It needed to be something special to cap off a splendid Utzon Series at Sydney Opera House and Latvian piano accordionist Ksenija Sidorova delivered in spades. In a season that boasted the likes of rolled gold Bach from Canadian violinist James Ehnes and American baritone Thomas Hampson’s Australian debut, the 30-year-old virtuoso gave a dazzling display of why she calls her instrument “a one-man band”.
Starting off with some JS Bach – the Ouverture from Overture in the French Style from Part II of his Clavier-Übung – Sidorova highlighted the subtleties of this work from the majestic, ceremonious slow opening to the fast and furious fugue with its intricate dovetailed treble and bass lines, here fingered faultlessly with the keys of her right hand and buttons of her left. While all this was going on Sidorova was controlling the dynamic by precise use of the bellows, making for a highly nuanced reading of this lovely organ work.
Her first encounter with the instrument was when she found an old accordion in her grandmother’s loft in Riga. Starting off with folk music she soon moved on to a wider repertoire, taking lessons in Riga before moving to London where she became a prize-winning graduate at the Royal Academy of Music. In 2012 she was the first winner of the Bryn Terfel Foundation, and in 2015 she appeared at the Royal Albert Hall as part of Terfel’s 50th birthday celebrations alongside Sting. She collaborates regularly with Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital, as well as performing with Juan Diego Florez, Nicola Benedetti, Andreas Ottensamer and Joseph Calleja among others.
After the Bach Sidorova featured three Russian composers to bring a “more autumnal” mood to the afternoon. Anatoly Kusyakov, who died in 2007, wrote several works for the older button accordion, which became popular again under the Soviet regime, including a six-part suite Autumn Landscapes, featuring some fluttering right hand runs depicting falling coloured leaves and a solemn movement Cranes, inspired by a poem by Rasul Gamzatov who visited post-war Hiroshima and heard of a girl dying from leukaemia who made thousands of origami cranes.
Sidorova first heard of contemporary Moscow composer and balalaika virtuoso Alexey Arkhipovsky when her father sent her a video of him playing one of his works, Cinderella (she and her brother had bought her dad a smart phone which he told her he would never use!) Sidorova arranged the piece for accordion and it was one of the highlights of the 90-minute set, featuring delicate, nimble and hushed traceries over a five-note motto.
The last of the Russian troika, Sergey Voytenko, is an accordion aficionado and his popular Revelation – a sweeping movement of building nostalgic emotion which gradually dies away – made a neat segue to three pieces by the composer who made the accordion a serious musical concert instrument, Argentinian maestro and nuevo tango champion Astor Piazzolla.
Two of the tangos – S.V.P. (S’il vous plait) and Sentido unico (One Way Street) were composed when Piazzolla was in Paris studying composition with the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger. She, fortunately for us, told him that although his serious music was well composed he should not forget “the true Piazzolla” – the tango.
Sidorova finished her program with what she described as one of her favourite works – Alfred Schnittke’s Revis Fairy Tale, a piece originally written for orchestra based on four tales by the Russian writer and satirist Nikolai Gogol. It includes a first movement which quotes Haydn’s Surprise Symphony; a pompous and self-important waltz Officials, lampooning the bureaucrats and quoting Mozart’s Magic Flute overture, and a polka finale evoking the surrealistic tale, The Overcoat. Again Sidorova used an extraordinary range of tricks to add colour and texture, including rapid shuddering use of the bellows and percussive effects.
As an encore she brought the house down with Piazzolla’s motoric Libertango complete with finger clicks, drumming on the bellows and some swirling runs on both the keys and buttons.