American Accordionists Association’s annual festival touches down in Alexandria

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American Accordionists Association’s annual festival touches down in Alexandria
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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

North Old Town swelled to the sound of accordions last week as the American Accordionists Association’s annual festival hosted four days of workshops, concerts and seminars. It was the first time since 2007 that the AAA had been in Alexandria, when they hosted the Coupe Mondiale — the World Accordion Championships — in the city.

Accordionists from across the country were joined by their fellow musicians from around the world, with some from as far afield as New Zealand and Europe arriving at the annual festival, which celebrates the accordion as a versatile instrument capable of many different things.

“What makes the accordion special is that we can do so many things that people don’t even understand,” said Mary Tokarski, president of AAA. “They only think ethnic music or polkas. Our instrument is so versatile that if you sat for an entire day to listen to the festival and all the performances, you would be amazed.

“It goes from popular music and contemporary, off-the-wall kind of things, to classical to orchestras to duos where people can play together and have a lot of fun. These are the special things, not only about the festival, but about the accordion.”

Given those misconceptions, AAA officials said it is important to showcase the instrument to as many people as possible, which is why the annual festival changes cities and venues each year as they try and educate those around them about it.

“[We want to] bring in the public, to enlighten them about what we know and love about the accordion, which is its versatility and, in the right hands, it’s a wonderful, beautiful instrument,” Tokarski said. “We want people to know that, and that’s why we move around the country, we’re always in different places. We’ve been to Charleston [S.C.], Boston, New York, Chicago. We just really want the public to hear what we have to offer.”

As part of that desire to educate the public, the AAA held a number of workshops for participants, ranging from advice on playing techniques and how to make the instrument work in a school orchestra to hearing accomplished accordionists talk about their careers in music.

One such musician was Sgt. Maj. Manny Bobenreith of the U.S. Army Band, the group’s only accordionist and the producer of the U.S. Army Strings. Bobenreith has been with the Army since 1986 after graduating from Catholic University, and spoke about his military career at a workshop entitled “Playing for Uncle Sam.” He has played for numerous dignitaries, including five U.S. presidents, while maintaining a level of physical fitness and aptitude expected by the military.

“If I got fired tomorrow, I owe the Army everything,” he told those present. “The Army owes me nothing. They’ve afforded me the opportunity to play great music with great musicians and actually get paid for it. To me, you’re living the dream. In retrospect, there are very few things in my life that I would do over again, and this is not one of them. This is the best decision I ever made.”

Bobenreith was the first to graduate from Catholic as a music major whose primary instrument was the accordion, and encouraged attendees to keep up their enthusiasm for the instrument, especially given its versatility in an orchestral setting.

“I think at some point in time, everyone wants to quit,” he said. “I wanted to quit. At some point you get sick of it and want to quit, and you need somebody there to tell you, ‘No, you need to drive on, you need to carry on moving forward. You’re missing an opportunity.’

“That happened to me on several occasions, I’m not going to lie. It happened to me when I was a kid. As I grew older, I really started to enjoy it. I think once you start playing music you like playing, I think it made it a lot more enjoyable for me.”

But attendees didn’t just listen to lectures. They also had the chance to play in a number of ensembles, and some were able to participate in composition and performance competitions, judged by some of the leading players in the accordion community. This year’s festival was highlighted by the Faithe Deffner Accordion Competition, held in memory of the AAA’s former president and with a $20,000 cash prize for the winner.

Deffner was first president of the AAA from 1985-86 and then returned to the role from 1995-2000. During that time, she increased opportunities and participation for accordionists all over the country, and was a passionate advocate for the accordion in the organization’s work.

“Faithe created numerous public and significant opportunities to showcase accordionists,” said AAA governing board member Kevin Friedrich at the awards concert.

Contestants came from all around the world and were required to fulfill a gruelling set of three performance segments over the course of two days. The eventual winner was Russian accordionist Vitaly Kondratenko, who performed at the festival’s awards concert on its final day. In addition to Kondratenko, there were performances from the junior festival orchestra and youth jazz ensemble, formed by attendees who had never previously played together.

That concert was followed by the gala banquet, where the 2015 festival orchestra and the U.S. Army Band Strolling Strings played to round off what organizers deemed a successful festival. Next year, the association heads to Buffalo, N.Y., as the AAA continues its work of spreading the word about the accordion and bringing together musicians to enjoy it.

“It’s really important to us because we learn from each other, just as we learn from the people that we live with or the people we associate with and work with,” Tokarski said. “Everybody brings to the table something new and exciting, so you listen, say, ‘Oh, I want to try that,’ or ‘That’s a great kind of music, maybe I’ll start doing that.’ This is what happens when you get a lot of really good musicians together. Magic happens, literally. It’s amazing, and great fun.”

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