Story by Joe Barron
Almost every time Joe Soprani hears an unfamiliar piece of music, he thinks how good it would sound on the accordion.
It’s an unusual perspective, given the instrument’s square reputation as a staple on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” but it can lead to some fresh takes on old chestnuts. Soprani has been playing the accordion since he was 5, and over a long and varied career, he has performed with the U.S. Air Force Band, in Broadway pit orchestras and on the occasional rock album. In 1954, he became the only accordion player ever to appear as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and ever since, he has sought out or made his own arrangements of such classical standards as the “William Tell” Overture, Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto, and Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.”
“I’ve been around a long time,” Soprani said in phone interview Nov. 23, “so when they see me, they know it’s not going to be a guy playing a polka in a bar.”
Not that he has anything against polkas. In fact, on Dec. 13, he will play one at the Salon Extraordinaire at the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. What makes it unusual is that it’s his own arrangement of the Italian Polka by Rachmaninoff, which is itself an arrangement, for piano and later for band, of a simple melody subjected to the composer’s florid keyboard technique.
“Rachmaninoff was in Italy, and he heard an organ grinder playing this particular piece,” Soprani said. “When he got back home to Russia, he wrote it for piano first … I liked it so much that I transcribed it. It’s a cute little piece. I think it’ll fit in just nicely.”
In truth, just about everything does. For Andrea Clearfield, the composer who organized her first salon at Main Line four years ago, eclecticism is very much the point. Soprani is just one of six acts slated for the Dec. 13 salon, part of a lineup that also includes classical pianists Rollin Wilber and Michelle Cann; Qin Qian, who will play the Chinese violin known as the erhu; the John Byrne Band, which specializes in Irish and American folk music; and Thomas Kozumplik, who plays percussion accompanied by an electronic soundtrack.
“I believed that in order to create a community around music, to have all different styles would pull in a cross-pollinization of the audience,” Clearfield said in a phone conversation Nov. 23. “It can spark an interest in things you might not ever even have thought of or encountered. And for me that’s very exciting.”
Clearfield took the inspiration for her salons from those of 17th- and 18th-century France, when philosophes and artistes would gather in private parlors for elevated conversation. As the Enlightenment spread, so did salon culture, and in time, musicians were added to the mix. It’s exciting to think back to one such occasion, in the 1780s in Vienna, when Haydn and Mozart played string quartets with their buddies Dittersdorf and Wanhal.
Just as exciting, however, is the idea that musicians are still getting together and making discoveries more than 200 years later.
“One of the things I like to say to people in the beginning, in our busy lives we don’t often have this chance to sit back and to really receive,” Clearfield said. “To me it’s like an adventure of the eyes and the ears. That you might be surprised, that certain things might open you up and resonate with you in a way you might not have expected.”
Each act at the Salon Extraordinaire gets about 10 minutes, which will give Soprani enough time to play another of his arrangements — this one of the “Italian Rhapsody” by Julie Giroux. Soprani first heard the work at a reunion of the U.S. Air Force Band in Washington, D.C. He told the bandleader, “This piece is crying out for an accordion.”
Story by Joe Barron