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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

Squeezing out the artistry of the accordion

September 30, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Finland's Maria Kalaniemi has been called "the queen of the accordion." There are, of course, many who would have difficulty assigning any regal aspects to an instrument more often ridiculed than admired. But Kalaniemi's performance Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center was an impressive display of its extraordinary, too often unappreciated qualities.

In Kalaniemi's hands, the two button accordions on which she alternated became -- like the piano -- virtual orchestras in themselves. But she didn't stop there. Tapping the additionally eloquent qualities available with the instruments' bellows, she enhanced their orchestral capabilities with soaring, lyrically mobile, voice-like melodies.

Kalaniemi's trio included pianist Timo Alakotila and guitarist Olli Varis. All veteran associates, their interaction occurred so subtly that there were passages in which unison melodic passages seemed to be produced by a single, massive, symbiotic instrument. At other times, the differences in timbres of the instruments, woven via parallel as well as contrapuntal threads of melody, emerged as an irresistibly vibrant tapestry of sound.

Most of the program consisted of traditional music from Finland and Sweden, as well as original works by Kalaniemi and Alakotila. The rhythmically upbeat pieces often simmered with the spunky vitality of Celtic music, as Kalaniemi energized the melodies with the twists and curlicues of traditional ornamentation. A more intimate quality surfaced in the slower pieces, in which her virtuosic command of her instrument was augmented by captivating romantic expressiveness.

Despite the 75-minute program's constantly engaging qualities, what was missing was a sampling of the full range of Kalaniemi's versatility. Her lengthy career has encompassed classical, jazz, rock and dance music -- none of which were heard in the determinedly traditional program.

The concert by the Kalaniemi Trio was one of a number of events in an unusually accordion-supportive season. Two weeks ago, Russia's Trio Voronezh showcased the button accordion known as the bajan at the Ford Amphitheatre. And the Skirball will continue its "Compressing the World" series of accordion-related events (with appearances by Dino Saluzzi, Daran Kravanh and others) into the spring of 2007.

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