Ksenija Sidorova came to London to study the accordion at the Royal Academy of Music from Latvia. She showed immediately that she was going to be a force to be reckoned with. She did very well there, staying on to do a post-graduate diploma, winning many major prizes and going on to play with top artists in the world of classical music including Nicola Benedetti, Thomas Gould and Milos Karadaglic to name but a few. I meet with Ksenija one morning, in the middle of her busy schedule, in a cafè in St. John’s Wood, London.
Ksenija, wow! What a busy time you have had! I must admit that the first time I met you at the Royal Academy, I think you were eighteen years old…
… sixteen! My goodness! No. Well you didn’t look it and you didn’t play like it either!…well I knew right away that you would be one of the accordionists that would enjoy a high profile career the likes of which have probably never before been witnessed in the UK by a British-based accordionist. Did you think it would be like this?
Thank you so much for your nice words but actually I didn’t think it would be like this. I had a wish of where I would like to get to or maybe my little aims but I worked towards it. If I had been thinking that I was already there nothing would have happened I’m sure.
But it was definitely what you aimed for…
Yes, and there is still so much work to be done. (She laughs).
So what made you want to study in London…what does the accordion department of the Royal Academy of Music and more generally London the city, offer a young accordion student like you were when you came here?
Well it was a successful accident of coming to London really because at the time I was lost and I really didn’t know where I wanted to study. It might have been Russia because accordion music there is an old fact, but the fees would have been high because even though I am Russian by blood I’m considered a foreigner by passport, which is a problem. Somebody, one of my friends gave a demo disc to Owen Murray which I made when I was sixteen and he emailed me back and said I could come to play at the Academy which I thought might have been an invitation to a master class, so I arrived with my mum and it turned out to be an exam, so this is where the accident happened. My language skills were ok, I could write an essay and my musical skills, solfeggio or rather my aural skills were ok too so I went into the exam and you know when you are under stress you can do nothing else but give your best of what you know at the time. Then I received this letter of invitation from the Academy which I didn’t take seriously at first so I double-checked everything and it was true. So my parents started to save up money for me to go and despite all these extra problems nevertheless it happened and I think London is a great place for any instrumentalist. For accordion its fantastic because there is a little niche which needs a lot more people to work in it because as you know everyone is busy and everyone has, thank God, concerts and something to do, so I think all Owen’s students, past, present and future will enjoy a full schedule of fun events and not only fun, but difficult things too. So it’s a challenge and I took this challenge with great joy. At home I couldn’t really grow in the Contemporary music field for example which was weaker so I’m glad I did it. The decision to send me here was taken by my parents. Now I consider London as my home.
So London as a city has offered you…
Oh Gosh, massive, massive opportunities. Opportunities to go to concerts first of all, countless concerts. Everyone comes here or passes through, on the way to America coming back from America, great people, phenomenal artists and musicians. You can go to many exhibitions too which can inspire you. That’s a great thing. I’m just lucky to be here.
You already spoke English fluently though didn’t you when you came to London?
Yes, because my parents were always keen and in Soviet times they didn’t have the opportunities to learn languages as we do now, growing up in post-Soviet times. It wasn’t just because it was a cool thing to do, they rally wanted me to do more. I do speak a little bit of German and I’m trying to do more. Then I also speak Latvian and Russian so English was the foreign language to learn too. I did a lot of extra lessons before I came here; I would just love to read that essay I wrote for my audition because I’d like to know how I did it! (She laughs out loud)
I just remember you speaking perfect English even back then. I don’t remember you struggling at all with the language…
It was more about getting used to the slang words or the accent. The first time I got into the cab to go to the Academy was actually one of the first times I’d left the country besides Italy and Lithuania at all those accordion events, but the UK was something special, such history, an incredible place and I remember asking the taxi driver to drive past Big ben and he said what’s that? I should have said The Houses of Parliament of course. Anyway, he didn’t drive us there so I left it to when I came to study here to see it. So in the taxi I said to him, “We are going to the Royal Academy of Music”, and he replied but I did not understand a thing! He may have been Scottish and he was really hard to understand. It was really tough
Then after you just start to get used to it. I was sixteen and everything was easier. Now if I had to move or go somewhere to explore somewhere else for experience it would be much harder. It’s such a tough step to make. You really have to believe in something…back then, I didn’t know.
When you’re young you just jump in and swim!
Yeh, give it a try.
Now, I would say you are a marketing dream because you have a fearsome talent, a phenomenal technique, power coupled with a rare, dare I say, feminine sensitivity, and you have emotional depth – a combination that is not always common in accordionists. Then you have a fabulous personality and the looks of a fashion model! Does this combination help you to succeed or do you encounter sexist prejudices which lead to people misjudging you at first?
I think it’s a common problem now in the music world, and generally in the arts world; just yesterday I was reading Norman Lebrecht’s blog about female conductors…
… Yes I saw…
… and Nicky [Nicola Benedetti] was being interviewed yesterday by the BBC and was saying that there are far more top violinists now that are female rather than male now. She mentioned Alina Ibragimova, Vilde Frang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, herself, actually she didn’t mention herself, I am…she is a very humble person. You do encounter this…ok it can help anyone to look good or something…it’s just a package thing which some people do judge you when they see it, but some say that it [success] is just because of that and they don’t look at your musical skills and what you can do but I think once they hear you and close their eyes, this is what matters, because if you close your eyes and nothing is happening then there is a problem. When you record a disc there is no visual aspect so it’s just audio and I try to do my best. This is not the main point. The main point is something else. If you really want to stay in a music career and you care about longevity then you accentuate your best skills in music not in looking pretty because this is all going to go at some point. People get older and they change. You become a more mature musician, more knowledgeable you start having other skills. It does help I’m not denying it but I try to accentuate other skills. Anyway with accordion all the bits are covered! (They laugh)
Exactly, you can’t wear a wet t-shirt for example like Vanessa-Mae…
… Who was recently very successful at the Olympics!
Yes! In the ski-ing
No! Vanessa Mae?!! With the violin or without? (He jokes)
(She laughs) Yes and she went through to the final!
Was it in the ski-jump, because it was the first time that women have been allowed to participate in the ski-jump this time. Previously it was deemed too dangerous for women apparently.
… Giant slalom she was on the Chinese team, I think…or…
… [checks Wikipedia] She’s British, half Thai half Chinese and was born in Singapore! She could have skied for any of them!
She probably plays the accordion too! (Laughing)
Yes, like Yuri Medianik whom I hope to interview in the future for Strumenti e Musica and who is equally brilliant on accordion and violin.
Yes, I had the chance to hear him in the summer when he came to Riga playing a Tango programme. Great. An all-round phenomenal musician.
Your old classmate Martynas Levickis has enjoyed some amazing success too with his number one album in the UK Classical charts last July. Do your paths cross much these days?
We sound so old…”old classmates”… (she laughs).
How long were you there together for?
I think we graduated about two or three years ago. It’s very recently really.
Yes it is.
Unfortunately I haven’t seen him for a long time but we are in touch on Facebook.
I know when I interviewed him he mentioned that you did something together in Lithuania?
Yes because there is music festival there which has a week of accordion because Lithuania is much bigger than Latvia with regard to the accordion scene and they have so many wonderful students and teachers. There is a big association and he is the director of that accordion week. He invited me and also some accordionists from Poland to contribute to the week. We did have a big concert. It was massive in a big church and a lot of people came. I think he is doing incredibly well in every field because he also does very serious concerts. [12.00]
I know. In fact we talked about this with him in the interview as obviously he has gone down the popular classics route and someone maybe hearing his album my not realise that he has all the training that everybody else had at the Royal Academy and he has also played very, very demanding and emotionally deep pieces as well.
Yes, and it’s not an easy route either and he has a really tough schedule.
I think it’s a really good thing that there are two of you in the UK at the moment who are in the media spotlight and he is reaching a lot of people that have maybe never…
… Considered buying an accordion album…
… Yes, and people have seen him on BBC Breakfast TV, and I know some of my young students who have seen and who speak some colourful “street slang” say of Martynas, “He’s sick man!” which to the uninitiated means that he’s really good!
… (she laughs) Yes, it’s quite incredible the coverage he gets and the amount people he reaches.
And then there is yourself, simultaneously going down the less popular route and getting amazing success too.
Well I think he had this coming because he entered Lithuania’s Got Talent and it was his idea. He was working on all the arrangements and trying not to make them too cheesy.
Actually he’s done it really well because he hasn’t done it in a cheesy way. Everything is very well played and in good taste. You can tell there’s substance there. Maybe someone who didn’t have his training may play the same pieces but in a less refined way.
Everyone chooses their paths and what they’re comfortable with and that’s what matters and I think he does it great. He has great charm and there is an extra personality which opens up when he’s on stage.
My daughter Adelaide says “I love the way his hair flicks about “shoom, shoom, shoom” while he is playing.” Which makes me laugh.
Ah yes but now recently he has a new look with straight hair, a sleek look.
He looks like Toralf Tollefsen now. I have compared pictures of them on my Facebook page. There is also Peter Dranga who looks the image of Wolmer Beltrami.
Did you put a double photo? (She laughs) Who do I look like?
Well there weren’t many famous female accordionists in that era to compare you to! We have to find a female accordionists from the 1940s as that’s when these other players were from that era. It’s like they’re reincarnated!
I have to see.
I have been listening to your recordings recently too. I must say they are superbly played and superbly recorded. Your solo album has some real classical and contemporary tour de forces. Flashing by Nordheim is for me, how everyone should play this kind of repertoire. The way it’s played and the way it’s recorded is truly amazing. You understand the piece completely and therefore the listener too understands it completely which is so important in contemporary music.
Exactly, well whatever you believe then the listener will believe too.
And your Scarlatti is amazing as is your Bach and you have some real show pieces in the Mozart Variations on A vous je direi maman, which most people in the UK know as the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle little star, then the Schnittke Revis Fairy Tale, Berio, the philosophical Takehashi, then rounded off with Piazzolla Five Tango Sensations. That’s a lot of content foe one album.
Well thank you. The latest one was actually the concerto with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales…
… Which I’m also coming too.
Well all these pieces were very much going for the mixed recital approach. I wasn’t expecting it to be covered with reviews and stuff. And turned out that it did. The Daily Mail gave it five stars, The Independent, everyone so I didn’t expect it at all. It was a lovely chance to record for this small label – Champs Hill, which is West Sussex based, with a lovely producer who is now chief executive of the company and even though he is so young he has a huge knowledge and fantastic ears. When I first met him I thought, you’re not going to listen to my Berio are you? Then when I started playing he came out with these comments which made some things change in my head about those pieces. Actually Flashing was one of the first contemporary works I did at the Royal Academy and when I came here I was scared that would have to play all those pieces that I would not enjoy and every time Owen suggested a piece I would ask him, “Is it very contemporary?”
It was your stock answer, or rather, stock question.
Yes I needed to know the level of contemporary-ness! I used ask him “what is this one?” and “what is this one?” and he would say “chew it over for me”. Then I would go off and learn it and he would explain then how the sound works. It’s a perfect piece to work on the sound and the bellows technique because it has everything so it’s like a massive etude. I have enjoyed playing since and I feel really comfortable with it. All the repertoire I recorded are my core works so I’m glad it went down so well. Then there was also the opportunity to record Five Tango Sensations even though it was only one movement. Some of the other movements have not been included but I’m hoping to release them a little later with the Sacconi Quintet which are one of the leading young quartets of today who have a busy, busy schedule so to have those people in the room, it the first time I met them and we had to record immediately so had no rehearsal but we connected so well and had many concerts after that.
Wow! Brilliant! And no rehearsal, straight to recording.
I don’t know how I did it. Now, I would have thought ten times before doing it. Luckily, on my journey as a musician I met those wonderful people, like yourself, (RV gasps), no seriously, who are wonderful supporters of the accordion, people who believe, can give constructive criticism, which is important because you always need to watch out and be attentive to what you do. It’s not always praise.
You’re making me cry… (teasing)
(She laughs) No!
Then there is your guest appearance on Nicola Benedetti’s album Silver Violin. How often do you get to work with these big stars like Benedetti and Karadaglic?
Well I have had the chance also to be on Milos’s [Karadaglic] disc. We started working even before he started the first disc. So it was a funny one because I saw him bloom like a flower, it was happening in front of my eyes, and I saw him grow into this fantastic star. He’s always actually been one, it’s just that he got to other people too. He’s a phenomenal musician, very sensitive. So afterwards he recorded all that album, then he recorded the Latino Pasion, including a version of Libertango and so I said “Darling, there is accordion in Libertango!”And so he said, “Ok let’s try and do something.” Then we received this invitation to participate in The Classical Brit Awards on TV so we decided to sit down and figure out an arrangement, so we just jammed r an hour and came up with this arrangement and then said he wanted to re-record the album and he did, this time calling it Latino Gold, this version, and this is where I appeared. He said, “I’m so happy to have you, we should have done it like this from the beginning.” So he believed in it after all. And Nicky [Benedetti] I was introduced to her by the producer of my two albums, Alex Van Ingen and as soon as she opened the door to her flat where we rehearsed I felt like I’d known this person for years. She is one of those really friendly people who means so well to anyone, just a super-nice person, a very rare person…
You can see that she is very she is very intelligent…
She’s very clever, very sincere, and hard-working. She never gets tired!
You actually beat me to it because a few years ago I had a little tango ensemble with Simon, Mulligan, Yaron Stavi and Melody Castellari, all brilliant musicians, and we needed a violinist and we needed someboy good, hopefull high-profile so I thought ah, Nicola Benedetti. The next thing I know…too late…Ksenija but I’m really pleased for you… grrr!
(She laughs). It was for the recording of this album about film music and of course Por una cabeza has featured in an endless amount of movies so we just worked then started meeting outside of work, just as friends and later she invited me to be on another album which is The last decade which is her latest album and where we recorded Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5 and Monti’s Czardas in a funny arrangement which was incredible fun of course. It’s just incredible that I had a chance to meet them and they were pleased to meet me too so now we keep in touch.
And you concerts with them too?
I did a tour with her for The Silver Violin album which was in October-November. Now she is in India.
Yes I heard about that on the radio yesterday. She’s with the Scottish composer James MacMillan. He’s getting very into Indian music apparently.
Yes. What interests about Nicky is also her love for working with children. She dedicates a lot of her time working for Outreach. I have just started with. I’m a baby compared to her. Since the age of sixteen she has been in the spotlight and what I admire is how she dealt with it. She never turned it to a pop career although she could have just like that. She really cares about her profile and how it’s going to be over the years so whatever she does is always high quality work. So I’m just learning from this how to work. It’s a great environment.
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