Polkadate: April 2018. As a lover of the Monty Python creed “And now for something completely different,” I jumped at the offer from the Boerne Performing Arts to cover a concert by a Russian accordion orchestra in the Hill Country of Texas. The concept of a symphony of accordions has been intriguing since learning of them when interviewing Weinart Grohmann a while back.
The Boerne Performing Arts organization brings authentic artists from all over the world to the folks in the Hill Country. They had previously presented music and stage performances from Israel, Ireland, Canada, Japan, Australia, and the United States. This year, Accordion Virtuosi of Russia graced their stage with amazing sounds and sights.
St. Petersburg Russia, formerly Leningrad, in the extreme northwestern end of Russia, close to the border of Finland, has been a high-profile city in Asia during the complex history of Russia. During World War II, it was renamed Leningrad and suffered horribly during the Nazi invasion. The staunch resilience of the starving and freezing Russian people kept the flame of civility alive while fighting for survival. One of these ways was through music. The Accordion Virtuosi of Russia was formed to entertain their comrades, and for a short period of time, distract from the grim reality surrounding them.
Accordion orchestras, as was the accordion, were very popular with the general public in Europe and the United States in the 1950s, and there are still orchestras throughout the world. Weinart Grohmann, of Houston, was a member of the Palmer-Hughes Accordion Symphony Orchestra when they journeyed from Houston to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York, and in Washington D.C. This was a time when you could actually get a college degree in accordion at the University of Houston under legendary Bill Palmer.
The Accordion Virtuosi (plural of virtuoso) is a multi-member orchestra composed of primarily accordions and some percussion instruments that has been performing continuously since its inception in 1943. It seems that most political ideologies, including communism and totalitarianism, still see music as a positive force and support music for the masses, even though lately in the U.S. there have been attempts by the government to stifle the arts. The majority of the musicians attend a music school in St. Petersburg, Russia, but this ensemble is an after-hours project endeavor, that takes intense competition to be a member.
As a music writer, I am unencumbered by the musical knowledge side of music. I just know what the result should be: an enjoyable experience of seeing and hearing musicians perform. So, first, I shall give you my layman’s review of their performance, and then offer comments by someone who knows what he is talking about.
With the dim lights on stage prior to the musicians entering, the sight of 23 apparently identical accordions laying on the chairs enthralled me. Of course, internally, they were all tuned differently, and some were piano and some button accordions (a lotta buttons).
The musicians took the stage, 23 accordionists, a pianist, electric bass and guitar, and two percussionists in white shirts and black pants. The main conductor walked to center stage, and with hand motions got the musicians poised, then with a minimal motion threw his arm at the orchestra, like a magician casting a spell, and the spellbinding sound came galloping at the audience in the form of an overture to an 1830s Russian opera. After several more selections, something bothered me, and then I figured it out. As a music photographer, the obstacle you have to deal with is capturing the musician, not the music stand in front of them; there was not a stand on stage! These musicians were playing complex arrangements from memory. The selections chosen for the night affected the different sounds of a “normal” orchestra - one moment you experienced soothing string sounds, the next high, clear brass tones. While it was hard to select a favorite, the ultra-hyper Saber Dance stood out for its intensity and flurry of arms from the accordionists and the kettle drum booming.
RUSSIAN TRAIN SONG
Regular readers of this column have given favorable reviews to the very recent stories on train songs. This writer was gobsmacked when the front row of accordions faced their chairs one direction and the chugging of a train locomotive was produced by the musicians and the different sounds of a train as the musicians moved their arms to mimic a steam locomotive. The piece was entitled Train to Odessa (Russia), and took you on a musical journey to Odessa, and upon arrival as the music slowed to a halt. The chairs were reversed and the train started back up to bring you back home.
Texas was even represented by Scott Joplin’s piece Ragtime Dance and a little Broadway/ballet country music with Hoedown by Aaron Copland. A special number highlighted different musician’s instruments that most orchestras don’t use; like a cross-cut saw and hammer, and a rubboard, along with a Cajun (diatonic) accordion. All in all it was an enlightening sonic evening well enjoyed.
Now for a review by someone well versed in accordion music, Mitch White of the Central Texas Accordion Association.
“The Accordion Virtuosi of Russia played to a very appreciative audience last night at Samuel V. Champion High School in Boerne, TX. The program included classical pieces (Russlan and Ludmilla, Khachaturian's Saber Dance, the song Trepak from the Nutcracker Suite, and several others), film scores (West Side Story), Russian folk songs, and Western sounds (Hoedown from Rodeo by Copland, and Over the Rainbow).
“Nearly two dozen young accordionists performed, supported by percussion, guitars and keyboards (at need). Special accompaniment was provided by the Yakushevs (Ilya Yakushev on piano, Alexander Yakushev on violin) during selected pieces.
“The ensemble closed with a performance of the Russian folk song Barinya, with members of the group playing traditional Russian instruments and percussion items for the audience. Neither conductor was present during this entertaining and educational 'skit.'
“Try as we would, we couldn't coax the Virtuosi into several hours of encores. That may be the only lamentable part of an otherwise joyous evening of wondrous sound and entertainment.”