Russian accordionist leads passionate performance

Kristi Ruff

As students here at Lawrence University, many of us attend recitals, concerts and performances in the conservatory on a regular basis. The World Music Series concert in Harper Hall last Saturday night, however, epitomized the concept of performance.
Stas Venglevski, originally from the Republic of Moldova, plays the bayan, a type of Russian accordion. Venglevski and Lawrence faculty member Samantha George put on a show for bayan and violin, titled “Baroque Days, Tango Nights.”
Each of the two performers alone has a variety of impressive musical accomplishments, but as a pair they were simply amazing. The joint talent and level of musicianship in the room was nearly overwhelming; the audience called for an encore from the pair after only the first piece.
George and Venglevski have performed together on various occasions and know each other quite well: Their friendship was evident in the way they performed together, sharing smiles at particularly moving parts of the music, pointedly moving with accented notes as if tossing some imaginary musical ball to the other, and jocularly mocking each other throughout.
The concert began with a beautiful bayan-violin arrangement of Vivaldi’s “Summer” from “The Four Seasons.” Some, especially string players, may wonder how one accordion and one violin could possibly compensate for the usual instrumentation of the piece for string ensemble.
This is understandable, as prior to this concert, my own knowledge of the bayan was limited to movie scenes in which a lone accordionist stands on a street corner while his cymbal-clanging monkey begs for money.
Nothing could be farther from reality. The right hand side of the bayan functions like a piano, except with small button-like valves instead of keys. This produces a beautiful melody, while the bellows and left-hand side serve as an organ-sounding bass and accompaniment. George did not require the accompaniment of various string players in this rendition, since Venglevski sounded like an entire orchestra by himself.
The rest of the concert was equally amazing. Venglevski performed “Asturia,” some movements from one of his own original compositions, “Menagerie Suite,” as well as “Russian Winter” and “Two Step.” All of them were amazing – he plays with the precision and speed of a whirlwind lightning display, but also with the elegance of a perfect storm.
His performance of all of the pieces was interesting not only due to his precise technique, but also because he plays with his entire body. His emotions were clearly evident on his face, alternating from a somber mood to a huge smile.
Sophomore Diana Sussman commented on his “toying with our emotions,” mentioning that “when something is funny, he’s just straight-faced, but when it’s serious, he’ll break out laughing.”
We were lucky enough to hear more than we expected from Venglevski, as for some unknown reason, the pianist for the show did not arrive. For 20 minutes, Venglevski entertained the audience on the spot with well-known accordion solos, selections from the “Nutcracker Suite,” and a short melody that he had composed only the previous week.
Eventually, George returned with Assistant Professor Michael Mizrahi from the piano department in tow; he had graciously offered to sightread the tangos for the end of the show.
The tangos were a fantastic ending to the performance. They summed up the drama of both the tango era and that particular night quite perfectly. Mizrahi deserves a particular commendation for stepping up to the plate and sightreading the music for “La Cumparsita,” “Por Una Cabeza,” and “Quejas de Bandoneón” so perfectly.
At the beginning of “Por Una Cabeza,” George said, “This one is my favorite.”
Venglevski chimed in, saying, “I like it too.”
Much to the audience’s amusement, Mizrahi said, “I’m sure I’ll like it too, once I hear it,” and the three proceeded to play.
The playful nature of the performers combined with the satirical drama of the tango led to a passionate ending that had the audience standing for three encores at the end of the night. It was truly a magical performance.

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