Your orchestral album which we mentioned before – an excellent performance of Vaclav Trojan’s Fairy tales. How was it playing with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales? Also Thomas Gould makes a guest appearance in Oblivion. Were you at the Royal Academy together?
Yes, actually I think he was graduating when I came. I remember a day when I was booking a practise room and I entered the room and it was Tom, and I didn’t know who he was and didn’t care less because I needed to practise and told him to get out of here, (she laughs). And he said “Ok”, and left and he still remembers this! Of course he was the star student then and I had only just arrived. Now we are playing together and we are having a few UK festivals, Petworth Festival, I think the Gower Festival in the summer. He’s a different violinist to Nicky, a different kind and we have different repertoire together. It’s very exciting for me to do all of those things.
You said you played with Joshua Bell as well?
No I played for Joshua Bell for the Young Arts Allumni.
Any other big names we should know about?
Er… Mandolinist Avi Avital. I will tell you a bit more about that later. Thomas Gould was a phenomenal addition to this album. I can’t even say he was an addition because it was just for one track Oblivion. It’s a very violinistic piece – the arrangement we played. He’s a really big guest on it and I’m really glad that this track is now on the radio because I think we made a nice duo and I really didn’t expect…again, both this orchestra and Tom were brought on the day for the recording. The orchestra were phenomenal because of course at the beginning they were thinking “what are we doing here for an accordion, seriously”, but by the end, this is such a concerto which you cannot leave without smiling. It’s a complete cartoon, like the Nickelodeon channel or something or cartoon network. They enjoyed it and I enjoyed it. They are an incredible orchestra to put this all together and of course Clark Rundell, the conductor, who just held the whole thing together. We had six hours to record the whole thing. New for me because I had never played it with and orchestra before only with a second piano and for the orchestra it was a first and now it is one of my repertoire pieces. Then Tom came in at the end of the session so we literally had an hour to record the piece which is very little if you compare it with pop albums where they may take months to record. What we did was an incredible task. Also it’s one of the first concertos which has stayed in the repertoire to the present day since it was written in 1959. Apart from the Olè Schmidt concerto it’s the only one for Free Bass from then. It’s really beautiful. I really like this work.
I find that with those kind of orchestra don’t often say much to begin with because they don’t really know what to say. Then by the end it’s always positive. Maybe it’s an impression we get as accordionists that they look down on our instrument but maybe that’s us that imagine that rather than it being the reality of what they really think. It’s easy to develop a victim mentality playing the accordion with these pillars of the classical music world and that maybe its easy to feel we are not deemed worthy of them…
… L’d say maybe a fighter mentality. You can’t go in as a victim because you have to go in being so sure, mentally sure, and this is thanks to Owen and the Academy again and their mental training for musicians which I would really recommend to everyone. It does help and every now and then I come back to my written records of the classes because you have to be so strong. When you go to an orchestra like that is so high profile you need to make sure you know one hundred percent every note of what everyone is doing. You can’t afford to give yourself time to relax. Everything has to be controlled and I see this with these phenomenal soloists like Nicky, or Milos maybe who works with Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a regular basis, the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Phil, you know, it’s something that they know so well and I see that me as an accordionist I cannot afford any less. You always have to do one step more.
As I say, by the end they always say what a great instrument it is…
… And only you know how much work is included to make them feel that. To be able to prove that to someone you have to be 150% ready or more.
Strumenti&Musica readers like to hear about the age-old question regarding systems. You play piano-bayan with B system free bass. Is this the usual system played in your native Latvia? Being a piano-accordionist myself I know that piano-accordionists can often be made to feel a bit like second-class accordionists in accordion circles by some adjudicators in competitions, some teachers, when compared to our button-playing colleagues due to some of the genuine and valid advantages buttons have over piano keys such as their pitch range and how far one can stretch with one hand etc. Their expections seem somehow less from piano accordionists. Have you ever encountered some of these prejudices? And if so has it made you stronger in proving you are musically equal?
Obviously I have encountered this but mostly this happened in my accordion world days because now that I’m in a bigger world amongst other musicians they couldn’t care less what system I play. They don’t know, first of all and this is a little “minus” in our accordion world. There is no one system. It hasn’t been thought through yet, it’s very different, it’s difficult because you cannot have this one standardisation and this is something which eventually will come, I don’t know when, many years I think maybe even a century, because at the moment there are too many differences going on. In my country we have the one system which is the “Russian” or B system in the left hand and the high notes are at the top or chin-end of the instrument. The fingerings are very different from the C system or what they play in Serbia for example so when you do a master class you really need to know both systems to give advice on where to put the fingers and even if it is a button accordion I try my best to get my interest in there as well because I think no child or no student should feel discriminated against because of their system. It really doesn’t matter. If you ask violinists if they have any differences, sometimes they too use different bows which ultimately make little difference to the outcome so I think it’s absolutely fine for now but I can say that I’m lucky now that nobody asks me this question anymore. Any problems I have with stretches I have to sort myself like every other accordionist. I’m sure you do it as well. Whatever works best for you is the way and I remember when I met Vladimir Zubitsky where I met him for the first time in Italy said to me, “I don’t care what you play with, it can be your nose, as long as it sounds well then this is how it should be done, so I have my fingering systems, sometimes I call it “the thumb technique” which Owen said like “Oh show me this”, because you have to stretch you hand so much sometimes and it doesn’t matter as aesthetically it looks alright, it doesn’t look like ‘oh, what’s happening there’, I think it’s fine, so, I hope one day there will be standardisation because it will be easier for exercise books for teaching. I use some of Jacomucci’s books for study written for button bayan and I couldn’t care less because some of them work also on piano.
Yes, the standardisation thing would be a dream but if someone comes to the accordion from already having played the piano for example then it’s almost inevitable that they would start on a piano accordion because it’s a natural transition.
Yes, and we never had button accordion in my country. Lithuania had one student, now maybe two on buttons, it would be good to bring it there and if I was a kid now or I were teaching my child I would probably start them on buttons. Not because of discrimination but we really do know…
… They suffer less…
… They suffer less and you want the best for your kids. Then there’s another question. Would you want them to be a musician? (She laughs)
Good point. With you as a role model probably yes! Sometimes we have to make compromised with repertoire, with stretches etc. but now there is so much repertoire now not like before, and while some composer may like to exploit the ease with which these stretches are possible on buttons other composers are maybe less concerned with this aspect.
I work with a lot of composers nowadays and I always mention to them that there is another type of accordion with buttons and if they like we could do it in two ways. A reduction for piano where it’s possible to cover the range with registers but by no means make it easier…
Yes, they just need to write what they feel they need to write…
Also we want future generations of accordionists to be better than us. It’s like being a parent to a child. You always want your child to be more successful than you. It’s the same with players, we need to wish that they will be better than us and take on more complicated pieces earlier, just as it is in sport.
You competed in many competitions. How important are accordion-only competitions in the grander scheme of things? And what about competitions against other instrumentalists?
I think the grander scheme of things would not come without accordion-only competitions because you need to establish yourself in this accordion family even though it’s a very small world. You go there not only to play or win or lose or whatever, but also to pick up the repertoire, exchange, meet other people which is very important to see how they live because you need to be in this field and see what everyone else is doing. Then also when you are a child there are not many performance opportunities where you can go and play say, fifteen minutes of music, or half an hour or a one hour programme which gives you a lot of experience immediately. Then you can go and do other competitions against other instruments, already knowing your strengths and weaknesses, of course accentuating your strengths in order to win but it does help and I’m glad I did what I did before and I did go to accordion championships, Castelfidardo competition but then I was very happy to take part in all-instrument competitions where nobody has this… sometimes you can say there is this closed mind about systems and stuff like this. If I had the chance I would like to expand the jury a little bit in accordion competitions. They could really do more with other instrumentalists and conductors because sometimes they judge too much on those systems rather than musicality. Sometimes you somebody really musical being misjudged. We have great players out there when I see what is happening now, kids getting younger and playing more difficult stuff…
… And also with a varied jury in instrumental competitions you are exposing your instrument to great conductors, instrumentalists, composers…
… Exactly and this is when you get invited and this is when your career begins and this is when you start rotating in a bigger world. You want some conductors to notice you and maybe they won’t offer you anything immediately but they will remember you and somebody might say, “Oh actually I remember seeing an accordionist there”, and then you know it’s your friend because it’s a small world.
In the UK we have recently formed UKAAT (United Kingdom Association of Accordion Teachers) to try to raise the standard of teaching and performance in the UK. Last Sunday you rana workshop, master class and performance at the Royal Academy organised by AYM (Awards for Young Musicians). How much do you get involved with teaching and do you have much time to do it at the moment?
I remember my last years at the Academy I was really keen on teaching and I trying to find students and by the end I got to five. That was my top. I tried to travel to them, it wasn’t even about earning the money because I spent much more in travelling, but it was more for experience because I know just how tough it is to teach someone to play such a complex instrument. I really appreciate people who do that. It’s really tough. I used to think I would never be able to work with a child because I would get too irritated with somebody that doesn’t work out and I actually get more sensitive towards it and then when they achieve something it’s such a wonderful feeling you get so… now I don’t teach at all because I travel too much to do regular lesson and it matters, so I diverted them all to other people because it I think it matters that if they really want to achieve something or learn a piece, even if they don’t want to do grades but they want to learn only one piece, they need to learn and work for it. If they don’t do it on a regular basis nothing will happen. It’s all about discipline… so I had these opportunities to work with Outreach schemes with The Worshipful Company of Musicians or with AYM which are a little bit more serious and oriented on one instrument so I just wanted to let all the accordionists in the UK know that there is help out there for those who want to study who are under 18 who want to either buy an instrument or take up a class, because I know how difficult it is for parents especially in a country like this…
… They will even help you buy an instrument?
They do, they give a grant of £200 to £2000 depending on the family income and the talent level. The income would need to be under £18,000 per annum. They are expanding and doing more and more work so now they are supporting over 300 children across the country and this is now why these master classes and outreaches are happening – they want to let people know that there is a charitable organisation there to help young students and this is a very rare thing. It’s a rare thing because some of them, maybe most of them won’t be musicians but they will know how much music helps in a person, it will help with their thinking and they will learn how to listen to classical music or any type of music because they are working with accordionists from folk music, classical and other instruments are in jazz too. They cover a huge range. For me it’s a really great thing to also experience this extra part of my life. I’m going to do more with AYM later in the year in Wales and elsewhere.
Well this is something that for accordionists will be a good thing because even a good starter instrument is expensive and then when you have to move up to something bigger it gets into thousands and thousands.
I think we need to start talks with accordion manufacturers because the price of something like a Peter Pan is unaffordable when someone can go and buy a £50 violin so why go and buy an accordion. Something has to be done in that field.
It’s very difficult. With one of my students I got her mother to buy a cheap Chinese accordion and even that is £500 plus and compared to other starter instruments even that is a lot of money and one just hopes that the student go on and work hard…
… And all parents can do is support at the time and I have plenty of times when I play somewhere and a kid comes up to me and says I want to play the thing but the parents cannot afford it so there is help there and if the kid is musical and they don’t even have to be great or prove they have done something. There is an adjudication panel to see your work and how to play. So this is a great start. Some of these students have even taken part in BBC Young Musician of the Year, so they have reached even this high level as a result. It’s great that they support the accordion. It’s the first time AYM have done an accordion event. I think I’ve been a patron now for about half a year, officially and to be amongst people like Sir Simon Rattle, Evelyn Glennie, Nicholas Daniel really great UKmusicians is a privilege.
So, accordionists take note!! So to my last question really which is What is next for Ksenija Sidorova?
I mentioned earlier I have a long-standing close collaboration with Avi Avital, the mandolin player, a person who I’ve learned a lot from, we have a tour from his latest recording playing music my Bartok, De Falla, Monti, Bach, Villa-Lobos; very, varied repertoire which we do as a duo or a trio set with a fantastic drummer, Itamar Doari who is coming more from a folk and pop industry and Avi and I are classically trained so altogether it’s a World Music project and were doing lots of gigs in Europe: Germany, Italy, France we are coming to Latvia too for three concerts and we’re doing Surrey Hills Festival here in the UK on May 1st and Bristol Old Vic on August 1st. Future events also include a few concerts with Gidon Kremer and Kremrata Baltica over the summer so those are the bigger things that I am now preparing for. Of course there are lots of solo things. I’m now doing two premieres, one with violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky by a Latvian composer, one of the biggest composer at the moment and he’s written a big scale piece for us so it’s something to learn still. Another is a piece by an accordionist and teacher Artem Nyzhnyk and he’s written a fantastic piece as a present really and I saw the score and I knew it would be something good. It’s still work in progress. I first heard him on YouTube playing Rachmaninov’s Barcarolle and I fell in love with the arrangement and transcription that he did so I just wrote to him. I’m also working on a project which has been a dream and I haven’t managed to realise yet in two years which started off with Stefan Ciric when we did some arrangements of Piazzolla, then we added a violinist and we wanted to do it with some kind of contemporary choreography and we couldn’t make it work because there was too much money involved but now, eventually, it is taking place in Riga in the Latvian National Opera with Kirils Burlovs and there will be three dancers and three musicians and will be a big project with animation too, for two nights and this is just the beginning because we want to take this project on the road. These are some of the interesting bits from busy life at the moment and recently I did a great concert with Eric Pettifer who is a famous composer of choral music so I had the chance to perform with a choir, Primavera Portena by Piazzolla, can you imagine that with a choir. I couldn’t imagine how they could sing that. It was great.
Well thank you Ksenija for taking time out of your gruelling schedule to give Strumenti&Musica this Interview. It’s been so interesting. You are a leading light in the accordion world especially for young people and I hope your career continues to attract the attention globally that your wonderful playing rightly deserves.
Thank you Romano and Strumenti&Musica.
This article is available also in: Italian