Asked if there’s anything about the accordion he wishes the public knew, Robert Young McMahan responds he wishes there was a lot that they didn’t.
“Polka is at the top of my list,” he says. “Lawrence Welk is second.” But he hastens to add that, even though Welk “wasn’t cool,” the accordion-playing band-leading host of the long running television show (with reruns shown on PBS) helped popularize the instrument. “The arrangements were quite good, and Myron Floren played quite well, for what they were doing.” Floren was a regular performer on the show.
McMahan winces at the mention of the popular song “Lady of Spain” (“I was hoping you weren’t old enough to know that,” he says), and he hates the term “squeezebox.”
“People say I’ll bet you’re as good as Myron Floren. Well, he was good, but he wasn’t Magnante or Deiro or Carrozza. It’s funny, when famous, not-the-greatest, musicians die, they get a mention in the New York Times, but when a great virtuoso dies, you’ve got to pay $3,000 to put something in.”
McMahan’s lifelong passion for the accordion is evident in every sentence, as he vacillates between wistfulness at the instrument’s waning popularity among Americans (in part he blames Elvis, who caused youngsters to gravitate to the electric guitar), and hope, in the acknowledgment of up-and-coming talent from Scandinavia, Russia, and the Far East.
A professor of music on the faculty of the College of New Jersey, McMahan is secretary of the American Accordionists’ Association. Each year the association holds its conference in a different American city. This year hundreds of accordionists and accordion aficionados will descend on the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village from Wednesday to Sunday, July 12 to 16.
“The AAA does pretty much everything,” McMahan says, acknowledging popular music, jazz, and even polka. “It basically involves all of the accordion culture. There are as many amateurs and hobbyists as there are professionals, both on our board and in the organization.”
The conference will include concerts and workshops, as well as a scholarship competition.
McMahan, whose wife, Anne, is president of Princeton Friends of Opera, will give a lecture about the accordion and opera on Thursday, July 13, at 9 a.m. He also will participate in a gala concert, performing alongside violinist Emmanuel Borowski and cellist Cecylia Barczak on Friday, July 14, at 7 p.m. Other events are listed below.
The AAA, established in 1938, is the nation’s oldest and largest accordion association. From its inception its mission has been to elevate standards of accordion education, musicianship, and performance, and to promote awareness and appreciation of the instrument, which has been around since the 1820s.
Thanks in large part to the AAA, the accordion underwent standardization, both in terms of its design and musical notation. Its repertoire, which had been dominated by transcriptions and vaudeville songs, underwent an impressive expansion to include music by some of the most respected contemporary composers.
McMahan has spent most of his career as a classical accordionist and composer. His special interest in promoting contemporary concert music for or including the accordion makes him a natural fit for chair of the organization’s Composers Commissioning Committee. The committee has been commissioning composers to write for the instrument for more than 65 years.
Under his predecessor, Elsie Bennett, the organization harvested works from 20th-century composers Robert Russell Bennett, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, David Diamond, Nicholas Flagello, Lukas Foss, Ernst Krenek, William Grant Still, Carlos Surinach, and Virgil Thomson, among others. The AAA has also enriched the repertoire through new works by noted composer-accordionists Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, and William Schimmel.
Conceding that the AAA’s membership is not what it was at the height of the instrument’s popularity, McMahan has had to resort to other means in order to raise money, as in his current attempt to collect funds for a new commission from noted American composer Robert Sirota through www.gofundme.com.
In addition to his work on behalf of the AAA, McMahan serves as area coordinator of music theory, composition, ear training, and classical accordion at TCNJ, where he has taught since 1991. He has also taught at Townson University, Morgan State University, College of Notre Dame, Essex Community College, the University of Maryland, and the Peabody Preparatory School of the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins. He joined the faculty of Hunterdon Academy of the Arts in 2010.
He has appeared as accordionist with the Baltimore Symphony, Washington Ballet, American Ballet, and other cultural and performing organizations. He has worked with such notables as Sarah Caldwell, Gunther Schuller, Leon Fleisher, Peter Schickele, Theodor Bikel, and Sting. His music articles have appeared in, among others, High Fidelity, the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, and the New Grove’s Dictionary of Music.
McMahan grew up in southeast Washington, D.C. (“the part where the tourists don’t go,” he says. He was a mile from Boeing Air Force Base. There, accordionist Lou Coppola, who would become his first teacher, played with the United States Air Force Strolling Strings.
McMahan’s father hailed from a farm in South Carolina. He worked as a machinist with the Navy yard for 40 years. (“He helped make the big guns in the South Pacific, McMahan says.) He was also an amateur guitarist who could pick out melodies on the piano. Together, father and son appeared in amateur shows with the D.C. Department of Recreation Volunteer Camp Shows.
“We played in every military base in D.C.,” McMahan says. “I would play the accordion, and he would pick the guitar with me some, and sometimes he would emcee the show. The soldiers, you know, they liked the dancing girls the most, but they liked the father-son thing, too.”
During entrance examinations at the Peabody Conservatory, McMahan stunned the board by playing Bach two-part inventions and a Beethoven sonata with only two years of piano lessons. Their amazement was likely compounded when he added, “Well, I’ve had about seven years of really good accordion training.”
“They didn’t understand that it was nearly the equivalent of six years on the piano,” McMahan says.
“I was at Peabody at the time, getting my bachelor’s in composition, and Ernst Krenek was resident composer that year, so we were all bringing in Krenek works to play for him at seminar. So I brought in an accordion piece, which was about a year or two old by then, and I played it for him. Some of the students said this is one the best things they heard of the Krenek pieces that year. Krenek said, ‘Yes, but you know I’d never heard it before.’ No one had ever played it.”
McMahan worked with Krenek on a second accordion piece for the Accordion Teachers Guild, a rival organization started by Anthony Galla-Rini, one of the founders of the AAA, who left, in part, because of disagreement over left-hand notation. McMahan went on to record Krenek’s music for the Orion label.
McMahan is also an authority on the music of American maverick Carl Ruggles, a friend of Charles Ives, whose limited output was meticulously crafted, though unusually dissonant. Later in life Ruggles channeled most of his creativity into visual art. McMahan has done extensive research into Ruggles’ unfinished opera, “The Sunken Bell.”
Later this month McMahan will take part in another AAA event, the Red Lantern Accordionist, a three-day seminar, now in its 23rd year, hosted by William Schimmel. The master class and concert series will be held at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York City July 28 to 30. “That’s where most of the contemporary work takes place. That’s mostly a New York audience, lots of accordionists rather than the general public.”
Then in 2020 AAA will be the host, at UCLA, of an international competition of the Confederation Internationale des Accordeonistes, of which it has been a member since 1955.
“The accordion is a fairly new instrument, and it took about a century for it to develop into something beyond kind of a toy state,” McMahan says. “It has the unique ability among the keyboard instruments to have crescendo and decrescendo and nuances on sustained notes, as well as moving notes, which you can’t do on the piano. You can on the organ, but that’s kind of clumsy. It has that violinistic capability. The bellows are like a bow. It’s something that really sets the instrument apart.”
American Accordionists’ Association Annual Festival, Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village. Wednesday through Sunday, July 12 to 16. A $35 registration fee allows admission to exhibits, workshops and all regular competition categories as well as participation in the Jr. Festival and Festival Orchestras.
Registration begins at 3 p.m. on July 12, with exhibits opening at 5 p.m. The evening includes a meet-and-greet for the media at 7 p.m.
In addition to McMahan’s lecture on the accordion and opera, on July 13 at 9 a.m., other festival programs include “Playing with Others,” “Telling Stories without Words,” “The Accordion As Citizen of the World,” “Getting Around Stradella,” “What Events Led to the Formation of the AAA,” “From Eisenhower to Flower Power,” and “Tango Nuevo.”
The Thursday, July 13, events include a luncheon concert, showcasing young artists at 11:30 a.m.; the Carmen Carrozza Scholarship Competition, 1:30 p.m.; and Pasta Night featuring the New Jersey-based Accordion Pops Orchestra, 6:30 p.m.
Other highlights include the gala concert featuring McMahan, violinist Emmanuel Borowski, and cellist Cecylia Barczak on Friday, July 14, at 7 p.m., and the awards concert on Saturday, July 15, 2 p.m.
A complete schedule and registration information are available at www.ameraccord.com.