The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Cinema Serenade

Recording with Itzhak Perlman and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

by Henry Doktorski
copyright 1997

Part One: The Recording Sessions

Part Two: Eight Months Later

Part Three: Epilogue

Part One: The Recording Sessions

Date: Tuesday December 10, 1996
Subject: for Classical Accordion Lovers

Dear Friends,

Today I played for two recording sessions with the PSO. This was my first recording session with the symphony, and I thought I would share my experiences with you, as I have in the past. Many readers might enjoy reading these pastimes, which were learning experiences for me.

I chose my smaller Sonola Rivoli piano accordion instead of my 32 pound free-bass Victoria simply because it was lighter and I didn't need the big instrument for the music I was called to perform. Why use a bulldozer when a shovel will do?

Robert Croan, music writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in today's paper, "Conductor John Williams and violinist Itzhak Perlman slipped into town yesterday for the first of four closed recording sessions with the Pittsburgh Symphony in Heinz Hall. The CD, to be released by Sony Classical, will feature these artists with the Pittsburgh Symphony performing film music from the past 40 years. It's an example of the "crossover" repertory that is said to sell better than pure classical or pure pops in the contemporary market. . . .

"It's also a project that almost didn't take place here at all. The Sunday edition of The New York Times, reported -- incorrectly -- that because of stringent American union regulations that would require extra recording sessions, Sony had moved the recording to London with an English orchestra instead. American orchestras record 40 minutes out of every hour, while British union rules require only two 10-minute breaks in each three-hour recording session. . . .

"The PSO recorded four hours yesterday, continues with a seven-hour stint today and finished up with a three-hour session tomorrow. That's a total nine hours and 20 minutes of actual recording -- apparently a compromise between the original eight-hours here vs. 10 hours and 40 minutes that would have been possible in England. Perlman is sandwiching these sessions between performances, flying into Pittsburgh late yesterday afternoon and leaving tomorrow in the early afternoon."

The accordion part was simple enough: right hand melodies, chords, arpeggios; straight-forward writing for the instrument by Williams, who wrote all the arrangements for this CD. (For those of you who might not know of John Williams, he is the composer who wrote the movies scores for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, and others. He also is also a fine conductor and is music director for the Boston Pops.)

In my music there was no indication of which reeds to use, so I opted for violin, which is, in my opinion, the most accordionistic sounding reeds. There was no left-hand part, for good reasons: not needed. (Besides, the left-hand doesn't project nearly as well as the right.)

The morning session began with "Scent of a Woman." The piece opens with a virtuosic violin cadenza -- Perlman is a master of his instrument, as I'm sure you all know. The accordion entered during the part marked "tempo di habanera." As before, it was a real treat for me to play with such a fine orchestra. We ran through the piece once to see if there were any problems.

There were a few in my score, as I discovered while playing! At one point, the entire orchestra modulates to another key and I have a solo part which is doubled by the French horn. Unfortunately, in my part, there was no key signature change. It was a rude awakening my I discovered -- after a millisecond -- that the F# in my part was supposed to read F natural! In a twinkling, my finger slipped down from the F# to the F natural (like a grace note -- ha!) and I transposed the rest of the part by sight. After the run-through, I quickly rewrote the part with my trusty pencil!

It wasn't worth even mentioning this to the conductor, since it was obvious to me that the error was a simple copyist mistake, and besides, Williams had much more pressing problems to solve -- like balance between sections of the orchestra, wrong chords in the strings, tuning of string harmonics, getting the orchestra to feel the authentic "Argentinean" tango rhythm instead of playing exactly what was written, etc. -- and besides, I had already solved the problem.

We must have done five or six takes. It was enjoyable listening to the orchestra (and myself!) improve noticeably after each performance, until the last and final take -- which was perfect! Williams is a master orchestrator; every instrument had its job to do (including accordion) and we all fit together beautifully.

One interesting aside, we are all human, and we tend to make mistakes, no matter how great and famous we are. (To err is human. . .) During the third take Perlman lost count of his rests and came in early and Williams stopped the orchestra. At another spot Perlman did something really hilarious and Williams and the players around them broke into uproarious laughter. Unfortunately I (and the other players in my section) could not hear what was so funny, since we were at far stage right.

By the way, Williams is a very considerate and easy-to-get-along-with conductor. No ego trips here.

My friend, Patricia Jennings, the principal keyboardist for the PSO, leaned over the celeste right after the fourth take and whispered, "Henry, don't be surprised if you hear me playing the piano at measure 45 during the next take. I just discovered that I've been playing the wrong instrument for all this time!" The next take (the fifth and final) she switched instruments at the correct place for a few forte piano arpeggios and quietly returned to the celeste!

Of course during the beginning of the rehearsal I made a few mistakes myself, but I'm not going to mention them! After the rehearsal I accidentally ran into Mr. Williams as he was exiting the recording room; he smiled and said, "Very nice accordion playing!" I replied, "Thank you, Mr. Williams; I think your arrangements are very nice. I love your music."

During our lunch break I enjoyed a chess game with double-bassist Don Evans (who also played on my Christmas CD).

After lunch, we recorded "Il Postino" (The Postman). The accordion part was more prominent in this piece, and it included several beautiful melodies, sustained chords and arpeggiated chords. After the first take, the engineers called for me to play my part without the orchestra, presumably to set volume levels. (I had my own microphone which was situated on a stand directly above my music stand.)

I had decided that the part needed a little juicing up, so I added some tremolo. After playing, I asked Williams if the tremolo were too heavy, to which he replied, "Perhaps a little." Needless to say, after that I toned it done.

One thought which had a prominent place in my mind today was this: "It doesn't matter so much how good is an accordionist's finger technique. What matters more is his/her bellows technique."

This was very true for the two pieces I played today. Technically the accordion parts were rather simple. But without sensitive phrasing, slight accents on long chords, subtle crescendi and diminuendi, and a tough of tremolo, the part would have sounded terribly boring. Bellows is to the accordion what lungs are to the singer -- the source of expression. Of course all great accordionists know this. I know it also, but today I realized it in a new way.

Part Two: Eight Months Later

Quite a few months passed since the recording sessions and I completely forgot about it. Then, one day in August I happened to be browsing around in one of Pittsburgh's largest classical record stores when I happened to hear something unusual on the store sound system: an accordion.

It was playing rifts along with a solo violinist and what sounded to be a rather large orchestra. The piece was a tango.

And it seemed vaguely familiar.

I thought, "I've heard that somewhere before! But I don't recognize it. . . Hmmmmn. . . It sounds SO familiar!"

But I just COULDN'T guess what the piece was or who might be playing.

Finally in desperation, I headed for the check-out counter and asked the employee what was playing. She indicated that she was busy with another customer and handed me the CD case.

I was shocked!

The accordionist was me!

The violinist was Itzhak Perlman and the orchestra was the Pittsburgh Symphony in a Sony Classical CD (SK 63005) titled Cinema Serenade conducted by John Williams which we recorded eight months ago in Heinz Hall last December (1996).

The CD finally came out.

No wonder I recognized the piece . . . I was playing!

It was the theme from the movie Il Postino.

I tried to find a copy, but it was sold out. (Later I discovered that the album had reached number one in the Billboard Crossover Chart.)

Part Three: Epilogue

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Several years ago the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of the music of Morton Gould. There may have been works by other composers on the program. Anyway, a friend of mine was hired as an extra percussionist. He told me that Gould, who was present for the series, asked somebody backstage during a rehearsal, "That's a nice piece. Who wrote it?" The reply surprised him, "Uh... Mort... YOU DID!"

William Panos

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Scriabin was reported not to have recognized his own Fantasy op. 28 when he heard someone else playing it (See liner notes to the excellent Hyperion release featuring Marc-Anri Hamelin playing the complete sonatas)

Samuel Vriezen

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Beethoven once listened (insofar he could) to a performance of a some piano music and showed his disapproval loud and clear, not because he didn't like the pianist, but because he didn't like the composition. But then he was told that it was his own piece that he was booing... It is said that he honestly called himself an ass because of that bad composition, which is not known (as far as I know).

Joyce Maier (

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ernest Hutcheson says it was the 32 Variations in C minor.

Carl Tait IBM T. J. Watson Research Center Yorktown Heights, NY 10598

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Isn't that the way it always is? Just when you've given up hope - no, long after you've given up hope and gotten on with your life, 'they' pull something like this on you.

In the Documentary "Full Circle," on Dame Janet Baker's last year in opera, 'they' ask her in one private scene filmed as she's cleaning up her kitchen, if she ever listened to her own recordings. She immediately replied, "No." But she goes on to say she did end up hearing herself once.

She was messing about the house once with the radio on and was being regaled with a ravishing performance of Wagner's Wessendonck (sp?) Lieder. She really found the performance exceptional and sat down at the end to catch the name of the soprano.

It was she.


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