Romano Viazzani is an accordionist, a composer and an accordion teacher living in London. As a performer, he covers a wide variety of activities from solo recitals, performances with various ensembles, orchestras and theatre shows, studio session work and demonstrations. Among his compositions there are a concerto for accordion and symphony orchestra, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra at the 2001 London Accordion Festival but also short pieces and soundtracks for TV shows.
1. You have Italian origins but you studied in England where you still live and work today. What do you like best about the music scene in London?
Yes, I have Italian origins. My mother was born in Italy but on my Father’s side of the family I am the 4th generation born in the UK. My ancestors came over in the 1880s from the Parma area. The Industrial Revolution had already been developing in the UK for over a hundred years whilst it was only just getting started in other parts of Europe. The UK became a magnet for European migrants. My great-grandfather Angelo, a piano-maker was one of these and met his wife Santina Cattini (who was already a British-born Italian whilst he was working in Clerkenwell (the old Italian Quarter in London). Her parents owned a Pub with lodgings above it and many Italian workers would lodge with them. This pattern is still very much a part of the way things work in London today although probably with slightly better conditions than back then. Today it is migrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle-East, the Far East as well as very rich Russians! All this makes the work on offer for a musician very varied and interesting. One has to be very adaptable but there is a lot of work and for an accordionist it’s getting much better quality work than it was 15-20 years ago.
2. The accordion today has sharply broadened its horizons and with these, broadened its audience too. How is the instrument perceived in England?
Happily, the public seems to be very taken with the accordion at the moment. In the 60s and 70s there really wasn’t anything that was more unfashionable than the accordion in the UK. We had a thriving and very exportable Pop scene which was all about guitars and later in the 80s electronic keyboards. Gradually things started to change. In the 90s in pop music there was a move towards acoustic or “unplugged” concerts and in the last couple of years the pop music scene has been influenced a lot by folk music hence bands like Bellowhead and Mumford & Sons have used instruments from the accordion family. A few years previously Ms. Dynamite and The Gotan Project also used the sound of the “free reed”.
Whilst the accordion has always been present in so called “World Music” its biggest leaps have been made in the world of Classical and Jazz music. In Jazz we have had amazing players on the radio like Jack Emblow for many years but recently other international artists have come to the UK and have filled concert halls with thousands of people. Richard Galliano is undoubtedly one of these. When he came to London with his New York Trio and guest star Gary Burton on vibraphone he also played Piazzolla in the second half of the same concert with a chamber orchestra. This blend between two genres filled Barbican Hall with over two-thousand people. Something unthinkable twenty years ago. The unrelenting 26-year battle waged by Prof. Owen Murray at the Royal Academy of Music in a very clever way against the classical music establishment in the UK has definitely changed attitudes. As much as the “accordion establishment” were against him at the beginning he has proved he was right all along. The students leaving the Royal Academy now can actually, if they choose to have career on the concert platform both in the UK and internationally. Most recently Ksenija Sidorova and Martynas Levickis have proved this. This has come about by gradually exposing the establishment to the accordion in competitions not against other accordionists but against other musicians where amazingly, more often than not, the accordionists have either won or come a close second. The juries on these competitions are often esteemed conductors or concert artists and they generally react very positively to the modern accordion’s original repertoire and the expressivity of the instrument. Working with established modern composers as well as encouraging student composers to write for the accordion has also given the accordion repertoire from the real world of music rather than music written by other accordionists however good that may be. This again has really helped the accordion’s profile in the UK.
3. Alongside your career as a solo concert artist and teacher you are also a composer. What are your main sources of inspiration.?
Yes, I seem to juggle lots of things! I try to do all of them to the best of my ability and don’t really know if I succeed but I always try to learn from everything I do. In have composed a lot and arranged a lot. Simple popular pieces for the accordion right up to a Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra. This last piece was a very time-consuming effort. I’m glad I did it, now 13 years ago. It doesn’t get played often as it’s expensive to put on and I’m not a globally-renowned composer. I wrote something which I thought would be fun to play, with both tonal and atonal aspects, something that would draw on the accordion’s many traditions but would also look to the future. I hope one day it will be played more but large orchestral works are hard to fund in recessions! I love writing original songs or arranging other people’s songs for the many singers I work with too and some of these have been in the form of musicals for theatre. I also wrote some incidental music for TV many years ago but haven’t done that for a while now.
4. What has given you the greatest satisfaction in your professional life to date?
Writing Valceno – Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra was a huge satisfaction at the time. I would probably write it differently if I were to write something like that today because one’s musical experience leads one to be attracted to different influences. Also the world has changed a lot since the end of the 20th Century and the one thing I feel is lacking from a lot of accordion music today is that it isn’t relevant to our time. It’s not really saying anything and there is a lot to say about the world today. Music is a very powerful medium and is capable of communicating in a way that is different to words.
I have to say that another great satisfaction is working with musicians that I have worked with over the years are some of the best musical experience I have had. Yes, there have been the odd world-famous star like Grace Jones and Phil Manzanera which is nice, but it was an incredible experience working with Gilad Atzmon and all the jazz musicians of his Orient House Ensemble for the best part of 5 years which will stay in my mind. They are such incredibly talented musicians who play really relevant music in a very creative and technically brilliant way. Working with Orchestras like the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and the 10-10 Chamber Orchestra are a fantastic experience too but also working with youth orchestras here in London which exposes the accordion to young orchestral players too. Recently I have done a lot of work in theatre (with a bit of acting too!) in productions such as Songs From A Hotel Bedroom at Covent Garden, a musical with music from Kurt Weill’s American period, in The Accordionist which I wrote the music for with Bethany Jameson, another singer with whom I work with in the UK’s growing cabaret circuit, in Piaf at the amazing Curve Theatre in Leicester. Working in many differently-themed cabarets with Joanna Strand in London and New York also gives me great satisfaction and really keeps me on my toes. Whilst solo recitals are a challenge and satisfying in their own right they can also be lonely experiences so I recently decided that I enjoy working with other musicians much more.
5. The Romano Viazzani Ensemble is one of your recent projects. What have you to say on this?
This is a project which has had very few outings to date and that is largely my fault for being so busy with other people’s projects that I neglect my own! A few years ago fabulous Italian singer, Melody Castellari, fabulous pianist Simon Mulligan and fabulous double bassist Yaron Stavi and I did some concerts playing Tango. The long-term aim is to still do some Tango but also write some original compositions with this combination of musicians in mind. The intention is still there but there is so much to keep me occupied at the moment between that and my teaching commitments that I find it hard to spend time with my family at the moment!
6. What are you working on at the moment and what dreams do you have for the future?
I’m regularly working with four different cabaret singers at the moment, Joanna Strand, Bethany Jameson, Gabrielle Ducomble and David Vaughan, I am also recording with three of these over the next few months. We have just started an association of accordion teachers in the UK called UKAAT to raise the standard of teaching. I have a theatre show planned for next winter with Joanna Strand and American singer Gregory Moore celebrating Italian Song from opera to the 1960s and I have two books I want to write. The Romano Viazzani Ensemble is also there too! My five children are also very musical and I have make sure that they get to a standard where they can decide whether they want to make music part of their working lives too one day.
This article is available also in: Italian