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Nick Ariondo Acts Accordionly : Music: The composer and teacher, who plays Sunday in Long Beach as part of a five-day festival, gives the instrument respect.


Granted, Chopin may be among the most idiomatically pianistic of composers. But a keyboard is a keyboard is a keyboard, right? A Chopin etude would fly on the harpsichord, a Chopin sonata on the organ?

Uh, hardly.

But wait--how about the "Fantasie Impromptu" on accordion?

Now you're talking.

"It's hard for people to imagine what in the world it would be like to perform all this Chopin on an accordion," says Los Angeles accordionist Nick Ariondo, 46, who's just released an album titled "The Chopin Project."

"It was even hard for Willard Palmer, keyboard editor-in-chief for Alfred Music Publishing--and Palmer is an accordionist," said Ariondo, who plays Sunday in the closing concert of the Accordion Federation of North America competition and music festival, which begins today at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Long Beach. (Related story, F2.)

"But [after hearing the album] he thought the power was there, and the nuances--even more of the nuances on the accordion because you have the expression of the bellows."

Ariondo felt compelled to make his latest cassette, his third for Acco-Music Publishing, for one simple reason:

"You hear a piece here, one there," he said, "but nobody's done a complete recording of Chopin on accordion."

Until now. Included on Ariondo's are Polonaises in A, Op. 40, No. 1, and A-flat, Op. 53; a half-dozen waltzes; the Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4; the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, No. 2, and the "Fantasie Impromptu," Op. 66.

"I also play piano, but I didn't think as a pianist," Ariondo said. "I maneuver [the music] in an orchestral manner. If you think orchestrally, you think in terms of melody and tone and color. Accordion is about timbres and textures. The piano has full color also, but it's built on percussion. If I took this note by note and worried about every octave, it would be impossible--and sound sterile."

The Pittsburgh-born musician has played accordion since he was 7 ("My background was Italian; it was an ethnic thing," he said), studying with Anthony Galla-Rini and Tommy Gumina. (Galla-Rini, 92, opens the Accordion Federation's 40th anniversary event with a workshop today from noon to 4 p.m.)

In 1980, Ariondo earned a master's degree in music with a focus on composition and performance from Cal State Los Angeles. He returned to the university 10 years later as director of accordion studies and continues in that post today.

Ariondo has composed--solo music, chamber music and concertos--or arranged almost everything in his current repertory.

As to which of Chopin's works translate best, Ariondo wouldn't commit.

"Each person will listen differently--as an accordionist, a violinist, a pianist . . . and that is how they'll hear them," he said. "Willard liked the Polonaises. [Milton Stern, piano professor emeritus at CSULA] loved the Waltzes. You like the 'Fantasie Impromptu.' I like all of them."


Ariondo views this week's AFNA event more as a performance opportunity for students than as a high-caliber competition. Fact is, Ariondo is optimistic about the caliber of accordion players almost everywhere except the United States.

"There is lots of new music for accordion being written in Northern Europe and Canada," he said. "In China, I understand there are masses of accordion schools filled with young, ambitious students.

"In this country, the accordion is taught in mostly a business-structured way. Students go to a school and learn to play . . . but for them to go on to a higher category, it's not there. The winners in all this are whoever sells the accordions, whoever sells the methods. . . .

"We're not having the teachers we used to have, like Galla-Rini," he continued. "We're not having an influx of young people to be the true virtuosos they could be. We're losing the serious teacher, and we're losing the discipline."

In Europe, Ariondo says, the discipline is on the rise.

"There's the Coupe Mondial, a first-class world competition," he noted. "You have to be under 30 to compete, and you have some marvelous people going in. It's held in a different country each year. Usually the Russians end up winning. They're high-energy performers, and their technique is incredible."

But there's something about even the top-echelon competitions that bothers Ariondo.

"They're still not up to par with [those for] strings, the violin, the piano," he said. "Somebody wins, but they remain within the accordionist regime. . . . When major virtuosos win something like that, they should be exposed in concert--in recitals, in chamber concerts, with symphony orchestras. I haven't seen that happen yet.

"I won three times the [Accordion Federation's] Grand Prix. But you win the competition, then, Kiddo, you're on your own after that."

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