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The accordion gets a second wind

Eric Bradler heads DU's classical accordion program. Photo: Michael Richmond

Something about the phrase classical accordion just doesn’t fit. Like saying kazoo virtuoso or castanet prodigy, it just rings wrong.

Never mind that Tchaikovsky wrote serious music that included the instrument. Accordions conjure visions of a street beggar with a monkey, a zydeco squeezebox on Bourbon Street, Lawrence Welk’s champagne music-makers, or the chicken dance played by Jolly Joe Timmer the Polka King.

That drives Adjunct Professor Eric Bradler crazy.

Head of the Lamont School of Music’s classical accordion program, Bradler bristles when he talks of how dance band-style entertainers like Welk affected the way listeners perceive the accordion.

“We’ve all been warped,” he says, noting that music is associative, evoking images and memories triggered by sounds. That’s why when you hear an accordion, you generally think of Welk, not Tchaikovsky, he says.

Bradler’s mission? To break those mental bonds and make the accordion sound fresh and exciting.

“It’s one person at a time coming to concerts and hearing things out of the norm of what they’d expect,” he says. “I try to change their minds about what they hear.”

Bradler labors alone. His mentor, the late accordion maestro Robert Davine, had as many as 10 music majors at DU at pursuing bachelor or master of music degrees in accordion performance. Today there are none.

Even the carillon, a set of finely tuned bells played on a keyboard, has two majors, as does the harp. But the accordion, a descendant of a 5,000-year-old Chinese instrument called the sheng, still struggles for a place on the program.

Oh, there’s a measure of curiosity. Musicians at Lamont like to try their hands at different instruments. But in the ebb and flow of interest in accordion, there is more ebb than flow, Bradler allows.

So he plays on, teaching academic courses in music theory and aural skills, giving concerts at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, practicing three to four hours a day and filling in when the Colorado Symphony needs a soloist.

“I played probably 30 seconds in a one-hour, 45-minute concert,” he recalls of his most recent gig, the “Lord of the Rings Symphony.” “I loved the 30 seconds, but there was a lot of sitting.”

Sitting and perhaps wondering about the old joke that accordions are only good for learning how to fold a map.

Or wondering why Germany, Italy, China and Russia are hotbeds of accordion interest while the United States is so … less harmonious.

Maybe even wondering when DU will once again see students who love the accordion as much as Bradler does.

In the end, he says confidently, one thing is for sure: “The accordion is my gift.”

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