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Accordion, anyone? Venture to Lisle for a sonic feast

Curious about accordions? The Accordion Festival is in Lisle July 19-23, hosted by the Accordionists & Teachers Guild International. Cary-Grove High School senior Anastazja Machl will be in attendance to compete among other musicians. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

If you’re looking for a change of pace in a summer of festivals that cater to genres like jazz, gospel and blues, head west to Lisle for a festival that caters to a single instrument.

That instrument is the accordion, a mystery to many. The Accordionists & Teachers Guild International (ATG) hopes to enlighten those curious about the wind instrument during the group’s 77th annual gathering, July 19-23 at the Hyatt Regency in Lisle.

"You’re not going to have a guitar festival where Metallica is playing one night and a classical guitarist is playing another night, so I think that’s kind of unique about us — how we rallied around an instrument and made a festival out of it instead of a type of music," said ATG board member Kenn Baert. "Most festivals you’re going to see center around a certain type of music, not an instrument."

Baert, an accordionist who learned to play in the second grade, teaches the instrument to others in his Barrington Hills home. The father of three is doing his part to pass on his love of the musical tool: Be it going to neighborhood schools to play for audiences or honing the skills of students for competition, Baert is paying his investment into the accordion forward.

"(The accordion) got a bad rap in the U.S. for some reason from the 1950s through ’70s, but now I think it’s coming back because people just don’t know a lot about it," he said. "What’s nice about it is it’s more than one instrument to me. Left hand is kind of the bass (it’s like having your own bass player), almost like you have your own percussionist. It allows you to almost play duets with yourself — you can play both parts."

Some information about the instrument, according to Baert:

It weighs about 35 pounds.

It does not require electricity.

And just like cars, there are Lamborghini and Chevette versions of accordions — a cheap instrument starts at $400 while a high-end version that champions/virtuosos play on can run from $35,000 to $40,000.

When conceptualizing what an accordion does: Think about taking a bunch of harmonicas, turning them on their sides and instead of blowing air into them with your mouth, you push the air through them with the bellows that connects the two sides. Oh, and the accordion can be tuned to a certain genre of music (classical, pop, polka) and it rarely, if ever, needs to be retuned. But when it does, you need a professional, and the way they tune it is they take the reed and file it down.

One of Baert’s students, Cary-Grove High School senior Anastazja Machl, 17, knows such details. She’s been taking lessons from him since she was 11 years old. Machl will be competing in her age category at the festival, but during an interview at Baert’s residence she showed off her bellow technique by playing some Mendelssohn.

"I think I like it because you don’t think the accordion can play that type of music," said the Poland-born musician. "I’ve played piano for 12 years. When I sit down at a piano, people expect me to play Mozart and Debussy, and when I sit down and play an accordion they think: She’s going to play polka. But Mendelssohn happens. So the surprise factor is nice."

While Machl listens to indie tropical pop, she prefers to play Mendelssohn and Bach on her accordion.

"I feel with other instruments, you can’t do as much as you can with an accordion. Genre-wise, there is so much that can be made into an accordion piece. I just played Mendelssohn, but on my own time I play pop music. I play Chainsmokers on accordion. It’s fun because it’s very versatile in terms what you can play."

The equipment will be featured prominently at the fest, in conjunction with competitions, workshops and concerts — all of which the public can attend (concerts are ticketed events). Thursday night, Alex Meixner will be playing (he usually plays Oktoberfests, doing everything from Bon Jovi to Ozzy Osbourne to polkas). World champion accordionists will be performing throughout the event, as will Baert with an ensemble Friday night. Machl, who wants to become a middle school science teacher, will be trying to win a monetary award for her musicianship, accuracy and bellow work.

"I think the thing that I enjoy the most is out of all the instruments that I play, it feels like the one instrument that I can put emotion into the most. I have a lot more control over dynamics and how emotional the song comes out, so that’s the biggest part for me," Machl said.

Jazz accordionist Paul Betken, a first-time ATG attendee, will play the festival on the heels of playing the Chicago Accordion Club in Elmhurst on Monday. The Chicago native, 68, continues to adapt songs for accordion, songs he says audiences want to hear and relate to.

At the ATG event he will play an arrangement of John Legend’s "Imagine" and "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell. A medley of songs from the band Chicago, a ditty from Elton John and a doo-wop tune are also a part of Betken’s repertoire.

"I tend specialize in playing tunes that you don’t expect to hear on an accordion," Betken said in a phone interview from his Arizona home. "I was born to play the accordion, for me playing is in my heart. I’ve been in this for many years, and the thing that makes us go in life: challenge and change. It’s the name of the game in life and in accordions."

Baert is telling laypeople give the ATG festival a chance and you’ll be surprised.

"It’s the most multitasking instrument, I can think of," he said. "It gets the ol’ brain working."

Twitter @DarcelTribune

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