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

Classical Accordion Virtuoso: An Interview With Zhang Guoping

July 20, 2000

by Thomas Fabinski

Interviewer: Mr. Thomas Fabinski
Translator: Dr. Joseph Lin

TCFR: Please tell us something about your family and your early music education.

Zhang: I was born in 1960. My parents are both professional accordionists. They served in the Chinese Army. From 1950 to 1966 they often performed not only in China but also in many foreign nations, including Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. My father, Zhang Ziqiang, was the president of the Chinese Association of Accordionists in the 1980s. I learned to play accordion from my parents until I was 18 years old.

TCFR: When was your first recital in China?

Zhang: November 26, 1983. It was the most unforgettable day in my life. It took place at Beijing Central Music Conservatory and my debut was a success. I played the Sonata in B minor by N. Tschkin, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 by Liszt, Rondo Capriccioso by Mendelssohn, Olive Blossom by P. Frosini, Dark Eyes and Torna a Surriento arranged by C. Magnante, and a few pieces of Chinese music. This was a turning point in my career and established my position among the Chinese professionals. Historically, this was also an important event because this was the first time a public recital was given by any accordionist in China. It meant that for the first time, the accordion was accepted as a serious instrument in China.

TCFR: What happened to your career after that?

Zhang: In 1984 I started to learn the use of the free bass accordion. I performed the works of Bach, Scarlatti, Jacobi, Schmidt, Krzanowski, and Bentzon. In May of 1987, I was the first accordionist to represent China in an international competition at Klingenthal, Germany. Later I also visited the United States, Canada, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, France and England. In 1994 the Chinese government awarded me a "Certificate of Special Government Award." It is one of the highest honors given to a musician in China.

TCFR: What instrument are you using now?

Zhang: I had used a Parrot Free Bass Accordion which was made in Tienjin until 1996. Later I started using a Giulietti Free Bass Accordion made in Italy. This instrument was probably made in the 70's and produces a beautiful sound. Earlier this year, I ordered from Petosa Accordions a Cathedral Bajan II Piano Accordion (Converter Free-bass System). I believe this is one of the best piano accordions in the world.

TCFR: I understand that you published many CDs and tapes in China. Please tell us about this.

Zhang: Since 1983 when China's largest recording company, China Record Corporation, published my first album in LP mono record, I have published quite a few recordings including LP records, cassette tapes, video tapes, CDs and VCDs. They are available at many cities in China.

TCFR: Where can we buy your CD today?

Zhang: You can buy them from The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Online Gift Store. There are now 4 CDs including "Peking Operas," "Goddess Scattering Flowers," "Blue Danube Waltz," and "Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas."

TCFR: I understand that you have quite a collection of important recordings by world famous accordionists. Please tell us about it.

Zhang: I am happy to tell you about this. It has been my hobby to collect the recordings of famous accordionists from different parts of the world. I listened to many recordings when I was very young. My parents brought back from Russia some recordings of Russian Folk Music by Bajan. In 1976 one of my father's friends brought back from the U.S. an LP record by Christian Di Maccio which was recorded live in Copenhagen in 1975. We had little contact with the outside world at that time and I remember I was very impressed listening to this great performance using a free bass accordion. Later on I was able to acquire other LP records including the 1972 Klingenthal International Accordion Competition, 1978 Coupe Mondiale in Poland, Warsaw Accordion Quintet, 1977 and 1979 Hugo Herrmann Competition and other recordings of Joseph Macerollo, Ivan Koval, Oleg Sharov. In 1989 I bought in Moscow some LP records published by Melodiya Company including old Russian Bajanists' recordings dating back to the 30's and 50's: Ivan Punitski, Boris Tihonov, Quartet of Kiev Philharmony Bajanists. These are very rare recordings and I am hoping that one day someone will reissue these recordings into CDs. We shouldn't forget the contribution of these great masters. I also have a fairly complete collection of CDs by contemporary classical accordionists.

TCFR: Please tell us something about original Chinese accordion music.

Zhang: I regret to tell you that at this moment most of the important composers in China do not write music for free bass accordion. There are many reasons but the most important reason is "money." The only well-known composer interested in writing accordion music is Li Yuqiu. He wrote for me the music "Goddess Scattering Flowers" which I performed in Beijing for the first time in 1984 and later at many other nations. This piece became well-known accordion music in China.

TCFR: Who is your favorite classical accordionist?

Zhang: In my opinion, there are three great musicians who have had the most influence on classical accordion music. They are: Mogens Ellegaard, Hugh Noth and Friedrich Lips. They are not only great performers but also educators and musicians. They created a new accordion culture. Their great performances attracted top composers of the world to write new music for accordion. They collaborated with composers to create great music.

Mogens Ellegaard is a pioneer of classical accordion music. He understood the essence of music. He recognized the importance of incorporating art and philosophy and let the music represent the composer's thought and emotion. Ellegaard passed away a long time ago and we lost a great leader. But he left many recordings which are our treasures. I think his recordings of the 70's, "Made in Denmark" and "Accordion da Camera" represent his best work. Without Ellegaard, we might not have classical accordion music today.

From Noth's latest recordings of Bach and Couperin, we can appreciate his deep musical sensitivity, delicate expression and richness in variation. He touches deeply the composer's spirit. His performance is in true Baroque tradition: elegant, simple and natural. The depth of his work is not easily copied by young performers. The performances of Lips are pure and truthful without exaggeration. They have a lot of depth and passion and the music is expressed entirely from within. He has elevated the Russian Classical Bajan to another level.

Among the young classical accordionists, the one whom I admire the most is Stefan Hussong. He is an intelligent performer with a unique style. His technique is superb, representing one of the best in the world. Another one I should mention is Mie Miki, an Oriental lady who is becoming an important leader of the classical accordionists. Her performance of Baroque music is elegant and extraordinary.

Others who have made great contributions to the classical accordion are: A. Abbott, F. Lacroix, L. Puchnowski, J. Macerollo, M. Rantanen, V. Semyonov, J. Vestrelov, A. Skliarov, W. Besfamilnov, O. Sharov, E. Moser, J. Petric, and J. Sommers.

TCFR: Who are your favorite composers and classical accordion compositions?

Zhang: There are many. Some of my favorites are: S. Gubaidulina: Et exspecto (1987); S. Pade: Excursion with Detours (1984); A Abbott: Toccata (1974); W. Jacobi: Divertissement pour Accordeon (1969); T. Lundquist: Metamorphoses (1965); E. Denissow: From the Darkness to the Light (1996); S. Berinski: Also Sprach Zarathustra (1990); A. Nordheim: Flashing (1985); L. Klein: Essercizi (1980); V. Holmbor: Sonata op.143 (1979); G. Katzer: En Avant; and F. Dobler: Introduktion und Toccata (1980).

TCFR: Tell us your view regarding the piano accordion and the Bajan.

Zhang: First I would like to emphasize that no matter whether you play a piano accordion or a Bajan, the most important thing is to achieve a high artistic level. This is most important. However, in recent international accordion competitions, the two instruments are being put together in the same group. I think this is a mistake and will affect the development of the piano accordion. It may also encourage many young students to stay with the Bajan. My opinion is that both should be developed together.

TCFR: Tell us about your view on the classical accordion world.

Zhang: With regard to classical accordion, whether you are referring to the making of the instrument, the creation of music or the standard of performance, we have made great progress during the past 40 years. These achievements are no less than the achievements in other musical instruments. However, we know that our market is small and many talented young people who after having participated in international competitions often abandon their goal to become classical accordionists. This is, indeed, regrettable. When I was in Poland in 1989, Ellegaard told me that "the situation with classical accordion is terrible!" In China, there are many classical music lovers. However, a large number of composers, pianists or violinists never heard of free-bass accordion. I am sure the situation is probably similar in the U.S. So, the question is what can we do?

The appearance of record players changed the lives of the musicians. With the growing importance of the recording industry, a musician does not need to travel all over the world to play at concerts to become famous. For example, the famous Russian musician and conductor, M. Pietnev has never been to China. But he is well-known to music lovers in China because of the large number of his CDs from Deutsche Grammophon.

So far, including DG. Decca, Philips, BMG, none of the large recording companies pay much attention to classical accordion music. This is also regrettable. Most of the CDs on classical accordion are published by small companies or individuals and they are not distributed widely and their influence is quite limited. Only large recording companies are capable of promoting and marketing recordings. Therefore, the classical accordionists need to work hard to gain acceptance by these big companies or we will never gain the status enjoyed by the performers of other musical instruments.

TCFR: We have heard that one of Chairman Mao's policies was to remove bourgeois instruments from school curricula such as piano and violin. By default the accordion became the most popular keyboard instrument. Is this true?

Zhang: Instruments such as the piano or violin were not banned as such, but during the Great Cultural Revolution the playing of western music, including most classical compositions was banned. Chinese music and military/revolutionary types of music were encouraged. Partly because of the ban, musicians stopped playing piano and violin and many started to take up accordion. Accordion is portable and can be carried anywhere to play allowed music. Another factor is economy. An accordion is cheaper than a piano or organ and thus became the most popular keyboard instrument in China. I think that the trend was similar to what happened in Russia.

TCFR: Lastly, please tell us about the accordionists in China today.

Zhang: My father published a book called "Method for the Accordion" in 1972 which has sold over one million copies. So, you can see that the accordion is a very popular instrument in China. Every summer in Beijing there is an International Accordion Festival. Many famous artists including Lips, Semionov, Zubitski, Draugsvoll, Lukic-Marx, Moser and Sommers have visited China. In addition, thousands of children each year take examinations for accordion in many parts of China.

The Tienjin Music Conservatory has become an important place for free-bass accordion. Many students own Pigini, Zero Sette, Bugari's Bajan converter instruments. They can play Gubaidulina's De Profundis, Knsjakov's Sonata No. 1 and other difficult pieces. This is quite encouraging and I believe that there will be more players in the future and more development of accordion related business.

I wish to express my appreciation to Mr. Henry Doktorski for creating The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. I wish he and his website great success! And thank you for allowing me to be interviewed!

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