Mika Väyrynen is one of the very few accordionists who are professional classical concert artists. His enormous repertoire ranges right across all musical periods, and his recordings are a testament to this. Like every great artist he has a complex personality, a pure talent and a tireless attitude to work. Not given to half-measures, nor over-friendly with persons whom he considers overrated, he is extremely correct and sincere with his friends. He was one of the first to leave the closed nature of the accordion world to become an important element amongst the international community global artists, perfectly integrated by quality and reputation to the Mount Olympus of great concert artists. He is then, surely one of those artists who are making history with his work.
1. Mika, our readers are very interested to know about your life-history. How old you were when you started to play music, your first teacher, your first instrument, and your subsequent training with different teachers and academies…
Well, I was child when I started playing accordion. My first contact with it must have been when I was around 5-6 years old. In my childhood home we had one accordion. It was already then an old “Weltmeister” button accordion. It was in very bad condition and when playing it, buttons fell onto the floor. I played by ear at the beginning. Hearing piece and then playing it. I was pretty precise and was able to study Frosini, Deiro, Pihlajamaa etc. by ear in very early age. Perhaps strangest feature of my early days is that I was really never playing “beginners repertoire”, but jumped right away to “real” pieces. Not a very academic perspective – but when I think it over now, it was very good. It was probably a kind of “self-made Suzuki-system”… Then it was time to begin to work with a teacher. My first teacher was Tapani Luojus. To me, he is most important figure of my musical life. He gave me a positive ideology, was an excellent role-model and treated me absolutely correctly psychologically. I still keep in touch with him once in a while. First teacher is very important. Later I had several teachers in Finland, namely: Vesa Vienola, Timo Kinnunen, Marjut Tynkkynen, Matti Rantanen etc. However, nobody of them can be named more important than other- and all of these relationships were relatively short. I was for a short time in the Conservatoire of Tampere, and then went to the Sibelius-Academy to the Department for Talented Children. Before entering there, I already played pieces like Zolotarjovs 2nd Sonata, Kalina Krasnaja by Semjonow etc. at age of 12. Then later I went to the soloist department of the Sibelius-Academy, from where I graduated with a Masters Degree 1992. I had already played my Soloist Diploma recital in 1991. And later did one more academic degree, becoming Doctor of Music 1997. I also spent one year in Paris (1988-1989) studying under Max Bonnay and then served in the Army between 1987and 1988. I was appointed Professor of Accordion (and head of accordion faculty) in Conservatory of Klagenfurt in Austria. I worked there from January 1994 until July 1996.
2. During your studies, was there anyone you took as an example? An accordionist or any other instrumentalist? Someone who was a role model, who possibly influenced your development and your orientation?
Well, I can not give any special credit to anybody in accordion world. There were accordionists whom I admired those days: Lips was important because of his never-ending energy for new things, Semjonow touched my heart with his beautiful works, I liked work by Kuzjakow. Max Bonnay was important figure. Later Ellegaard also. And so on. But some organists, pianists, violinists got my attention: the extraordinary Finnish organist Markku Ketola (who passed away tragically in an accident). I also listened a lot to Richter, Serkin, Menuhin… I listened to “non-accordion music” from a young age.
3. You are one of very few professional accordion artists, who has been playing at the top level for 20 years. With other instruments such as Piano or Violin there are many more, even if not all are really top players. Why in your opinion is this situation with the accordion? We know there have been many talented accordionists who have been wonderful for a few years, or less, and then disappeared.
Sometimes I think that searching for instant success is one factor what effects younger players. They have to get everything NOW, but they are not ready for it. Talent and fast fingers are not enough. Music is constant studying – lifetime project, as is violin-making. Every day, year by year one has to develop, develop… If that attitude does not exist in a person, one can feel empty one day. Asking questions: where to go now, what to learn, why…? After winning some accordion competitions the world does not open up to one automatically. Only through long term work, stability of performances, intellect, technical skills, psychology, experience etc.one can develop. Everything in life takes time. Love for music is what I feel main reason one should have when playing. If that love is gone – nothing is left. Also, many people get frustrated because establishing career as an accordionist is so difficult. They simply give up. But where would we be without Ellegaard, Noth, Lips, Semjonow, Bonnay…? It was not easy for them. But because some of these people have did things and didn’t give up, we, the next generation can go on. And so can generation after us.
4. The accordion, or bayan, has today many systems in the world. This problem causes troubles to producers, composers, teachers. In your opinion, we are going slowly in the direction of standardization or will differences remain for many years?
Difficult question. There are two answers: ideological and realistic. On ideological level, one or two systems should be enough. And on a realistic level, I think that systems are going to be as much a mess as they used to be. B,C and A systems will surely go on until the end of the world. Mixture of systems (B-system in right side, C-system in left etc) could be gone one day.
5. During the last few years you started to play the bandoneon. Can you explain why? Was it a choice you made to give you a more marketable appeal as performer or was there a need to explore different genres with a different sound?
Well, I don’t think about the “market” nor do I let it effect my choice of pieces or instruments etc. Everybody who knows me, knows that I am one of those persons who cannot act against one’s own principles. I planned to play bandoneon for many years. I like tango music, and studied it long time. I just wanted to know how it felt to play with the original sound. Now I know it, I played on bandoneon as soloist, with different ensembles, with orchestra. I will surely keep going on with bandoneon, but it should not effect the use of my time as accordionist. Accordion is my own instrument and profession, bandoneon is my hobby.
6. Do you play just accordion and bandoneon or also other instruments?
I studied organ at the academy, and can also play piano.
7. You recently had a very special experience in Japan playing the Bach ‘Golberg Variations’ along with piano players and a harpsichord player (more?). What were your feelings, and what was the reaction of the public?
Yes, I played in the series of Goldberg-variations in Tokyo Sumida Triphony Hall. The other soloists were pianists, a cembalist and an organist. (It was actually my 5th concert-trip to Japan.) The biggest Japanese music magazines interviewed me before the concert, and it got very good reviews in Japanese press. Obviously audience liked it too – at least they applauded a lot….
8. Anatoly Kusjakov recently passed away, it has been a big loss for the accordion and for music. His last composition was the 7th Sonata for accordion soloist, and it has been dedicated to you, and you alone have the score. All the accordion world is waiting with impatience the ‘premiere’ of this work. Have you any plans to play it?
Of course I do plan to perform it soon. “Sonata nr.7- Misterium” is the full name of the Sonata. I’d got it already back in early 2006. Then some very unfortunate things delayed me playing it. I broke disc in my spine in late summer 2006. I was waiting to be operated on but fortunately did not have to. However, I was for some months not able to practise properly. After being ok again at beginning 2007, I had huge amount of work, because I had to cancel many things while recovering. Every year I have to perform really big amount of music: several concertos, a lot chamber music, premieres, solo repertoires, bandoneon… So, once I was well again there were pieces waiting – some of them had fixed dates for premieres (For example Concertos by Nordgren and Erkki-Sven Tuur). So, I had to play those pieces first. The other thing was that it was not easy to find good place to premiere it. I offered it to some accordion festivals and competitions, but surprisingly many said “no”. One big competition in Germany refused, same happened in Russia, for example. Since it is Kuzjakow’s big piece (and now we know it is his last piece), I wanted to premiere it in a big accordion event – so that as many professionals as possible can hear it right away. To give it a good a “birth”. I will premiere Sonata nr. 7 at beginning of April this year in Netherlands. Then I perform it in London. I will keep it in my repertoire for long time, and will perform it anywhere where it is wanted. In June I will perform it several times in Portugal. Then in Finland too. It is great piece. I feel it is his musical last will and testament. It is “misterium” – mystery of Kuzjakow. On some level he must have known that his time in this earth was coming to an end.
9. You often say that one of big problems of accordion world is that it is quite isolated from the general music world. In effect many accordion players feel like they are considered to be at a lower level in respect piano or strings. Your concerts, your collaborations, your musical life brings you constantly in contact with all kinds of musicians and orchestras. How do you feel being an accordionist?
I do not have problem with that. Actually, most of my colleagues (other instrumentalists) treat me as one of them. Perhaps they respect my art, since I get regular invitations to festivals to play with them. Also some conductors treat me as real “musician”, as do many composers. In my private lifee, I am mostly in contact with other instrumentalists – some of them are top musicians of world. I am really fortunate in that matter.
10. What advice would you give to a youngster wishing to take the same road, assuming he has the talent and the will to work?
No real advice. One has to find one’s own way – nobody can help in that. I can just wish them good luck.
11. What do you think of today’s music? The main problem seems o be a lack of students, fewer children taking up a musical instrument, music seen as passive consumption, that is simply to listen to. What has made this situation?
Society. changes in values, internet, globalization. Losing old “handwork” culture. Laziness – everything should be got as quickly as getting information from Google… To study music is such long way, and difficult. But surely, so-called concert music will survive, as should the accordion. It is the wave/cycle of life: during some periods some phenomenon is on the decline, but after decade or so – it comes back. I do not think that fundamental musical values will disappear. They have been here hundreds of years, and will be in the future too.
12. What do you think of the accordion’s evolution in todays classical music scene?
I am optimistic. We do not need more competition winners, but we need talented, intellectual artists who can work for future. We need people who look for future and who live now in year 2008. Not in year 1970.We need people who understand what are the values among artists: instrumentalists, composers – not among accordionists. We need people who can work with the best musicians – and can get respect from them. Not only as accordionist, but as musician.
13. It is said that the expressive and technical limits of the accordion have not been reached yet. In fact in competitions, students are at higher levels and manage brilliant performances. You are probably the actual highest developed exponent of accordion technique, improving your skills more and more. Paganini, for the violin, set the limits that nobody reached after him, do you think the accordion has still a lot of possibilities to develop?
No, I do not think so. Actual techniques are almost all invented, at least in general. But how to use them? There is some way to go still. I think technique not as one, but as many levels. First comes “big technique” – thats speed, precision, virtuosity, power etc. Most of players stay in that stage all their life. What I call as “small technique”, the capability to intonate in any speed – being able to really produce different sonorities (with fingers, not only with bellows) in any tempo, any texture. The capability to use different kinds of pushing- down/up motions – in both hands. When technique is really mastered, we can hear it from the sound of the player. Many people say that the bellows is soul of accordion. I do not think so. It is 1/3 of instrument, hands and fingers (and body) are as important in intonation. They are 2/3 of intonation. Music is the art form which operates with sound. Therefore, instead of simple speed etc, quality of sound should be the main importance. All technical things should lead to the mastery of sonority, sound. That’s my opinion.
14. About the instrument: do you think the actual quality of the best instruments has reached its maximum level such as Stradivari or Guarneri for violin, or do the accordion artisans and makers have still a lot of work to do? And in this case, which part (reeds, mechanics, reedblocks….) you would like to see an improvement?
Well, because this interview is made for an Italian magazine, and most of accordion factories are in Italy- I use this opportunity to answer this question carefully and profoundly. I do not think that accordion is ready yet. I have studied for several years the construction of the accordion, especially its sonority: reeds, reedblocks, body, material, acoustics. I can tune instruments and even make reeds, to replace possibly broken ones. Firstly, there is need of change of attitude. Almost every time I have asked accordion manufacturer to change something in construction, I have got answers: “no, that’s not possible, too difficult, cannot be done…”. Once I asked: if your worker can put that piece of wood in the instrument that way, why can he not put it in other way? The amount of work remains same. Nowadays, it seems that new instruments have more registers, switches etc. than they have buttons:-) I feel it is wrong way. One can not cover bad/medium sonority with mechanical aids. Perfect instruments should begin from perspective of simplicity and to have goal of producing fantastic sound. Careful study of acoustics, choice of materials, body tensions (too thick a body blocks the sound, too solid does not vibrate etc.), logical ways to put reed blocks in etc. Most concert accordions do not stay tuned, and many times a tuner cannot make precise tuning at all. They tune and tune, but instrument does not become tuned. Why? Answers are simple, but I don’t tell them. I tried to tell them sometimes, but some manufacturers would not listen – what can just an “artist” know about the construction of accordions..? Well, I say that some of us have spent thousands of hours with instruments. Some of players have such experience that we could really help in producing fantastic instruments. In co-operation with best artisans, manufacturers, reedmakers and tuners, we could do something special. So, to me it is obvious that sonorous aspects should be re-considered. If things have been done a certain way last 10 or 40 years – so what? Why not go on just the same way, even if clients are complaining about the same problems instrument after instrument ? Because business is going well anyway? In business, only those who are creative will survive, and nowadays competition in accordion business is getting harder than ever.
15. You are also a professor at the Sibelius Academy. What are your plans for the future?
Future… I can not predict it. My main job is to play. I get most pleasure when practising . Learning new pieces, little by little developing myself. I like to teach, especially nowadays when my concept of playing and teaching is analysed and tested. I like to open eyes of young players and show them what we can do – and how to reach that. I like to see happy faces in seminars and give motivation to students. So, in my professional future performing and teaching will probably stay in combination as it is now. In my private life, I want to live a rather simple life. To me it is important to have my wife, my children, my friends. Good dinner with good friends, good company. What else could one hope for?
Thank you for your time, and please accept the best wishes of the Strumenti & Musica staff and all our readers