Ian Watson is representative of a new generation of accordionists in the UK. He is extremely busy working not only with orchestras, chamber ensembles, and in theatre, but also with pop stars too. These are the demands of a professional accordionist in 21st century Britain.
Ian, before we ask you about your busy career could you give us some background on how you came to play the accordion as well as your educational background?
Sure. My mother was an accordionist, teacher and conductor and when I was five years old she gave me a small piano accordion for Christmas. She taught me initially before later taking me to London for lessons with John Leslie. It was at this time, aged 11, that I changed to playing a button accordion. Eventually I discovered that there was an accordion department at the Royal Academy of Music in London and I auditioned for the Junior Academy (Saturday school) and I started having lessons there with Owen Murray. I stayed at the Academy for 7 years in total with Undergraduate and Post Grad studies. I had a fairly normal state school education but having decided aged 14 that I was going to be a professional accordionist I didn’t really work very hard at anything other than music!
You also teach now. Is the teaching situation in the UK encouraging with more people wishing to learn or is it stagnating?
To be honest Romano I don’t have much to do with general accordion scene in the UK. I know there are some people out there trying hard to raise standards but at the moment there is no forward looking organisation to really galvanise what I believe is a growing interest in the instrument. This may well change in the near future though so ‘watch this space!’…
You are heavily involved with Morley College too along with Julie North your long-time duet-partner. Tell us a bit about Morley as well as your partnership with Julie North.
Julie and I have been playing Duos together for 20 years now – where does the time go!? We were working at an accordion festival demonstrating instruments for potential buyers when we first met. We have played concerts all over the UK and Europe and really enjoy playing together.
When I left the Academy I was asked to start an accordion group at Morley College for adults who want to improve their playing. When Julie and I started the group we had around 4 students. We grew each year and eventually founded Morley Accordion Orchestra, which now has 30 members and is conducted by me. Julie leads the orchestra and also teaches the beginner and elementary classes during the week as part of the college’s core curriculum. She also takes the Intermediate Accordion Group on Sundays. In total there are more than 50 different accordionists attending the college. They are all incredibly dedicated to the instrument and are always supporting the huge array of concerts featuring accordionists in London.
Duo Esprit is one group we associate you with in the Accordion World as well as the Czardas Duo. You are also part of Icebreaker, and a regular with the London Sinfonietta and with Sophie Solomon amongst other ensembles. Tell us a bit about the huge variety of projects you have been involved with and the countries/venues you have toured in.
Even from my student days I’ve been keen to be involved with as many different styles of music as possible. I believe that musicians never stop learning and each new experience feeds into all aspects of my playing. I get to premiere lots of influential new works with London Sinfonietta, Icebreaker and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which really keeps me on my toes! Recording and touring with Sophie Solomon (violinist) and her ‘gypsy pop’ band playing in underground Eastern European venues late at night was also fantastic.
I’ve played in some amazing venues. I suppose the concerts in New York (my second favourite city after London!) at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Centre are amongst the most memorable. I am the accordionist for most of the London orchestras and obviously this means I regularly play in great venues in London (Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Barbican etc.). I love touring in Europe and remember particularly the Opera House in Prague and Ghent Cathedral as being inspiring places to perform.
You have also worked with artists from the world of Rock and Pop.
I’ve played with lots of bands over the years but two really stick out for me. Blur and The Divine Comedy. Both bands have talented and very creative musicians at their core. Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy) is a really interesting person to work with. His musical influences are so wide you really never know what he will come up with next! I’ve done so many fantastic gigs with the band but particularly Glastonbury Festival playing to tens of thousands of people was incredible.
You also get involved with Accordion Orchestras and have also led workshops of your own making as well as Dartington Summer School.
I think I’m in the minority amongst my fellow professional accordionists as regards Accordion Orchestras, I love them! The thing is they have to be good… Most big towns and cities across the UK have amateur Symphony orchestras that people can just play in for fun and enjoy music making with a large group of like minded musicians. The accordion can be a very solitary instrument and I see the accordion orchestra as another way (along with solo concerts and all the other genres I’ve already mentioned) in which to reach people who don’t yet know enough about the instrument.
I’ve played in accordion orchestras since I was 7 years old and have been conducting them since I was 16. This meant that by the time I entered the undergraduate programme at the Royal Academy of Music I had 11 years experience of working with conductors. Most other instrumentalists of course get this from youth orchestras but most accordionists never get this experience.
Yes, I do run workshops of all sorts. I conduct the ‘Bellows and Waves’ accordion orchestra course in Devon (UK) every year and recently restarted the ‘Graham Romani’ orchestral days – now called ‘Super Accordion Orchestra Days’ which last year attracted 75 accordionists playing interesting modern repertoire together, learning new techniques and generally increasing their enthusiasm for our fantastic instrument. Julie North and I regularly give workshops on Duo playing and I have taught at the Dartington International Summer School for 5 years coaching solo players.
What music or which artists have really inspired you?
In the accordion world I’m always very inspired by the playing of Mie Miki and Matti Rantanen. They are both virtuosic players but are so expressive with the bellows and share my love of chamber music.
Away from the accordion I adore the music of Rufus Wainwright. His songs are always thought provoking and his phrasing when he sings is mesmerising. I could also say exactly the same about Jacques Brel.
Mainly though I get inspired by the amazing musicians I work with every day, on every different instrument, and I try to find ways to achieve techniques and articulations that they use with my accordion.
Will you be tempted one day to record a solo album?
It’s not on my radar at the moment! I rarely perform solo recitals because I am so busy with all of the other projects I am doing and it’s not like we are short of people playing solo accordion concerts…! I would very much like to do an album of chamber pieces I have premiered as there are some great works there that need more exposure. I think I’ve appeared on about 20 albums over the years for different artists / orchestras/ bands and that is the variety that I really enjoy.
What are the projects that excite you most? What do you enjoy playing most? I see your current diary is brimming with variety.
Yes I’ve got a busy schedule these days but that’s great. As you say it is an extremely varied diary, which I’m very grateful for! Yesterday I recorded ‘Anamorphoses’ by Schöllhorn with the Philharmonia Orchestra. It’s a great and challenging accordion part but the real joy is getting to play with such great musicians. Instinctive chamber music playing is such an art and in a way much harder than getting your fingers around a technically difficult solo piece. The variables when playing, in this case, with 14 other players are huge.
In the summer I’m going to Aix in Provence, France to play with the LSO. We will be there for 5 days rehearsing for 2 concerts. I’m really excited about performing with the world famous soprano ‘Rene Fleming’ whom I’m a massive fan of. I’m also premiering Simon Bainbridge’s new piece ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ at the BBC Proms in August.
2013 is also an exciting year. In the spring I will be playing in the premiere of a new opera by David Bruce – ‘The Firework Makers Daughter’ at the Royal Opera House. It’s based on the fantastic book by Philip Pullman.
I’ll also be taking Morley Accordion Orchestra to the Innsbruck Accordion Orchestra competition. We have commissioned Tony award winner ‘Jason Carr’ to write us a new piece to premiere there and it looks fantastic – a really great addition to the repertoire for accordion orchestra.
What would you like to see happen to the accordion in the UK and beyond in the next 20 years?
I think we need steady and sustained progress on all fronts. Those of us working in the wider musical world (as opposed to in education or in accordion only organisations) are the ones that really can tell if progress is being made. I certainly think it is. When I first started going into orchestras and chamber ensembles I used to get very strange comments from musicians who were not used to working with accordion. I know various accordionists have been into those groups over the years but not nearly as frequently as I’m doing now, and it’s the frequency that moves us from a novelty inclusion in a particular piece to a fairly common sight in contemporary music. Now hardly any of my colleagues think it is unusual to have an accordion in an ensemble. The general public and audiences are another matter altogether and that will take many more years but just as the saxophone and the guitar did before us we will get there.
In the UK we need more children playing the instrument and teachers equipped with the repertoire, technical knowledge and enthusiasm to bring through more talented youngsters. I know from talking to many of my colleagues who teach various instruments that it is not just the accordion that is struggling with getting the numbers in at an early age. Numbers of students are falling on most instruments. As the accordion is starting from a low base anyway it is even harder for us. I really think Gustavo Dudamel (the Venezuelan conductor) has the right idea with his program ‘El Sistema’ (The system). After school ‘clubs’ for children – all playing together. It’s the togetherness that children really enjoy. Of course some ‘one to one’ time is needed eventually but to start off I think learning and more importantly having fun with your friends through music is key.
In general I feel the accordion in the professional music scene is in great shape with many opportunities in virtually every genre of music making open to us. For this we should be very grateful. Many musicians on other ‘older’ instruments are very jealous of the variety of work that exists for accordionists.
This article is available also in: Italian