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posted: 7/18/2013 5:30 AM

Not the same old song and dance on these accordions

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  • Often dismissed in this country as a lesser musical instrument, the accordion played by Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee is a very complex reed instrument used in a variety of genres around the globe.

       Often dismissed in this country as a lesser musical instrument, the accordion played by Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee is a very complex reed instrument used in a variety of genres around the globe.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Performer Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee will be joined by accordionists from China, an orchestra from a French island off the coast of Madagascar, a winner of "Lithuania's Got Talent," and other international musicians at the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival running today through Saturday in Lisle.

       Performer Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee will be joined by accordionists from China, an orchestra from a French island off the coast of Madagascar, a winner of "Lithuania's Got Talent," and other international musicians at the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival running today through Saturday in Lisle.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Coaxing a wide variety of music from his $20,000 Italian-made accordion, Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee plays in preparation for his performance at the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival running today through Saturday in Lisle.

       Coaxing a wide variety of music from his $20,000 Italian-made accordion, Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee plays in preparation for his performance at the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival running today through Saturday in Lisle.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Performer Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee will be joined by accordionists from China, an orchestra from a French island off the coast of Madagascar, a winner of "Lithuania's Got Talent," and other international musicians at the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival running today through Saturday in Lisle.

       Performer Stas Venglevski of Milwaukee will be joined by accordionists from China, an orchestra from a French island off the coast of Madagascar, a winner of "Lithuania's Got Talent," and other international musicians at the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival running today through Saturday in Lisle.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Some of the members of the Orchestre Polyphonia from Réunion Island, off the cost of Madagascar rehearse for their performs at the The 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival in Lisle.

       Some of the members of the Orchestre Polyphonia from Réunion Island, off the cost of Madagascar rehearse for their performs at the The 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival in Lisle.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Accordion vendors set up for the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival in Lisle.

       Accordion vendors set up for the 73rd Annual Accordion Competition and Festival in Lisle.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Video: That's from an accordion?

  • Video: 73rd Annual Accordion Festival

 
 

Unsophisticated minds reading about the accordion convention starting today in Lisle might expect some cliché story referencing the long-dead Lawrence Welk, the schmaltzy "Lady of Spain" and the corny "Beer Barrel Polka" in a literary approach that would frustrate professional accordionists who long to see a more modern and accurate depiction of their instrument.

This convention, those accordionists note, draws elite musicians from all over the globe -- a youth orchestra from China, a two-time winner of a competition in the Republic of Moldova, the 50-piece Orchestre Polyphonia from a French island off the coast of Madagascar, an avant-garde composer of electronic contemporary accordion compositions, a world champion from Italy, a Russian couple from Texas performing a tango written by an Illinois accordionist who once accompanied opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and headliner Martynas Levickis, 2010 winner of the television contest "Lithuania's Got Talent."

The rest of the world understands accordions, but an accordion player "could never win 'America's Got Talent,'" says Joseph Natoli, the contemporary avant-garde composer from Ohio whose accordion pieces are performed throughout Europe. "I don't care if you played standing on your head like Mozart. There's just too much musical bigotry against the instrument."

Most of the globe treats accordions as the serious musical instruments they are, notes Natoli, 59, who also is known for playing jazz and classical music. The 23-year-old Levickis, who recently played at Wimbledon to welcome tennis fans, just became the first accordionist to top the classical music charts in the United Kingdom, beating out Dutch violist Andre Rieu.

Americans too young to remember Lawrence Welk, whose TV show was canceled by ABC in 1971 and last recorded in 1982, know the accordion only from parody performances by Weird Al Yankovic and serious artists and indie rockers such as The Decemberists, Flogging Molly, Bon Jovi, They Might Be Giants, Green Day, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Calexio, Arcade Fire and others.

"The new generation sees the accordion in rock bands, orchestras, major jazz venues, movies, television, Broadway and specialized acts like Cirque du Soleil," Natoli says. "They take the instrument at face value, thinking it has a pretty interesting and unique sound, especially after the boredom of hearing those same distorted rock guitar licks for the last 40 years and the record-scratching sounds of rap and hip-hop."

The accordion is most like a guitar, and young people like that diversity, says Amy Jo Sawyer, second vice president of the Accordionists & Teachers Guild International, sponsors of the 73rd annual Accordion Competition and Festival, which is open to the public at the Hyatt Lisle, 1400 Corporetum Drive.

"I've been teaching forever, and more and more it's becoming a more popular instrument," says Sawyer, who lives in Downstate O'Fallon, near St. Louis, and has a master's degree in jazz. She accompanied Pavarotti with the St. Louis Symphony, has played accordion throughout Europe, New Zealand and Australia, performs at countless Italian fests and appreciates the variety of accordion music, from her classical favorites to the Texas sound of two-time Grammy winner Joel Guzman.

Fans and the curious are welcome to the convention performances tonight, Friday and Saturday, says Betty Jo Simon, president of the convention organization. Tickets are $15.

"What they are coming to hear is world-class accordion in all styles," Sawyer says.

Some accordion players can laugh at the old Far Side cartoon depicting an angel passing out harps in heaven while a devil doles out accordions in hell. But that joke loses its punch in a crowd listening to a master musician moving his or her fingers across a $20,000 Italian-made Potosa accordion to perform a Cole Porter jazz classic, an orchestral rendition of a Verdi opera, a Strauss waltz or a rock song.

"Is there anywhere where an accordion can't fit?" Natoli says, pausing while he runs through the song list in his mind. "No, I don't think so."

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