Learning to Love the Accordion

The “orchestra in a box” has many faces, from Schrammelmusik to contemporary pop

On The Town | Alex Newton | March 2012

So I hear you asking, does the accordion truly warrant an entire month of concerts and performances? This month’s International Accordion Festival, now in its 13th year, replies with an emphatic "Yes".

But it took some convincing. Friedl Preisl, the event’s founder and organizer likes to tell the story of when he first approached Austria’s world-renowned accordionist, Otto Lechner, in 1999 about putting together a month-long festival dedicated to the accordion, Lechner’s response was less than positive.

"He told me, ‘Oida, bist du deppert? Der Zug is abgefahren,’" Preisl recalls, laughing. Loosely translated: "Are you out of your mind? That time has long gone!"

But over the years, the event has earned a dedicated following – including Lechner, a mainstay of the event – who see the festival as the perfect antidote for the grey doldrums of late winter. Moreover, it is right that Vienna play host to such an event – the accordion was first patented in 1829 by a shop on Mariahilferstraße.

For Preisl, the secret to success is to keep himself interested. "So I try to keep a mix of events," he said. "I could do a different theme each year – a month dedicated to the French accordion – or even do the same thing each year, but that is not interesting for me." Another trick is to wait until September to begin organising the festival. "This helps maintain the spontaneity."

But the main constant that runs through each of the years is high quality in all of the performances, along with the contact between the performer and the audience.

"Last year, we did one large event in the Konzerthaus with the Richard Galliano Sextet," he said. "Afterwards, the performers were in the lobby to meet the audience and sign autographs."

Accordion theory

So what is the deal with the accordion? On the one hand, you find it in so much regional and roots music across the globe, but you seldom hear it in pop.

The following theory might help explain. The heyday of the accordion stretches back to before electrification and recorded music. Then the accordion had a big advantage: It was like an orchestra in a box – you could play both the melody (with the right hand) and the accompaniment (with the left), and unlike a piano, you could easily pack it and carry it with you. With its combination of reeds and bellows, the accordion was also loud enough to be heard over a room full of dancers. These qualities helped the accordion to become essential in regional dance music styles such as tango, polka and zydeco.

At the same time, the accordion can also reflect a quieter melancholy side, as found in Vienna’s Schrammelmusik, French chansons or Bosnia’s sevdalinka, which brings to the fore the instrument’s darker emotional range and provides a rich accompaniment for songs of loss and despair.

Deeply rooted in ethnic music throughout the world, the accordion was primed for revival. This came with the boom in roots and world music that begin in the 1980s, and then accelerated in the 1990s – one of the more positive results of globalization.

Festival preview

At the festival preview, 14 accordionists took the stage in an accordion orchestra – something that Preisl had once vowed that he would never do.

What had made him change his mind? "It’s not really an orchestra," he told The Vienna Review at the Café Rüdigerhof. "It’s really a bunch of soloists, and even though they are playing together, they still manage to maintain their own individual characters."

If electrification was responsible for the banishment of the accordion from popular music, it was appropriate that Lechner – the director of the evening – insisted that the performance in the large hall be held without any amplification, and was even reluctant to allow the moderator who introduced the orchestra to use a microphone.

It was a lovely evening, providing a glimpse of this unique instrument’s range of moods and sounds, with memorable performances by Lechner, Bratko Bibic – who joined him in the accordion "supergroup" Accordion Tribe – and Stefan Sterzinger, as well as swirling and evocative "orchestra" pieces. The founder of Accordion Tribe and U.S. accordionist extraordinaire, Guy Klucevsek, performed a moving piece dedicated to his Slovenian aunt entitled "Spinning Jenny". Another highlight were the two pieces by 17-year-old accordion Wunderkind Paul Schuberth from Upper Austria, which he performed with a similarly young and talented accordionist Johannes Münzner.

This year the special focus is the Italian accordion style, with a series of performances called Bella Italia. On Sundays, there are silent films at the Filmcasino accompanied by accordion and other instruments, as well as children’s performances at the Dschungel Wien.

But Priesl is reluctant to point out any "highlights" of the festival. "These are my children," he says smiling. Over time visitors have developed a trust in the quality of the festival’s events. "So they just pick three evenings to go to and let themselves be surprised."

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