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First Play: Michael Bridge, Overture

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Robert Rowat

Michael Bridge is a wizard of the accordion — in fact, he'll soon have a doctorate in it — and for proof, look no further than his debut album, Overture, streaming in the CBC Music player until its April 27 release.

"The accordion was for decades perhaps the world’s most underestimated instrument — certainly in North America," Bridge told us recently. "Everybody associates it with at least one type of folk music — French musette, Italian love songs, German polkas, Argentinian tangos and so forth. In truth, it can do all those things, but it can do so much more. As one of the most international instruments, capable of so many folk styles plus concert playing, young accordionists are taking stages by storm."

Foremost among them, Bridge has ensured his debut album reflects the accordion's wide range, from Bach to Tchaikovsky by way of Henry Mancini, Erroll Garner, Leonard Cohen and Armenian composers Khachatur Avetisyan and Aram Khatchaturian. He has also included one of his own compositions (Intoxicating), and two of the tracks (1812 Overture and "Misty") are played on digital accordion, which is sure to amaze you.

While you're listening to Bridge's astonishing playing on Overture, learn more about him and his debut album in our Q&A:

What are the advantages of playing a non-traditional classical instrument like the accordion?

I think many listeners approach accordion with a fresh mind — unbiased from having heard the instrument or repertoire before, and ready to engage. And for those more familiar with the concert accordion, I try to keep them on their toes as well! This album reflects my live performance style, where I try to help audiences experience and connect every detail in these multifaceted styles of music. Therefore, being able to play many types of unexpected repertoire — from Bach to Tchaikovsky to many folk musics — helps me to bring people into the fold. Furthermore, it means that there are very few established norms of how to play these pieces — which I like — because people do not have preconceived notions of how they should sound on accordion.

What are the disadvantages?

I frequently transcribe my own repertoire, or work with a composer on its creation. Both processes involve multiple revisions and are very time-consuming, despite being a privilege and joy to do. Being a concert accordionist also frequently involves advocating for the legitimacy of my instrument. It is a privilege to try to be an ambassador for it, however this is also very energy-intensive.

You've included two songs from the rat pack era, "Misty" and "Moon River." Where does your attraction to that music originate?

As a youngster, I played lots of folk music on accordion and I wanted to include these songs as a "tip of my hat" to the great North American traditions. The dominant musical texture in folk accordion playing consists of melody plus simple accompaniment. In my adaptations of these melodies to concert accordion, I wanted to take that to the extreme, playing a complex tapestry of flowing gentle notes with the left hand, and allowing the right hand melody to sing with total freedom like a vocalist.

With so much Bach to choose from, tell us why you settled on the fifth French Suite

When I was 16, I changed from piano accordion to button accordion, which was initially a nightmare. All the fingerings I knew no longer applied and I had to relearn them — like being a string player who discovers one day that somebody scrambled the order of their strings. It took me years to regain my full confidence, and nothing was harder than Baroque music, where there are so many individual musical lines to manage simultaneously. Having to obsess over Bach led me to fall deeply in love with his music. I chose this suite particularly since I had played it on piano and received many requests to do it on accordion, and I thought that the clarity of the lines would be extremely high on my instrument. It is also in G, which is the first note I played on my new instrument.

What's your connection to the music of Armenia?

I first heard Khachaturian’s Tokkata performed on accordion by Alex Sevastian when I was about 14, and I asked him for the music. Over the next decade we became friends, as two of the most active accordionists in Canada. Like so many, I was broadsided by his tragic premature death a few months ago — and I want to dedicate my recording of Tokkata to his inspiring memory.

I first discovered "Tzaghgatz Baleni" courtesy of an Armenian soprano, Lynn Isnar, during my studies at the University of Toronto. As with most of my arrangements, I tried to infuse the work with new harmony, texture and counterpoint — rather than only "playing it authentically" within the usual style. You might be able to hear tangential musical references to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and the music of Lutosławski in my arrangement.

Tell us about the digital accordion, its potential, and why you opted to use it for certain pieces on your album

To play the sounds of an entire orchestra is a huge adrenaline rush! Although I don’t see the digital accordion as a replacement for an acoustic, I see it existing in parallel — allowing me to combine the sounds of other instruments live with the accordion, plus creating the sounds of instruments that don’t exist. Every sound is played 100 per cent live, including all percussion (and bells and canons!)

The artistic challenge of using a synthesizer to play the sounds of other instruments is that you have to play within the sonic and artistic envelope of that instrument. You can’t just push the "english horn" button and expect what comes out to sound like a horn — you have to work out what physiological adaptation you need to make with your body in order to approach the sound of how a horn player uses their horn — a process I have learned from my teacher, Joseph Macerollo, in my studies on acoustic accordion at the University of Toronto.

It's fun that you included your own composition, Intoxicating. How much music have you written for your instrument?

As a teenager, I wrote dozens of pieces for solo accordion, but in recent years my focus had moved to arranging and transcribing music for myself and my ensembles. My aim is to get back into composing, as I miss it! I’ve recently made some of my arrangements and compositions available for purchase.

Covering an iconic song like Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" takes guts. What kind of interpretive stamp do you put on it?

I transcribed this piece for my Canada 150 tour. A number of performances I’ve heard (by vocalists and instrumentalists alike) begin very gently but build up to a huge, ecstatic climax. Instead, particularly since I’m working without the lyrics, I wanted to keep this song very gentle and intimate all the way through, deliberately avoiding a gospel-style finale. I think both interpretations are valid, but I wanted to be a little different. Although not in a religious way, I feel this musical moment is like a prayer, or introverted meditation.

Overture will be released on April 27. You can pre-order it here. Bridge and clarinettist Kornel Wolak will perform at Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto on May 28.

More to explore:

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