The Free-Reed Review
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CD Review: Air New Zealand Accordion Orchestra
total time: 56:28
Review by Gregory A. Vozar:
As the liner notes to the Air New Zealand Accordion Orchestra's album On Tour! indicate, this recording includes a little something for everyone; it's a genuine potpourri of traditional and popular tunes, classical pieces, blues and jazz standards, as well as a smattering of show tunes and movie themes.
On the whole, this is a rather ambitious undertaking at which this innately musical group largely succeeds. The government of New Zealand apparently thinks so as it honored the ensemble members with the title "Cultural Ambassadors" on three of their concert tours. Without doubt, the accordion portion of the orchestra produces very listenable and musical results; certainly the purely instrumental selections are by far the best of what the disk offers.
The liner notes explain the history of the group (founded in 1976) but include little insight into the music other than to say the selections were chosen from the repertoire of their 7th and 8th international concert tours. There is no exceptionally serious material here; the goal is enjoyment and creating a familiar, friendly atmosphere. This is quite in keeping with the group's ambassadorial function of promoting their homeland and celebrating its beauty and hospitality.
The four classical pieces on this compact disk are given true tour de force treatment. This approach is especially effective with the overtures to Glinka's opera Russlan und Ludmilla and Rossini's Guillaume Tell which are hands down the best pieces on the disk. These are orchestral war horses and have become showy introductory or encore pieces because of their character and appeal.
The Air New Zealand Accordion Orchestra delivers a snappy, measured and legitimate reading of both, playing with an accurate sense of articulation and phrasing. While these selections may not make one want to jump to one's feet, they certainly deserve a solid round of applause.
Another winner is Strauss' Radetzky March. It quickly develops a proper military stride and swagger, even though the slightly loose quality of some of the sustained treble trills rob it of absolute "spit and polish" precision.
On the other hand, George Frideric Handel's Entry of the Queen of Sheeba works up quite a lather in making it through the stage door; there are a few points during this piece that one fears she may stumble in her haste! The playing is a bit rushed and the group's sense of cohesiveness begins to break up. They never quite fall out of formation but come a bit too close for comfort. This music needs to be crisp, but reining in the tempo just slightly would lend this piece a bit more of Handel's galante elegance which it also deserves.
Sakkijarven Polka and the medley To Europe are the traditional and folk offerings on the record. The latter contains several pan-cultural toe-tappers that most listeners will recognize, especially those familiar with accordion music. (How can anyone NOT know the Beer Barrel Polka?) These pieces work very well, and why not? They are basic accordion fare. Only the tarantella from the medley could use a boost in tempo to give it the expected spice.
Duke Ellington's maverick hit Caravan and the Blues Medley are the inclusions from the Jazz and Blues repertory. Admittedly, after hearing Alice Hall's intense rendition of the former tune, everything else pales, including the ANZ Accordion Orchestra's typically sinuous yet danceable version. The medley of blues numbers is very tame when compared to the origin of the musical genre and the degree of expression of which it is capable, but since the objective here is casual listening, this selection will give one the opportunity to either hum along or move one's feet without fear.
While not exactly jazz, Bert Kaempfert's Swingin' Safari belongs here and deserves special mention. For all its familiarity, it is still appealing and curiously refreshing in this arrangement complete with Pepsodent smile! American listeners will recognize it as the theme to the once-popular television game show, The Match Game.
The balance of the selections on the album are either popular songs, show/movie tunes or rock 'n' roll numbers. They all contain vocal tracks and this is where the problems begin for the ANZ Accordion Orchestra. The instrumental portion of the ensemble provides everything from solid support to unobtrusive accompaniment as required by the arrangements, but unfortunately, the vocalists are not up the skill of the other musicians.
A Whole New World from the Disney film Alladin shows only a little improvement. Chuck Berry's Promised Land and the up-beat Rave On fare somewhat better. One expects an impromptu style of singing to be associated with rock 'n' roll music; nevertheless, the deficiencies are still noticeable.
Curiously, the twelfth selection on the disk program is not listed in the album notes, but it turns out to be a promotional ditty that might be titled, Aukland, City of Sails. It urges us to grab our passports and visit New Zealand, and, oddly enough, the singing is better here than in most of the other vocal numbers!
Overall, the quality of sound on the CD is good, although there is slightly more studio ambiance and space than is normal for such a recording. The performers sound a tad too "distant" from the microphones.
Without doubt there is plenty of native talent present in the Air New Zealand Accordion Orchestra, and it deserves further exposure. They show their mettle in the operatic overtures and probably would excel in a program of light classical works drawn from waltzes, operettas and similar Viennese fluff, coupled with clever arrangements of popular standards (of the Swingin' Safari variety). Rather than vocals, some fancy breaks or impromptu solo work by an accordionist or two from the group would be preferable. In the meantime, they have certainly fulfilled their mandate as Cultural Ambassadors.
List of artists and instruments:
(Titano Accordions used exclusively)
Accordionists: (1992 Touring Orchestra) Sarah Langley (lead accordion), Campbell Bettridge, Kym Chatfield, Karen Ditchburn, Steven Green, Johan Handwerk, Linley Hawkes, Brendan Healy, Philip Hunt, Cindy Jenkins, Erica Knights, Angela Maloy, Ronda Morrison, Michael Old, Linda Price, Lionel Reekie, Wendy Robinson, Adriana Schaw, Evana Selak, Tanya Selak, Mia Stafford-Bush, Emma Wolf.
Accordionists: (1994 Touring Orchestra) Sarah Langley (lead accordion), Danielle Beston, Campbell Bettridge, Kym Chatfield, Shaun Foster, Johan Handwerk, Kelly Harding, Karen Hawkes, Philip Hunt, Rhonda Morrison, Carolyn Reekie, Lionel Reekie, Angela Robinson, Wendy Robinson, Evana Selak, Tanya Selak, Tanya Smith, Deedee Wirjapranata, Emma Wolf.
Vocalists: Erica Knights, Carolyn Reekie, Lionel Reekie, Wendy Robinson
Drums: Paul Lummis
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