University Musical Society celebrates the accordion

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Having presented popular shows last season featuring the ukulele, mandolin and bass saxophone, University Musical Society programming director Michael Kondziolka knew just what obscure instrument he wanted to highlight next.

“We had a lot of positive response to most of the concerts on that ... curatorial line that ran through our season,” Kondziolka says. “So it was very much in my mind that we still needed to do something with the accordion.”

The instrument will receive its moment in the spotlight Saturday at Hill Auditorium in an “accordion summit” titled “The Big Squeeze.” Several individual accordionists will be featured, as well as the Accordion Virtuosi of Russia, a 35-member ensemble. Kondziolka says he envisioned the performance as a tour through the cultural history of the accordion, with the Virtuosi as “our accordion house band.”

“It’s pretty shocking that almost every culture has their own manifestation of the accordion, which in many ways is just a portable organ,” he says. “So it’s really fun, when you start thinking about the accordion and how it manifests itself in different cultures, how you can put an evening together.”

Hot Club of Detroit member Julien Labro will represent the South American heritage of the accordion and its “cousin,” the bandoneon, which features heavily in the music of Argentine tango legend Astor Piazzolla. Labro, who is also co-curating the summit, recalls first being “mesmerized” by the accordion when he saw it on TV at age nine. He’s since become a dedicated student of the instrument, but he says the accordion community he’s become a part of can be somewhat insular.

“What I love about when I curated a concert at Northwestern University, and now what I’m helping out with at UMS, is you’re reaching beyond the accordion crowd, so to speak,” Labro says. “You’re reaching to your regular people, if I may say, or just music lovers in general, which has always been my goal as a performer.”

Labro says he and his fellow organizers are aiming to show as many different sides of the accordion as possible in one night. In addition to Labro’s Latin-influenced performance and the Virtuosi’s culturally diverse repertoire, Chicago multi-instrumentalist John Williams will represent the Celtic side of the accordion family with performances on the concertina and button accordion. And for those looking for one of the most classic applications of the instrument, Kondziolka assures there will be a “very special polka moment.”

“This will also be somewhat of an educational concert, without being nerdy, of course,” Labro says. “But I think for the people, if you’re considering to be there, it’ll be an interesting experience for them to witness the accordion probably in a different light than they’ve ever seen before.”

Kondziolka links the popularity of last season’s unusual instrument showcases to the recent cultural prominence of other seemingly lost traditions, like vinyl records or craft brewing. He says the accordion fits in nicely among those “old-timey” comebacks.

“Things do cycle in and out of fashion,” he says. “It’s amazing how certain things need to be forgotten before they can be sort of readopted and valued as something new.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

The Big Squeeze: An Accordion Summit

8 p.m. Saturday

Hill Auditorium

825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor

Tickets $10-$48

(734) 764-2538