Anzellotti’s Magic Box: The world’s most famous accordionist comes to Chicago

I say “accordion,” you say what? “Polka!” “That girl in the Decemberists!” “Lederhosen!” Associations abound, but one would be hard pressed to find anyone who, upon mention of this quirky instrument, would automatically blurt out “Classical music!” Teodoro Anzellotti is aiming to change that, however, and by the look of things, he just might get his way.

Anzellotti, whom the Renaissance Society is bringing to the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel on December 9th, holds the distinct position of being the most famous accordion player in the world. That said, his name doesn’t have household familiarity–or anything close to it, in fact–even though Anzellotti has spent the past twenty-five years or so recording CDs, stunning crowds at festivals, performing in concert halls across the globe, and even starring in a documentary (“The Art of Seduction: Teodoro Anzellotti’s Accordion”). If such success had been reached in the realm of any other instrument, fame would surely have followed closely behind. The world, however, has had a hard time expanding its understanding of the accordion to something more than a funny-looking piano made for playing traditional folk music. “During my student years, the accordion had an even worse reputation than the recorder. One was actually seen as a ‘second-class’ student,” Anzellotti explains via email.

So why bother playing such an instrument? Wouldn’t it make more sense to pick up a violin or get those piano lessons everyone else is always taking? For some, the appeal of the accordion lies in its aura of exoticism and the old-world effect of both its appearance and sound, but for Anzellotti, it just seems to have been in his genes. “From childhood on, I heard my father play the accordion. So the first impressions of live instrumental music I had were of the accordion. At the time, it was like a magical box.”

And if it wasn’t a magical box then, it certainly has become one since. Anzellotti’s dedication and virtuosity have paid off, creating breathtaking music and successfully integrating the accordion into the accepted sphere of classical instruments. “Gradually, an awareness grew at the conservatory about the instrument, as I won competitions, my self-confidence grew and I had the courage to ask composers in the composition class to write pieces. Naturally, I also played many transcriptions of early music on the accordion, which also attracted attention–for example, Bach’s Goldberg Variations,” Anzellotti said. “At the end of my study period, the accordion’s image had already changed significantly.”

Anzellotti’s unique repertoire played an especially crucial role in reshaping that image. Along with his rehashing of gold standards like Bach, his critically praised interpretations of Erik Satie and John Cage have helped him shed the folk music stereotype and establish the accordion as an instrument capable of serious depth and tonality. But from the beginning of his career, Anzellotti knew that he wanted to play more than just transcribed orchestral favorites and pieces originally intended for more commonplace instruments. “As a young person continually hearing the great historical musical literature, my desire kept increasing to be able to play relevant and great music written especially for the accordion,” Anzellotti said. “That meant creating a new repertoire from our times–to this day I have inspired and premiered around 300 new works… Today, after twenty years, the accordion has cultivated greater and more significant music than even many orchestral instruments.”

Such a staggering oeuvre testifies to Anzellotti’s transcendent musicianship, something that Anzellotti hopes listeners will experience firsthand at one of his performances. “Above all, they should listen with open ears and experience an intense sense of perception,” he says of his audiences. They should also experience “joy and intoxication deriving from complexity, polyphony, but also simplicity.” Luckily, it will be hard for Chicago music appreciators to disobey such instructions during Anzellotti’s concert on the 9th. His enthusiasm for his instrument is contagious, as is his continued excitement about the revitalization of the accordion; as he puts it, “what was once a dirty box now [is] seen as a treasure chest.” Anzellotti’s performance promises to be chock full of musical gems and goodies.
Bond Chapel, 1050 E. 59th St. December 9. Tuesday, 8pm. Free.