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

Classical Accordion Recital
by Henry Doktorski
copyright 1999

The following series of letters originally appeared on the internet newsgroup for accordionists.

Part One: Milonga del Angel

Date: 1999/05/11

Dear Friends,

I invite you to a concert of The City Music Center faculty and students on Sunday May 16 at the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I will be performing two chamber pieces: Johann Strauss' Waltzes from Rosen aus dem Süden and Astor Piazzolla's Milonga del Angel.

Today was my rehearsal with Pittsburgh Symphony violinists Peter Snitkovsy and Galina Istomin, violist Peter Guroff and cellist Mikhail Istomin of Astor Piazzolla's Milonga del Angel which we will perform in five days.

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) is perhaps the most famous free-reed player of all time. He was born in Argentina and learned the bandoneon at an early age. He studied composition with Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger and is the creator of the Nuevo Tango.

I met the musicians in the rehearsal room on the fourth floor at Heinz Hall, as this was convenient for the quartet as they had just finished a rehearsal on the stage with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This was the first time we played the music together. The music was arranged by bandoneonist César Olguin whom I met when he played with Cuarteto Latinoamericana in Pittsburgh last year. Mr. Olguin very kindly mailed me the music from his home in Mexico.

At first, the quartet was surprised at the slow tempo. It was half the tempo they expected! There was talk about where to put it in the program, as slow pieces can be deadly boring when adjacent to another slow piece. Peter Snitkovsky declared "the program is already printed!" I suggested, "we can always make a last minute announcement of a change in order." Anyway, we played through the piece five or six times, each time asking questions (none of us had a score, just our parts) as only Misha had dynamic and tempo markings as well as fermatas. As parts of the arrangement seemed empty when the accordion taceted, they asked me to improvise some type of background for one or two sections. I decided also to add some left hand chords in certain sections to fill out the texture. There is no left-hand part. notated in Olguin's arrangement. When playing with an ensemble, Piazzolla himself used only one manual (right or left) for the most part.

Peter Guroff claimed that some of his notes were incorrect and he played a section with Galina. They both had ascending trills. In the first bar, Peter G. played a trill on G to A flat while Galina simultaneously played a trill on A to B flat. Peter G. exclaimed, "See! This can't be right!" Peter S. countered, "No it's right! It's right for Piazzolla!"

I had some fun with my part as well. The bandoneon part is written out in strict rhythm, but when I listened to Piazzolla play this piece himself, he anticipates for most of the piece. In other words, if the music indicates "play on the down beat" Piazzolla plays on the eighth note before the downbeat. it's as if you shifted the part an eighth note to the left. Lots of rubato. The quartet for the most part has to play strict time, imagine if all of us played rubato; what a mess! Even in the music of Chopin, the left hand normally plays in strict time, while the right hand glides here and there in all manner of temporal freedom.

We worked about an hour at the piece. We decided to run through it one more time right before the concert. I'm going to listen to Piazzolla's recording again and make some suggestions for the group, such as adding a cello glissando at the end, adding some melodic lines during the intro. I love Piazzolla's recording of his Milonga, but for some reason Olguin's arrangement seemed a little bland. I can't quite understand; when I heard him perform this piece with Cuarteto Latinoamericana, it sounded just fine.

Tomorrow I meet with other members of the PSO to rehearse Johann Strauss' "Waltzes from Rosen aus dem Süden." I suspect this piece will be much more straightforward as the style is more familiar than Piazzolla.

Part Two: Waltzes from Rosen aus dem Süden

Date: 1999/05/12

Dear Friends,

Today was my rehearsal with Pittsburgh Symphony members: violinists Tomislav Dimov and Augustine Martinovic, violist Peter Guroff, cellist Felix Wang, and pianist Igor Kraevsky for Strauss' "Waltzes from Rosen aus dem Süden" (Roses from the South), op. 388.

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) was an Austrian composer of Viennese waltzes; known as "The Waltz King." His almost 500 dance pieces are his crowning achievement, while his Die Fledermaus considered is the epitome of operetta. Rosen aus dem Süden was from his operetta titled Das Spitzentuch der Königin (1880). Strauss himself arranged the most popular waltzes from the operetta for symphony orchestra with harmonium. Our ensemble director (and pianist), Igor Kraevsky, in turn, arranged it for piano, accordion & string quintet. (There is a bass part in our ensemble, but the bassist -- Giselle Blondeau -- couldn't make it to the rehearsal.)

While practicing the harmonium part, I was not thrilled, as a good portion of it seemed to be "oom-pah-pah" filler. But then again, violists always play that kind of stuff. However, once I played with the ensemble, my part made a lot more sense. It's really quite a fine arrangement and most of the instruments get their share of solos. Even the cello gets a solo. I was actually surprised at the importance of the harmonium part. The first 6 bars is a duet between first violin and harmonium and the next four bars is a harmonium solo with ensemble. At the end of the intro, the harmonium actually has a four bar solo while the rest of the ensemble rests. (I should mention that Igor did not change the piano and harmonium parts from Strauss' original arrangement. I actually play Strauss' original harmonium part on the accordion.)

This piece was quite enjoyable. It is a medley of four waltzes with a lengthy introduction and coda and lasts about 5 minutes. We worked on it for about one hour 15 minutes, concentrating especially on places where the tempo changes. There is a great presto at the very end in which we accelerando to a stunning conclusion. It took me some time to decide on the proper register stops to use during different sections, to balance with the ensemble. In the introduction I use a bassoon reed and a single-note stop in the left hand. During the fff allegro agitato in the introduction, I switch to master, then drop back to harmonium (low and high reeds) for the harmonium solo. For diddly stuff I use the bandoneon (low and middle) stop. We won't have any time to run through the piece before the concert, but we don't need to. Everything is worked out. Ahh! It is such a pleasure for me to perform such fine music with such fine musicians. Just wish I could do it more often!

Part Three: Piazzolla Canceled!

Date: 1999/05/13

Horrors! Just received a phone call from Peter Snitkovsky saying the Piazzolla Milonga del Angel has been canceled! The quartet members were not pleased with the arrangement and they expected a lively tango which would brighten up the concert and please the audience. Since it is a fundraising concert, they want familiar pieces which make the listener feel happy. Unfortunately, we don't have time to substitute another ensemble piece in its place as there is not enough rehearsal time. However, the Sally Stone, director of the City Music Center has asked me to play Vittorio Monti's Czardas as a solo instead; a real crowd pleaser. I'd better get some hard practicing in, as Czardas is a very difficult rhapsodic etude, originally written for violin.

Part Four: Time to Retire?

Date: 1999/05/17

Dear Friends,

I'm in a philosophical mood this morning. Last night was the concert at Pittsburgh's Frick Art Museum sponsored by the City Music Center. My parents happened to be there -- as they were passing through Pittsburgh en route to New Jersey from Kentucky - as well as my fianc´┐Że, my two children, and some of my students. The hall was nearly packed, and I sat and listened in the back of the hall during the first 2/3 of the concert. Some really fine performers & music; mostly pianists & violinists but a considerable amount of chamber music; nearly two hours worth by composers such as J.S.Bach, J.C. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Puccini, Scriabin, and even a 20th century piece for piano by Emma Lou Diemer.

I was scheduled to play in the last piece -- Waltzes from "Rosen aus dem Süden" by the celebrated Viennese composer/conductor Johann Strauss (1825-1899) -- along with six other City Music Center faculty members (string quintet & piano). The piece was expected to be a crowd pleaser and was scheduled last so the audience would leave on a high note. We performed it with finesse and aplomb. The audience was pleased, the ensemble was pleased, and I was pleased as well.

However, I was not pleased with my solo performance of Monti's Czardas which was placed third from last. I have definitely played that piece better! Perhaps I was tired from rehearsing a choir and playing organ from 10 am until 12.30. Or perhaps I was tired from playing a party from 3:30 until 5. Or perhaps I was simply tired because I'm coming down with some type of bug. I've been drinking lots of fluids and getting plenty of bed rest; in fact, I lay down for about a half hour after the church service. Or perhaps I simply didn't practice enough!

The Czardas was a last-minute substitute, as the string quartet members decided to can the Piazzolla Milonga (which was even printed in the program) after one rehearsal. Despite my own opinions, the audience seemed to enjoy my performance, and a surprising number of them came to me in the lobby afterwards to compliment me. Each time I simply smiled and replied, "Thank you! I enjoyed playing for you!"

I am such a liar! I have learned by experience that no matter how badly I think I have played, there will be people (quite a few, usually) who think that my performance was fantastic. Who am I to disappoint them by criticizing my own playing? Let them enjoy the evening; I shouldn't interfere with their memories. If I spoke truthfully, I would have said, "Couldn't you tell how terrible I played?" If I was really a jerk, I would have mentioned measure numbers.

My children, as well as my parents, however, knew how well I could play the piece having heard me practice it before, but they very kindly reserved their more accurate and truthful comments until our drive home after I was finished schmoozing with the guests. "Yeah, papa, I was embarrassed!" "I was praying that you skip to the end!" What a big show, this music business is! I smilingly explained to them, "Sometimes there are more important things than technique. What I may have lacked in technique, I more than compensated for by my extraordinary charm!" :-) They laughed, "Don't confuse charm with bullshit!"

Normally, I wouldn't have minded having a bad day, but Mariss Jansons, the new conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony was in the audience and I was hoping to make a good impression. And now that I've taken a full time organ job (660 services and rehearsals per year) beginning next month, I suspect I'll be practicing even less accordion.

I have a question: how does one know when to stop playing and retire? Is it true that great performers (as well as sports stars) retire before they lose their abilities and cause embarrassment to themselves and others? Seinfeld retired his record-breaking television show while it was in its prime. Gary Larsen retired "The Far Side" while it was hot. When Art Van Damme retired he said that he would put his accordion in the closet for good. But then again, I've heard Charles Nunzio and Anthony Galla-Rini (octa and nonagenarians) perform horribly at accordion conventions (it was painfully obvious to me that they had passed their prime decades earlier) yet the audience gave them standing ovations. I suppose sometimes famous performers might have to throw their own self-satisfaction to the wind and play no matter how rusty to please an audience who worships them as heroes. Any comments?

Part Five: Words of Wisdom

Date: 17 May 1999 17:04:49 GMT

My opinion: So you had a bad day, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are human. If you need to or want to divert your attentions to organ work or anything else, that is fine, of course. But one bad day, or even a few of them during a long career is the norm. I believe that everyone, from the beginner of all beginners to the classiest of all world class performers have both exceptional moments and bad moments, while most of the time they play at their "normal level". Some musicians or any other professionals lose some of their technique in later years, but it is usually due to changing interest from playing to say writing, directing or anything else. It is a matter of choice. Others get better as time goes by. At really old age (and you are not there yet) some seem to lose some of their technique but more then compensate for it with great musical maturity (expression, interpretation and so on). Others do not lose technical ability at all, at least in my judgment. Isaac Stern is amazing. Horowitz was amazing and so on.

I would hate to see you give up anything. As one of the top accordion players, and a classical one, it would be sad. Of course the choices are all yours, and I am just stating my preferences. So you had a bad day, and you are giving yourself too much of a hard time over it. I would put it Behind...

That is of course only my opinion, but it is probably just as I said it.

Dan Lavry

Date: Mon, 17 May 1999 13:06:54 -0700

Once, after a piano recital, a woman came to me from the audience and told me how wonderfully I had played and what a transcendent experience she had while listening to my performance. I replied, "Actually, I sucked. I missed things in bars number..." and reeled off every mistake I had made in the piece. She was genuinely offended that I would confront her with my mistakes. It was the last time I ever did that. It's kinda like ballpark nachos...some people will eat Kingdome nachos and actually think that's what ballpark nachos should taste like and never question whether that's actually process cheese spread on their nachos. Some, like me, wait until after the game and go over to the Pyramid Alehouse for *REAL* ballpark nachos because we know better.

Regarding Nunzio and Galla-Rini: they have entered the state of respectful suckitude. They aren't really competent players anymore (especially compared to what they once were) but they still get the respect as if they were. I saw one of Frankie Yankovic's last performances and it was obvious that he was nearing the end of his performative life but he could still cut the mustard on the bandstand. That's really the determinant of when to retire and when to keep going. To look at the sporting world for a moment...Lew Burdette was the Greg Maddux of the 1950s. He was a dominant pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves, IIRC, and he was masterful. He racked up 20-win seasons year after year. Had he retired earlier in his career he'd be remembered like Sandy Koufax-a great pitcher with a short career. In Koufax's case, injury prevented him from continuing. Burdette just kept pitching until he was almost laughed out of the game and into obscurity. In fact, history is littered with players who played out the ends of otherwise great careers only to toil into embarassing ineffectiveness: Rocky Colavito, Early Winn, Lew Burdette, Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs. History is also littered with great performers who had long careers up until the very end: Nolan Ryan, Tony Gwynn, Dennis Martinez, Jim Palmer, Carl Yastrzembski (sic), etc.

Whether or not you should quit while you're ahead is up to you. You may be the next Frank Tanana, who learned a new way of pitching after his fastball slowed down and added many useful years to the end of his career. Remember-people used to think Mark McGwire was washed up while he was in Oakland.

I just got back from the Mariners whalloping of the Minnesota Twins. I went with Gregor Nitsche, a violinist in Orchestra Seattle. I mentioned your situation to him and he suggested taking a few weeks off from the accordion (enough to clear your mind of the frustration from the bad performance) and going back to it fresher. Baseball players do it all the time. Actually, sports psychology and music performance go very well together. At Cornish we had one of the consulting physicians/psychologists of the Seahawks give a lecture and he showed us that performance is performance is performance...whether you're hitting 3 HRs in a game or performing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto.

Toby Hanson

Date: 18 May 1999 17:06:56 GMTaaa

Please don't feel discouraged by one bad performance. Toby's point about learning to take a compliment rather than complaining about your mistakes in public was absolutely correct. Henry, you need to be commended that people think that you are great even on a bad day. Use the bad experience to tighten up your own performance but never share your disappointment with the audience.

Every day is a new day. Taking a brief break might be a good idea but please do not stop the good work that you have been doing. Imagine how many violinists or pianists there are out there who cannot perform an impressive solo recital yet still manage to play professionally in ensemble? One bad day is completely conquerable.

Tres cool photo BTW.

Julia Cortiñas

Date: Fri, 14 May 1999

Dear Henry,

Enjoyed your post with regards to preparing for a performance of Strauss's "Roses from the South." I too have been working on the same piece for a lesson from Palmer & Hughes accordion course book #7. I enjoy reading your posts and hope to meet you in the future.

Donald Nowicki
Phillipsburg, N.J.

Date: Wed, 19 May 1999 22:09:13 -0000

Dear Henry,

A few years ago, you played for us at our regular club meeting, the ACCORDION LOVER'S SOCIETY INTERNATIONAL (ALSI) in San Diego. It was one of the best showcase performances we had that year. Please don't give up playing your instrument. I made the mistake of giving it up for 25 years and found coming back was no easy task. My intense desire to get back to professional level playing may have led to the problem I am having today -- carpal tunnel syndrome. At least you will still be playing a keyboard instrument in your new job and keeping your playing muscles strong and in shape. Your talent is needed in the accordion world. Lot's of luck in your new job.

Bob Warner
San Diego, California

Photo of Henry Doktorski by William Trent (March 1999)

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