The escalators at the Gold Coast drop me on the pattered carpet in front of a conference room, an unmarked box of bright light and temporary walls. No signs mark the Las Vegas International Accordion Convention, but it’s easy to figure out what’s happening from the melodic wheeze that instantly evokes the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp. Inside the room, instructor Mario Pedone grins beneficently from the stage.
“Who else wants to play?” he says with an accent that’s Italian by way of Venezuela.
An older woman plays a halting polka. She apologizes for her playing and blames the big accordion. Then another man, also older, shuffles on stage for his turn. Pedone gently corrects his tempo, and they play a somber duet.
Then Jackie arrives. She is at least four decades younger than anyone else in the room. She has an eager grin, a cascade of chestnut hair and a shiny black accordion cradled in her arms like a purebred puppy. She puts her sheet music on the stand, unhooks the latch with a decisive snap and pushes out a series of staccato blasts that ease into a sighing melody.
The song is “Tranquillo Symphonic Overture,” and it changes the way I think about the accordion. Jackie plays loud, especially compared to the tentative players before her. It’s like she turned the accordion up to 11. There’s nothing chintzy about this five-minute mini-epic. The tune is practically symphonic. No, more like operatic, with moods, climaxes and soaring arias resolving in a flurry of notes that sound like they belong on the live soundtrack to The Great Train Robbery.
A star is born. The 17-year-old learned the accordion at her grandmother’s knee and took it up before she was 5 years old.
There’s a reason Jackie is the youngest person in the room. Accordion is not a normal teenage pastime. In the hierarchy of musical cool, it ranks below the tuba and the bagpipes, a cumbersome Frankenstein of an instrument that combines pieces of organs and pianos into a squawking contraption with bellows and keys.
There’s another problem with the accordion. When you think of bagpipes, you think of Scotland, Braveheart and kilts. The accordion belongs to no one. It originated in German-speaking areas, but quickly spread to southern Europe, Scandinavia and South America. You can find it in polkas, waltzes, klezmer and conjunto. So it has all the panting tunefulness, and none of the cultural cachet, of other ethnic instruments.
But it has its fans. On the last day of the accordion festival, fewer than 100 people are milling about, attending the master class with Pedone or congregating in a ballroom where the accordion orchestra will perform.
Conductor Joan Sommers possesses a cotton ball hairstyle and a no-nonsense manner. She lifts her baton and launches the group into a jaunty, tropical number. Behind her, service workers snap tablecloths and float them into place.
“If you are chewing gum, unless you have a medical condition that requires you to chew gum, will you please swallow it or put it behind your ears or something?” she asks.
She and the orchestra launch into the second song, sans gum. This one takes me back to Lady and the Tramp again. Sommers leans in and out like an accordion in motion. By the time they start the polka, they actually sound like an orchestra, just without the polish of strings or brass.