Ac­cor­dion­ist James Crabb’s Aus­tralian com­mit­ments are mul­ti­ply­ing, writes Bren­dan Ward

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - James Crabb

The last time James Crabb busked was 37 years ago. Dressed in his kilt, the big­ger-than-av­er­age 12-year-old was play­ing tele­vi­sion themes and disco hits to raise funds for the Church of Scot­land in Dundee. His in­stru­ment: a shiny red pi­ano ac­cor­dion he had pestered his par­ents to buy for his fourth birth­day. In a cor­ner of Britain syn­ony­mous with bag­pipes, the only son of James and Vi­o­let Crabb gave his first pub­lic ac­cor­dion per­for­mance aged five, won an un­der-12 com­pe­ti­tion when he was six, and be­came the go-to ac­cor­dion­ist for ceilidhs.

Young Crabb’s in­stru­ment — an Alfa 48 Bass — was a mon­grel of the aero­phone clan. Af­ter its 1829 patent­ing in Vi­enna, the pi­ano ac­cor­dion was ev­ery­where and its rudi­men­tary an­ces­tor, the Chi­nese sheng, all but for­got­ten, to­gether with its many cousins in­clud­ing the har­mo­nium, melodeon and con­certina. The bag of air with its clus­tered but­tons and trun­cated key­board pumped out the peo­ple’s mu­sic, in­side the tav­ern and out on the street. While the Sovi­ets used ac­cor­dions for pro­pa­ganda, not ev­ery­one was so en­am­oured of the squeeze box. Ed­vard Grieg thought they sounded like a pig with a sore throat, the Nazis tried to halt their pro­duc­tion, and for a time they were banned in­side the Catholic Church.

But their ex­tended fam­ily’s lat­est off­spring, fa­thered by the re­spected Rus­sian bayan, has been en­trusted with Western mu­sic’s hal­lowed clas­si­cal canon. Equipped with more than 200 but­tons on both sides of its bel­lows and with no key­board in sight, the aris­to­crat of the fam­ily is the clas­si­cal ac­cor­dion. Its pre-em­i­nent vir­tu­oso on the world stage is the boy with the shiny red Alfa — all grown up at 49, bold and bald.

“There is an ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ten­sity in a Crabb per­for­mance,” says renowned con­duc­tor Mar­tyn Brab­bins. “[He] is a deep-think­ing vir­tu­oso mu­si­cian … who has been a trans­for­ma­tive in­flu­ence in bring­ing the clas­si­cal ac­cor­dion more into the main­stream of clas­si­cal mu­sic.”

To­day, at Re­view’s in­vi­ta­tion, Crabb is busk­ing at Syd­ney’s Cir­cu­lar Quay. His pate is capped, his sturdy arms wrapped around an 18kg clas­si­cal ac­cor­dion nick­named Black Beauty. Here ferry horns, squawk­ing gulls and city hub­bub ser­e­nade tourists and lo­cals. It’s a ca­coph­ony punc­tu­ated with the mu­si­cal bravado of anony­mous buskers — some seek­ing fame, oth­ers the weekly rent.

Crabb demon­strates the new­est voice in the clas­si­cal world to a mo­bile au­di­ence more fa­mil­iar with a squeeze-boxed Waltz­ing Matilda than Grieg’s Hol­berg Suite. Will the un­ortho­dox mar­riage be­tween ac­cor­dion and clas­si­cal grav­i­tas war­rant more than an oc­ca­sional glance?

Crabb’s reper­toire spans five cen­turies: from the Re­nais­sance and baroque pe­ri­ods (ar­ranged by him for the ac­cor­dion be­cause “they are more trans­par­ent than the ro­man­tic style of Chopin or Beethoven”) to pieces writ­ten for the clas­si­cal ac­cor­dion by Kalevi Aho, Bent Sorensen and Kasper Rofelt — a new gen­er­a­tion mod­ernising the tra­di­tion of bayan com­posers.

Ac­cor­dions, their in­nards and their sounds, have been part of Crabb’s life since he was born. His fa­ther re­paired them and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, played them. When Crabb Sr squeezed, “wee Jimmy” was quick to pick up a riff. And once he heard it, he could play it. He has per­fect pitch. Shortly af­ter he was crowned Bri­tish un­der-16 cham­pion, Crabb’s ac­cor­dion teacher died. His re­place­ment, an Ital­ian ice-cream ven­dor in Dundee, in­tro­duced Crabb to an all-but­ton model — a cross be­tween the con­ven­tional in­stru­ment he had been us­ing and the one he plays to­day. “That opened up a new world of mu­sic for me,” Crabb says. Its scholas­tic cap­i­tal, how­ever, was in Den­mark, not Scot­land. About 12 years ear­lier, Mo­gens El­le­gaard, the lead­ing pi­o­neer of the clas­si­cal ac­cor­dion, had con­vinced the Royal Dan­ish Academy of Mu­sic in Copen­hagen to en­dow the in­stru­ment with its own fac­ulty. El­le­gaard be­came Crabb’s teacher (“he was like a god to me”) and the Scot re­mained in Den­mark for 25 years.

At the academy, Crabb be­friended a Nor­we­gian who shared not only his birth year but also his pas­sion for the in­stru­ment. Geir Draugsvoll and Crabb stud­ied and per­formed to­gether, and when El­le­gaard died sud­denly in 1995, both as­sumed his pro­fes­so­rial du­ties. While rum­mag­ing through some old li­brary mu­sic dis­carded by the academy, the duo found a two-pi­ano score of Stravin­sky’s fairy­tale bal­let Petrushka, and de­cided to tran­scribe it for two ac­cor­dions.

“[James] was the driv­ing force,” in­sists Draugsvoll. “He did great, great work there.” “We both loved the mu­sic,” says Crabb in re­sponse. “The Rus­sian melodies and their or­ches­tral colours suited our ac­cor­dions.” A record­ing fol­lowed (cou­pled with Mus­sorgsky’s Pic­tures at an Ex­hi­bi­tion), and crit­ics ev­ery­where took note: “Crabb and Draugsvoll have you on the edge of your arm­chair with their dash and vir­tu­os­ity … com­pelling you to reeval­u­ate the in­stru­ment’s ca­pac­ity as a se­ri­ous con­cert medium,” wrote The Sun­day Times. “[It] will help up­grade the ac­cor­dion from camp­fire to the con­cert hall” echoed The In­de­pen­dent.

With its ac­cor­dion fac­ulty es­tab­lished, the Copen­hagen academy schooled a new breed of com­posers keen to write for an in­stru­ment once con­sid­ered un­wor­thy. Rofelt — now a lead­ing Dan­ish com­poser — stud­ied com­po­si­tion at the time Crabb and Draugsvoll were teach­ing ac­cor­dion. He rel­ishes writ­ing for an in­stru­ment whose ver­sa­til­ity al­lows him to “cre­ate very sub­tle ef­fects” in his com­po­si­tions, an in­stru­ment whose tonal range is greater than a con­cert grand’s. “On the pi­ano,” says Rofelt, “if you’re lucky and have a big hand you can play 10 notes. But on the ac­cor­dion you can ac­tu­ally span up to two, maybe three, oc­taves with one hand.”

Dur­ing the past 12 months, Crabb has been col­lab­o­rat­ing with Brett Dean, the Ber­lin-based Aus­tralian com­poser. “I do love the very par­tic­u­lar haunt­ing sound that the ac­cor­dion can pro­vide,” Dean says. “It’s the most won­der­ful com­bi­na­tion of wind and string in­stru­ments.” Dean is writ­ing Ham­let, his sec­ond opera, for next year’s Glyn­de­bourne Fes­ti­val and he chose Crabb to play a ma­jor role not only in the pit, but on the stage as well.

For Ham­let’s fa­mous play-within-a-play, Dean aug­mented the group of play­ers with a trav­el­ling mu­si­cian. “And one of the most trans­portable street in­stru­ments is the ac­cor­dion,” he says. “[James] is re­ally the lead­ing fig­ure of the play it­self, [which] is pre­sented as a mime. He’s pro­vid­ing pretty much all the mu­sic in that time. So it’s very much James’s show.”

Al­though Crabb reck­ons Dean’s mu­sic is “in­cred­i­bly de­mand­ing … but it’s re­ally worth the ef­fort mu­si­cally”. Then there’s the act­ing. “Strong man that he is,” Dean says of Crabb, “he still has to make sure that he has the body strength to not only carry his ac­cor­dion, which is a large in­stru­ment, but also move around.” Rehearsals start in April and af­ter Glyn­de­bourne fin­ishes in July, Ham­let will tour Britain. It’s a long time to be away from home.

Home is Syd­ney. In 2010, Crabb — Scot­tish na­tional, Dan­ish res­i­dent — set­tled in the emer­ald city with his preg­nant Aus­tralian wife and their two-year-old son. Crabb’s first ven­ture down un­der 17 years ear­lier had been un­der­writ­ten by Queensland’s Goss gov­ern­ment ex­trav­a­ganza, the 1993 Bris­bane Bi­en­nial. Ap­pear­ances with state or­ches­tras fol­lowed then in May 2000, while per­form­ing in Copen­hagen, Crabb re­ceived an ur­gent call from the Syd­ney Sym­phony Orches­tra: could he play Lu­ciano Be­rio’s 13th Se­quenza, and could he come to Syd­ney for a one-night stand at the new City Recital Hall? He had two weeks to pre­pare and mem­o­rise a de­mand­ing eight-minute solo.

In the au­di­ence for the rare per­for­mance of Be­rio’s 13 pieces for in­stru­ments and voice was Lizzie Jones, a blonde vi­o­lin­ist from the Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra. There to see the 5th Se­quenza (for trom­bone), Jones had left be­fore a jet-lagged Crabb took the stage. “They flew me in that morn­ing, I played that evening, and they flew me back the next day.” He ar­rived in Copen­hagen car­ry­ing a didgeri­doo. “I had to bring some­thing home to prove I’d been here.”

What the ACO’s vi­o­lin­ist missed in Syd­ney — Crabb’s for­mi­da­ble mu­si­cian­ship — the orches­tra’s mu­si­cal ad­min­is­tra­tor had seen in Suf­folk. Meurig Bowen was so im­pressed by Crabb’s per­for­mance at the 1998 Alde­burgh Fes­ti­val, he set about per­suad­ing the ACO to en­gage him for one of its tours. Not ev­ery­one was en­thused. “We were like, ‘As if we’d have an ac­cor­dion­ist!’ ” says Jones. But Bowen pre­vailed, and two years af­ter his one-night stand with Be­rio, Crabb was back in Syd­ney, this time with his Dan­ish girl­friend, to tango with the ACO. Jones re­calls the first re­hearsal: “Richard [Tognetti] had been prac­tis­ing with James and he was re­ally im­pressed. And he said to me: ‘Lizzie, he’s the loveli­est guy you’ll ever meet.’ ”

On the road with Pi­az­zolla, Crabb and Jones be­came close friends, and when, later that year, Crabb re­turned on his own to per­form at ACO’s Hunt­ing­don Fes­ti­val, ro­mance blos­somed. Ac­cor­dion­ist mar­ried vi­o­lin­ist in 2005, and is now el­i­gi­ble to be­come an Aus­tralian citizen. “Aus- tralia is like par­adise, re­ally,” he says. But be­ing based here does have its draw­backs, not least hav­ing to travel to Bul­garia to have his $50,000 in­stru­ment tuned.

“Has James told you about his other pas­sion?” asks Jones, now a vi­o­lin­ist with the SSO. Per­haps it’s the soloist’s iso­la­tion, the prac­tice rou­tine — just man and in­stru­ment — that ac­counts for Crabb’s hockey ma­nia. He rep­re­sented Scot­land in the sport at the 2009 Mas­ters World Cup in Hong Kong. “I met a lot of my cur­rent team­mates there,” he says, ex­plain­ing how he came to play open grade for the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. Fur­ther­more, he plays with lo­cal club Mas­ters, coaches his son’s un­der-11 team, and um­pires ju­nior and se­nior games. Back at Cir­cu­lar Quay, Crabb’s busk­ing time is nearly up. Few have stopped to lis­ten. Most daw­dle or scurry past, obliv­i­ous to a per­for­mance oth­ers would pay a tidy sum to hear. Through­out the hour, how­ever, one fig­ure has stood nearby, trans­fixed by Bach, Grieg, Rameau and Pi­az­zolla. He ap­proaches Crabb. “Awe­some, just awe­some!” he says. Brazil­ian mu­si­cian Di­ago Maia, 30, is in his sixth year busk­ing his way around the world. Crabb of­fers an en­core — a tango of course. “I was go­ing to busk here,” Maia says later, “but when I heard him I thought, ‘ no way, I have to lis­ten’. This is the best I’ve heard. Sim­ply awe­some.” Maia should know. He too plays an ac­cor­dion.

Crabb’s Aus­tralian com­mit­ments on and off­stage are mul­ti­ply­ing. He has signed a longterm con­tract as artis­tic direc­tor of the Four Winds Fes­ti­val in Ber­magui on the NSW south coast, and late next year, af­ter Ham­let, he will cu­rate a 24-hour “mini im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence” at the UKARIA Cul­tural Cen­tre out­side Ade­laide. And be­fore the year ends, there will be a re­turn to Hunt­ing­don, now un­der the aus­pices of Mu­sica Viva. Of the nine works Crabb will per­form, five are by Scan­di­na­vian com­posers, un­der­scor­ing the im­pact of El­le­gaard. One of those, Light Fall­ing, was writ­ten for ac­cor­dion and cello by Rofelt.

Crabb also plays pi­ano and or­gan, but bris­tles at the sug­ges­tion his mu­si­cal tal­ents are wasted on the ac­cor­dion. “That’s my in­stru­ment,” he de­clares, point­ing at Black Beauty. “That’s where I feel I can say what I want to say.” Brab­bins agrees: “[He has] a pas­sion­ate con­nec­tion to the mu­sic he’s play­ing.” Dean adds, “James is not only a com­pelling soloist and be­guil­ing char­ac­ter, but also re­ally a mu­si­cian’s mu­si­cian. He’s re­ally the player, in my opin­ion.”

As he ap­proaches his 51st year, how long does he plan to keep play­ing? “So long as my lungs and arms are work­ing,” Crabb says, smil­ing, “the bel­lows will keep pump­ing.”

will per­form at the Hunt­ing­ton Es­tate Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, Mudgee, NSW, from Novem­ber 23 to 27. To watch video of James Crabb per­form­ing and busk­ing visit:


James Crabb with Black Beauty out­side Syd­ney’s Con­ser­va­to­rium of Mu­sic

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