By Mark Thomas Ketterson
An hour’s conversation with Ksenija Sidorova flies right on by. The comely, Latvian-born accordion virtuoso may be a darling of the contemporary classical music industry, with appearances in A-list concert halls and, as of this year, a lucrative recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon to her credit, but she is also a refreshingly down-to-earth charmer. She has a wicked sense of humor, too, especially when conversation turns to her rather off-the-beaten-path choice of instrument. When asked if she hails from a musical family, Sidorova immediately counters, “If my parents were musicians, I doubt I’d play the accordion!” She also adores a satirical cartoon by The Far Side’s Gary Larson; in the first frame, an arrival at the pearly gates is greeted with “Welcome to Heaven, here is your harp!” while down below an unfortunate soul is told, “Welcome to Hell. Here is your accordion.” Don’t let the levity fool you, though. Sidorova is a profoundly serious musician who is determined to let the world know that the accordion is not just for polkas anymore.
Not that it ever was, entirely. Although the accordion has generally been associated with folk traditions, the instrument became all the rage in aristocratic French salons in the mid-1800s. An early concert piece entitled Thême varié très brillant pour accordéon methode Reisner by Louise Reisner, a Parisian accordionist and composer, appeared in 1839. Tchaikovsky incorporated four diatonic accordions into the writing of his Orchestral Suite No. 2 in C Major, Op. 53, and Charles Ives composed an interlude for a chorus of accordions in his Orchestral Set No. 2. The Italian composer Umberto Giordano included accordions in the orchestration for his 1898 opera Fedora. Those who attended Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck last season may have noticed the use of accordion to create an atmosphere of foreboding (not something immediately associated with the instrument) as the feckless antihero Wozzeck is approached by the Fool, who terrifies him by saying he smells like blood.
Still, the accordion may seem an odd choice for the enchanting Sidorova. One might peg her as a flutist, or picture her perched demurely behind a harp. Her journey with the instrument began as a child in her native Riga. “It was a great coincidence this happened. My roots are basically Russian, [but] my mother and father were studying in Latvia. It was before the Berlin Wall came down, so we stayed, and I am quite pleased by that because I consider myself [multi]lingual. I don’t have that strong sense of belonging anywhere, and this helps me feel at home in London. [But still] I am Russian, I am Latvian; it is a complicated story.”
As a child, Sidorova spent summers with her grandmother, who played the garmoshka, a folk instrument. “The boys all did sports,” Sidorova recalls, “so she brought this little broken accordion from her neighbor. Some keys were missing, but I learned a couple of songs and basic chords. My parents came at the end of the summer and saw this whole act. They were not impressed: ‘Okay, grandma had her fun, now let’s go to something else.’ ”
However, Sidorova’s mother sensed that her then-6-year-old daughter’s musical interest was more than a summer diversion, so one day, when passing a music conservatory, she impulsively led her inside. “It was the middle of the term.” Sidorova remembers. They asked me what instrument I wanted to play. I said the accordion. The secretary flipped out. She said, ‘Nobody chooses the accordion.’ But when you are a kid you are fearless. They said I could begin, and if I did not do well I would have to leave at the end of the term. I was there for 10 years.” Sidorova studied with Marije Gasele, who she affectionately calls “my Jewish mother. She took care of me in so many ways and gave me extra lessons. She was excited to work with me because I picked things up very fast. I had a huge responsibility, because the time came to choose a better quality instrument and that cost a lot of money. I had a serious chat with my parents; at the age of 13, we got the instrument. I knew this would be my profession.”
She subsequently recorded a disc of demo material, which fell into the hands of Owen Murray at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Murray invited her to the academy to attend what she thought was a master class. “I was a kid, just 16. My English was not so good as now, [but fortunately] I met someone [who spoke] Russian. I said I was there for a master class, and they said, ‘No, these are the entrance examinations.’ Owen had filled out an application and invited me for these auditions! I was so nervous, I don’t remember anything. I was accepted with a full scholarship. It was like a fairy tale.”
Upon completing her courses, Sidorova longed to remain at the Royal Academy for graduate study but had to face up to a daunting financial problem. Academy regulations prohibited awarding a second scholarship, so in order to fund her advanced education, she embarked upon a grueling series of competitions. This meant going up against some among the most gifted young instrumentalists around—but the girl with the “squeeze box” aced them out, winning 11 of the 13 competitions she entered, earning the Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship, the Philharmonia Orchestra Friends Award, Italy’s Citta di Montese, and a slew of further awards in Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. In 2009 she won the Friends of the Royal Academy of Music Wigmore Award, which led to her debut in London’s venerated Wigmore Hall. “I fixed my name somewhere,” she reflects, “and people heard of me.”
One impressed listener was soprano Felicity Lott, who invited Sidorova to appear on Radio France. “I got a good slot on prime time,” she enthuses, “and then I got this lovely circle of friends!” Sidorova has since collaborated with a number of opera singers, including bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and tenors Juan Diego Flórez and Rolando Villazón. “I had never worked with singers. The way they breathe and phrase is so different from other instrumentalists. It made a huge impact on me. With Juan Diego, we toured a little for his last album.”
She has primarily made her name as a soloist, however, with notable success in the works of Bach, Mozart, and Scarlatti—often performed in her own transcriptions. “People used to play Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto on the accordion. [You can practically hear her eyes roll at the idea.] I call this musical pornography. There is no point in it. We are missing the main idea of what the composer wanted, and cannot give all the variety of colors. I have to be very selective about what works, and what doesn’t.”
To that end, Sidorova has participated in some interesting projects outside the classical realm, and has even recorded for an iPhone game. Inevitably, this had sometimes led to being billed as a “crossover” artist, but she bristles at the term. “Crossover? No. To what? I don’t play covers. I don’t believe in strict borders. If you do what you do with passion, and it is good work, why not? I like many different styles in music. It is very diverse, but I always stay true that my main mission is to keep the accordion face up, at the level where it belongs. It is a truly classical instrument, and all classical musicians have to be diverse.”
That mission has been forged from an amalgam of passion and practicality. “When I was studying, I had to pick up a second instrument and studied piano. Some asked, why didn’t I just become a pianist? There are thousands of pianists! I realized you have to create an identity for yourself. I have a love for this instrument. I wanted to do contemporary things and I love playing the transcriptions. I believe every person creates opportunities for themselves.”
Ravinia audiences can sample Sidorova’s artistry on August 19 [5:30 p.m. / 7:30 p.m.] in Bennett Gordon Hall in what promises to be an intriguing concert—a traversal of Bizet’s immortal Carmen. The project emerged during the negotiations with Deutsche Grammophon. “They asked what would be a dream project. I thought Carmen’s personality rather suits me, in the way of her temperament, her passion, and for standing by the right of free love. I stand by the right of the accordion! The subject is so current, we see it in shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives. Carmen is there in all shapes and forms. The cliché of the accordion is about drunken men playing it, and that is wrong. With Carmen I have this huge rainbow of colors to show the accordion as a very passionate instrument, but also tender and sensitive. I felt I could bring a different voice to it with my multicultural background. My Carmen has a little bit of world music, jazz, some contemporary harmonies. Carmen and I are similar. Plus,” she laughs heartily, “I just got married to someone named José!” (Don José is the name of Carmen’s lover in Bizet’s opera.)
When she isn’t performing, Sidorova loves to cook, and spends hours in the kitchen at home. “I stay in shape. It is about food and gym, that’s my daily routine! It is important to have a balance in life. You are not a machine.”
But for the moment, Sidorova is focused on Carmen and her Ravinia debut. “It’s wonderful! I have heard so much of this festival and could never imagine I would one day really be in it! When I saw the lineup, well, it is just an honor. For someone coming to hear this program, don’t think it’s weird, because you will hear wonderful musicians onstage. I want people to come with open ears and heart, because people don’t usually hear the accordion this way.
“I am privileged to be doing what I love doing, which is playing music. And I am very fortunate to perform my music on such an instrument as well.”
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.