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.
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