World-renowned accordionist Viatcheslav Semionov teaches at Moscow’s Gnessin Academy of Music where over the years he has produced many of today’s fine players and competition-winners, but there is more to this energetic man than meets the eye. He has written many original pieces for accordion and transcribed and arranged many more as well as taking an interest in the accordion’s construction. His enthusiasm for everything he does and good humour are a part of this talented man’s personality which is very evident in the interview.
Professor Semionov, you come from a long line accordionists, your father and grandfather played too I believe. Did you take a natural interest in the accordion or were you expected by them to study it?
I didn’t know I was going to be an accordionist. I started when I was 7 years old because of my father who at the time was Director of the Palace of Culture in the Rostov region. I had many other things in mind but then suddenly when I was 13 years old my father who was still young, died of a heart attack so then I decided to enter music college in Rostov-on-Don in memory of him, to initiate me studies to become a Professor of Music. While I was there I was still very interested in Sport in particular Greco-Roman Sport and became champion of the Rostov region and wanted a sporting career but then I heard Yuri Kazakov playing free-bass accordion and I that’s when I first felt that here was something to which I could devote my life. I stopped my sport bought a free-bass accordion and 6 months later in 1962 I gave a solo recital with Kazakov’s repertoire. 2 years later I entered Gnessins Institute for the first time and started competing. After 5 years the minister of Culture sent me back to Rostov to be a teacher in the new conservatoire in Rostov similar to Gnessins Institute in Moscow and I decided to build a really good education programme for our instrument. At the time it didn’t exist, it was just my dream to have the same thing that a pianist would have so I started to build my principles and structure my system of education and very soon we started to produce prize-winners who went on to beat other competitors from Moscow and other conservatoires all the time in competitions such as Klingenthal and the Coupe Mondiale. First place always went to Rostov. Then Moscow invited me to be Professor in Moscow. In Russia, being a professor is not like a “professeur” in France where every teacher is a “professeur”. First we have normal teachers, then we have senior teachers, then Pro-Docentes, then Docentes, then Pro-Professors then finally Professors. It’s quite difficult to receive this title. It’s a result of concert-platform experience, writing books on method and working with students. It’s was our generation, the generation of Myself, Lips Dimitriev, Sharov etc. who built the first real standard for Bayan in our country.
You went on to win many important competitions and then in turn you taught many excellent students who also won competitions and who have since gone on to become world-renowned themselves like Yuri Shishkin, Yuri Medianik to name but two. What did competition success mean to you and what does it give to a young emerging accordionist today?
I have taught more than 100 prize-winners. I never push students into competitions just to take part or win prizes. Competitions are an opportunity to present a talented person to the world, a chance to show their abilities and to be offered the possibility of receiving and invitation to play and so launch a career. It’s a good advertisement. First, second or third prize is not important because often it can be a competition of judges not of students. The most important thing is individuality and how a player can then continue, because sometimes someone can play all the notes perfectly without mistakes but will never be a good musician. When I work with a student it’s like they are a member of one’s family. In one’s family it’s better not to have a wrong person. There is the human being and the musician inside. Of course I will help them to become professional in the art of touch and sound, phrasing and to make real music as well as helping improve their technical abilities and give direction in the development of the repertoire. Every person has a different preparation and differing needs. I can use an expression of a wise artist, a sculptor who was asked “How do you make such a masterpiece?” He replied, “I just take some very good stone and take off what I don’t need!” So with a student we try to remove the dirt. It’s good to have musicality but most important also to have good taste. This, you start to get from when you are still feeding on your mother’s milk, then from all those around you. By the time you see some people their taste is so spoilt that you will never be able to help them and they will never understand you. So, repertoire, quality of sound, quality of thought, many things.
Since your competition days you have won many other accolades for your concert performances. Tell us about some of these please.
Competiton success is not so important to me. Recognition from real musicians is. After my solo recital in Copenhagen Conservatoire in 1979 there was a fantastic magazine article in Harmonika Blood with great words written about me. You can see these on my classical CD. Ellegaard wrote some really good words about me and how he appreciated my performance. This for me was the finest recognition because I respected him so much. He completely opened my style and compared me with well-known classical musicians. What could be better than this? Of course I like that my compositions every year feature in competitions everywhere. It is very satisfying to me that everything I have written gets played, not only one of my pieces. Nobody makes these young people play these pieces, they just like them and play them. Most of them play them very well. This is real recognition. Of course I have the Coupe Mondiale composition prize of 2008 and also one for the best Composition in Rome 2011 and many others from my own country. I had said of me in a Dutch article that I have three legs – that of a performer, a composer and that of a teacher. But in Italy I received recognition from Pigini of Maestro Artigiano so this is leg number 4 because my instrument was the only one of its kind in the world. In 1986 I connected the “Russian soul” – the reeds, to the “Italian body” of the instrument using fantastic wood, fantastic mechanics and such a beautiful and noble a sound resulted the likes of which had not been heard before. Then I invented something for the left hand. 10 years ago the left–hand completely changed. I found resonant reed blocks especially for sound, a special form and with windows over the reeds, and the free-bass started to sound like the right-hand cassotto reeds. Because the low reeds sound so warm and mellow the piccolo sounds doubly strong. I can make any combination of reeds in both hands. Thanks to this you can always hear what is on top, whatever is most important in the music itself whether it be right or left hand. You can hear this on my double CD. The body is Pigini of course but the reed blocks were made by a luthier who makes violins, mandolins and balalaikas. I specified the form to him and that is why my instrument sounds so nice. I have to say that Pigini were very cooperative in really listened to what I needed and produce for me an instrument which has lasted me now for some 30 years. Not all factories are able or even willing to take this much care over someone’s individual instrument. I believe that nobody else has a better sound than my accordion at present. Only I repair my Bayan nobody else touches it. My instrument of the future I have in my head. As far as the right-hand is concerned all factories make more or less similar instruments differentiated normally by type of reeds better or not so good, but the construction is similar, but the left-hand is a different matter. It’s always the weak point of accordions. What I have now is a 3-voice free-bass with an independent piccolo. I can add piccolo to any register but most important it is not connected to the bass. So you can have a basso profundo only on the pedal notes of the standard bass rows whilst playing the piccolo on the free bass rows. This is important in organ music. In all other instruments if you have the piccolo activated in the free-bass rows the bass rows automatically also have piccolo. Pigini makes it this way for all my students. All instruments should have this feature.
You play in a duo with your wife too and you have done many concerts both as a solo artist and with ensembles of all sizes. Do you have any funny stories you would like to share with us?
I remember once on a concert tour in the USA I was invited afterwards to a supper. Lots to eat, a huge table with American fast food and other things we don’t like. They wanted to say thanks and offered me somewhere to sleep too so afterwards we were talking with the person who invited me and I asked him what he did for a living. He told me he was a pilot in civil aviation. I asked him what he did before and he went on to tell me he’d been a pilot in the military. In the 70s there was a war in Laos after Vietnam. I was in a concert group of Russian artist entertaining soldiers in Laos and lived in holes in the mountains with stone barriers as protection against American bombers. It was at this time that I was doing a concert in Laos and he was bombing us! Who would have said that a Russian and an American who were in Laos in a real war would meet again in a concert situation all those years later? I was in a concert situation in Laos too but not as a soldier, my Kalashnikov was my accordion! [He laughs].
You have composed many pieces for accordion like your Don Rhapsody, your Caprices and others and today all of your pieces are played in competitions. What is your inspiration of these compositions? Do you set out to write because you want to say something musically or do you come to a new composition with the intention of creating something new and challenging for the accordion?
Both and even more than that. Every composition has its own story. For Opus No.1 Bulgarian Suite. I was in Rostov at the time and Rostov TV had a transmission called Our friend Bulgaria. At the time our countries were like brothers and Rostov was twinned with Plovdiv and because I was prize-winner in a Bulgarian festival of 140 countries, which was great, they remembered me and asked me if I could play something Bulgarian for this transmission, but I had nothing Bulgarian in my repertoire and Bulgarian music was just not playable especially for accordion. There was something for piano but the rest was just folklore. It’s in my character as you can see that if I don’t have an instrument I must create one so if I have no music I must create some. I remembered that when I was playing at this festival I heard some very unusual and interesting dances. I was impressed with Bulgarian rhythms in 5, in 7, in 11, in 13… in 15! [He exclaims]. I wondered why they seemed such silly time signatures! Then I watched them dance and I saw that as they went round in a circle they would jump and it was in this instant that the extra 16th note was added. It’s the only reason. So I began to understand how to play it. Where the accents lie. At that time I recorded by hand in a solfège lesson some interesting melodies. So I composed something in two parts. In the middle part I used Sevdana a well-known melody by Zlatev Cherkin and later I asked the composer if I could use his melody and he let, and the first and last parts I used the dance tunes but of course I did this my way. Of course when they play this in Bulgaria on accordion one player usually plays the melody in the right hand and another will play it a third below. In my arrangement I play both parts in one hand. The first time I played it in Bulgaria, of course when they heard it, they all said that a Russian can play like a native Bulgarian musician! [He chuckles] Later in competitions Bulgarian competitors started using my Bulgarian Suite.
Later I was inspired to write Kalina Krasnaya after the movie dedicating it to the memory of V. Shukshin and then more inspiration from meeting Nobel Prize-winning writer Mikhail Sholokov and reading his book And quiet flows the Don and from that came my Don Kazak Rhapsody which is now the most popular of my pieces. Then I decided that if I wanted to be a real composer I should study composing professionally so I entered the Theoretical Composers Faculty and at the same time I was a Docent almost a Professor but only a student as a composer. I wrote choral music, a symphony, a symphonic poem and chamber music and of course music for bayan. At that time I composed my Sonata No.1 in which I tried to compose about life, every sonata is about conflict and the first sonata is about conflict in me, when the system and people and the wrong rules press on you, which is why at the time we had many dissidents. I was already 37 when I wrote this and by then I was feeling like an adult person not like young boy.
When I was in the Basque country I wrote Basqeriad which has also become very popular. Then I have my Concerto for Bayan, Chamber Orchestra and Percussion called Frescos and the philosophy behind this is about how we in the West have developed psychologically as people with the influence of Christianity. This piece is not just a piece for accordion and orchestra but is also philosophical. When I play I always try to think orchestrally with the accordion, to give the impression of a real orchestra. The best compliment is when someone comes to me and says “I forgot that I was listening only to a Bayan”, and “While I was listening I felt that I was reliving my life”, this is the best kind of compliment. You try to give your soul and people react.
Its funny why I have written so many different rhapsodies, I was in Ukraine – I wrote Ukrainian Rhapsody, I was in Byelorussia – I wrote Byelorussian Rhapsody, I was in Lithuania – I wrote Lithuanian Rhapsody, in Estonia…people take it and they like. It was a stimulus for me, in all countries, in Europe, in Asia, in America… the only place I haven’t played is Antarctica! In China I have been at least 20 times. I am guest professor at Shanghai Conservatoire so every year I go to teach Chinese students. The difference in the level of playing there between my first time there in 1992/3 and today… you cannot compare the difference. With my influence and help and that of my students my students like Sokolov who was a 1st prize-winner in Klingenthal and who lives there they have really improved. Every year I have two or three aspiring students from China and they grow like mushrooms. I’m very happy to have just received the Premio Paolo Soprani award for services to music and to young people as well for performance and composition.The 2nd part of the interview will be published /will be online next week
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