Accordion: Not just for polkas anymore, say fans

Festival in Baltimore shines spotlight on once-'nerdy' instrument

  • Accordionist Joan Geller Grauman, left, is pictured in her home. At right is Lisa Breccia, 13, who is visiting from Castelfidardo, Italy. She also plays the accordian, and is holding one her parents, Ricardo and Elke, designed. The American Accordionists' Association is hosting its Annual Festival at the Sheraton City Center Hotel July 11-15th.
Accordionist Joan Geller Grauman, left, is pictured in her… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
July 13, 2012|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

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."

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