If an invitation to an evening of accordion music brings to mind the schmaltzy, wall-to-wall sound that makes you want to strap on your roller skates, you may be surprised. There's a good chance that something else awaits you.
In addition to the sound that has accompanied a million American weddings, you might hear an Israeli folk dance or a Macedonian love song or, if you're really lucky, Russian ethnic songs in the hands of a trio of Soviet musicians.
That was the case last week when more than 50 accordion enthusiasts crowded into the basement of Dale Wise's home in McLean. Wise and two of his "squeeze box"-playing friends had more than 50 pairs of feet tapping as they kicked off the evening with the quintessential accordion tune, the "Beer Barrel Polka."
The musicians then took the audience on an imaginary tour of the musical world, beginning with Germany, Italy and France. Accordionist Joan Geller was joined by Brad Sidwell, who played a small ceramic drum called the dumbek, playing music from Israel, Yugoslavia and Macedonia. But the real treat came with the arrival of visitors from the Soviet Union, accordionists Eugeny Konov and Nickolai Tushenko and folk singer Tamara Korchagina.
The three Soviets were delegates from the Soviet-American Citizens Summit held in Alexandria. But back home they perform as an artists collective, playing concert halls and clubs in Moscow. "This is the people rather than the heads of states getting together to make an impression," Wise said.
When you get a room full of accordionists, the possibilities for music-making are endless. "We think it's a whole band in one instrument," said Wise, head of Accordion Plus, a small group of accordion teachers who teach more than 60 students in the metropolitan area.
Wise, 46, began playing the accordion when he was 11. But since 1980 he has devoted his full efforts to the promotion of the instrument, after leaving a career in music education. Now he sells, repairs, teaches and plays the accordion "26 hours a day."
In a small room next to his makeshift auditorium, Wise keeps an office full of accordions, large and small, plain and ornate. They have exotic names such as Iorio, Excelsior and his personal favorite, Guerini, which is made in Castelfidardo, Italy, the accordion capital of the world.
While the names have the ring of a bygone era, Wise believes that the accordion is becoming more popular. "Every 25 years or so you see the cyclical changes," Wise said.
John Skowronski, a young student of Wise's, agreed. "There's a sort of resurgence in the accordion in popular music," said Skowronski, who has played piano in rock bands, but changed his tune when a friend gave him a beaten-up accordion. He points to the new album by Tom Waits, and the popularity of Cajun and Zydeco music as examples of the instrument's newfound popularity.
Konov mentioned that the accordion also is becoming more fashionable in the Soviet Union, then proceeded to show why. The Soviet trio's technique, featuring a hard-edged, reedy quality, drew a tremendous response from the American audience. At the end of the evening, all the musicians joined in a rousing reprise of the "Beer Barrel Polka." Konov said that was the first song his father played when he came home from the war on the western front in 1945, when the Soviets and Americans were allies.
The American and Soviet musicians could not understand each other's language, but as Wise said, "where words leave off, music begins."