The musical maestro blending accordion and classical music

by Elizabeth Kerr / 28 January, 2019
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James Crabb. Photo/Supplied

The accordion is moving beyond folk and tango in the hands of visiting musician James Crabb.

Scottish accordion virtuoso James Crabb refuses to be pinned down by genres or styles. “Niches are very dangerous,” he says, from his home in Sydney, “I love to play all kinds of music.”

Crabb is playing at Nelson’s forthcoming Adam Chamber Music Festival with long-time collaborator, British violinist Anthony Marwood, and other musicians including the New Zealand String Quartet.

Acclaimed internationally, Crabb has performed around the world with symphony orchestras and ensembles as well as collaborating with musicians as diverse as the Finn brothers (he played on their album Everyone is Here), Patti Smith and oud player Joseph Tawadros.

In 2003, he and violinist Richard Tognetti of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) dazzled with a high-energy duet at the opening ceremony of the Rugby World Cup in Sydney. That adaptability comes from the accordion itself.

“It has its roots in folk music and tango; it’s a kind of maverick, a little one-man band, and now it’s developed into classical music, which is brilliant. It’s a kind of hybrid, a wind instrument but also a really super-functional keyboard instrument, a fusion of two worlds.

Crabb was just four years old when he began lessons. By his teens he knew he wanted to play for a living, but to undertake tertiary study he needed to shift from the standard accordion to the so-called “free-bass” classical instrument. He also moved from Scotland to Copenhagen, after winning a place at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in the class of classical accordion pioneer Mogens Ellegaard. “And that was me,” he says, “for the next 25 years.”

When Ellegaard died, a post-graduate Crabb took over his professorships in Copenhagen and Graz in Austria.

Most repertoire for classical accordion has been written since the 1960s, and is often supplemented in concert programmes by arrangements of pieces originally for other instruments.

“Composers are now discovering that in orchestral and chamber music the accordion creates fascinating new palettes of tonal colour. Composers need imagination and craft to use those sonorities and they’re featuring more and more in the accordion’s repertoire.”

Crabb has premiered concertos by many contemporary composers, including Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès, Sofia Gubaidulina and New Zealander Lyell Cresswell.

In Nelson, he and Marwood will play Lament, from a double concerto called Seavaigers (Seafarers) by British composer Sally Beamish, originally written for Celtic harp and fiddle, which Crabb arranged for violin and accordion. “She’s writing about the dangerous sea journey from Dundee to the Shetlands – beautiful, haunting, evocative music,” he says. “People absolutely love it.”

Crabb is also bringing the music of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla to Nelson. Piazzolla himself played the bandoneon, a type of concertina found in tango ensembles, and his music is full of the spirit of tango.

“It’s music I have an expressive affinity with,” says Crabb. “I love the emotion, the extensive mood changes. I can be pretty moody so it suits my personality. And I had a folk-music background so I’m used to improvising.”

Crabb has performed with the original members of Piazzolla’s quintet in Buenos Aires. “Meeting those musicians and getting a sense of the real danger in La Boca down by the harbour there, the ghettos and frustrated immigrants – if you haven’t felt that, it’s difficult to evoke the real edginess in Piazzolla’s music.”

Crabb lives in Sydney with his Australian violinist wife, Lizzie, whom he met while touring with Tognetti and the ACO. After five Copenhagen winters, they brought their young family to Australia eight years ago. Crabb couldn’t continue teaching – “there’s no real accordion culture here” – but he’s artistic director of the Four Winds organisation in New South Wales, which mounts a classical and world-music festival over Easter among its annual concert programme.

He’s enthusiastic about coming to Nelson. “I love those festival environments, the different chemistry and inspiration of new musical colleagues. Like a new meal with different ingredients, you have to be open and ready – it keeps you alive.”

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson, January 31-February 9.

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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