazzolla, the late Argentine composer who revolutionized the tango with a mix of classical and traditional idioms and brought the bandoneon — a cousin to the accordion — into the spotlight.

"We're always trying to uncover good music to play," Bobenrieth says. "You can find everything from transcriptions of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto to atonal pieces. I find Baroque music works really well on the accordion."

Several notable classical composers have written for the accordion, among them Roy Harris, Carlos Surinach and Paul Creston. Experimental composer Pauline Oliveros has also made the instrument a key component of her work.

Gifted players routinely get more attention in Europe, where the accordion never went through a deflation of image. Finnish-born Janne Rattya, for example, has in recent years given the first classical accordion recitals in major European concert halls. His new recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" makes another powerful argument for the instrument's expressive range and versatility.

And there's Ukrainian-born Alexander Hrustevic, whose astonishing account of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto — violin and orchestra re-created on a single accordion — has been viewed more than 225,000 times on YouTube.

But on these shores, the notion of the accordion as a lesser, unserious instrument used for lesser, unserious music lingers.

It doesn't help that, as Grauman notes, there are accordionists whose repertoire starts and ends with "The Beer Barrel Polka." "That's part of why the accordion got a bad name for a while," she says.

One thing helping to dispel that reputation is a whole American generation that knows nothing about it.

"Enough time has passed that a lot of young people don't have direct memories of Lawrence Welk or polka and such," says Marilyn O'Neil, another Connecticut-based board member of the association. "Those a little older might remember a little bit, or have impressions passed down by their parents."

Speaking of parents, Grauman remembers the days when she would start giving lessons to a child only to get a call from the parents.

"They would tell me they didn't want their kids to play accordion, and they'd ask if I taught piano, too," she says. "I don't see that happening anymore. The accordion doesn't have the stigma it used to."

Young people's curiosity about the accordion can be piqued by encountering it in pop music, or closer to home.

"Lots of kids tell me, 'We have one in the closet that belonged to my grandfather,'" O'Neil says.

She participates in an American Accordionists' Association project to spark more interest in the instrument. The "Youth Involvement Program" recruits non-accordionists in the host city to play music with young accordionists.

This week, Gorton and several other accomplished players will form a jazz ensemble with four young musicians, including saxophonist Donovan Spence from the Peabody Preparatory School and trumpeter Kevin Callahan, who just graduated from Archbishop Curley High.

"They told me they were intrigued by the accordion and thought it would be fun to play with accordionists," O'Neil says. "I find that young people everywhere are fascinated by the instrument. There are no biases."

Gorton, 27, is a case in point. He started at age 7 and went on to excel in competitions and develop a broad repertoire that encompasses Vivaldi and Miles Davis.

Along the way, he switched to the new generation of accordions, a digital version made by the Roland Corp.

"It opens up a whole box of possibilities," says Gorton, who now works for the company. "A regular accordion always sounds like an accordion. But you can make this sound like a sax, a bass player, a violin. When I do 'Winter' from Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons,' it's like a mini-orchestra."

Whether a player opts for the conventional accordion or a digital model, a top-notch instrument will cost at least $6,000. Decent used instruments can be found for about $1,000.

"Accordions are not cheap," O'Neil says. "Thousands of parts go in it, many of them put together by hand. They're beautiful, carefully constructed instruments."

Mastering the accordion is not easy, and there is a shortage of quality teachers. But among accordionists, there is no shortage of passion.

"It's amazing how the accordion has changed a lot of people's lives," Grauman says. "We see it as an instrument that will be around for a long time."


If you go

The 2012 American Accordionists' Association Festival runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Sheraton City Center Hotel, 101 W. Fayette St. The public is invited at no charge to attend a concert by the Junior Festival Orchestra and Youth Involvement Program Jazz Ensemble at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. For details, go to ameraccord.com.