Me and My Accordion with James Crabb

APO's Francesca McGeorge spoke with accordionist James Crabb about his relationship with New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell and his journey to becoming an internationally renowned classical accordionist.

From a childhood filled with Scottish folk music to his remarkable career as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso of the classical accordion, James Crabb has always been driven by a desire to perform.

Scotland is a country overflowing with music. Growing up in Dundee, James Crabb’s house was filled with it. There were his parents’ records, of course, and almost inevitably there was an instrument or two about the house.

Crabb’s dad was a self-taught piano accordionist. It’s an instrument with intrigue built in, especially for a young child. When wee James was aged four, the local teacher thought him unready for lessons. Crabb’s response was to play the teacher’s instrument. Point made, James’s parents bought him his first accordion.

Crabb’s primary and high school years were full of playing in local parks and charity concerts, and, he says, were defined by two elements: his teacher made learning fun, and James was never pushed or pressured by others.

“I always wanted to play and perform,” he says. “It was always enjoyable.”

The shift towards classical music began around age 15. He encountered a classical instrument at a competition, and a whole new world of music-making opened.

“I needed a challenge more than anything,” Crabb recalls. “The classical accordion introduced new challenges and new repertoire – the possibilities of a new type of instrument grabbed me.”

The classical accordion has the same chord-button system as a traditional accordion, but also features a switch that alters the mechanics inside the instrument. This allows melodies to be played in both hands across eight octaves, which Crabb likens less to the traditional accordions of his childhood, and more to a two-manual organ. Crabb went on to study in Copenhagen with Mogens Ellegaard, a pioneer of the classical accordion,
and the rest is history. In time Crabb became a professor himself, a leading ambassador for the instrument, and a celebrated soloist of dazzling virtuosity.

With the APO he performs Lyell Cresswell’s Dragspil (dragspil is Icelandic for accordion). The concerto was commissioned by the BBC Proms and premiered by Crabb in 1995. It’s a work of drama and beauty, and ambitious proportions, too – Cresswell purportedly couldn’t help but go over the commissioned 20 minutes; it clocks in a tick under 30.

“It’s tricky, a lot of it, but it’s really fun to play,” says Crabb. “The last movement has such a drive to it, it’s really exciting. It is an epic concerto; it’ll knock people over.”

During a lecture Cresswell once described Dragspil as being “in folds like the bellows of the accordion. Perhaps,” he said, “this form could be likened to the use of tmesis – splitting the syllables of a compound word by inserting another. So a more illuminating version of the title might have been Drag-bloody-spil.”

Crabb still has the original score, which was fully handwritten for him. The accordionist remembers the late Cresswell, who died in March 2022, with reverence and affection, describing their relationship as full of curiosity, shared humour and a lot of trust. It was always their goal to bring Dragspil to the country of the composer’s birth. “It’s a great honour and I’m really, really happy to be performing this concerto in New Zealand. It was
something we spoke about a lot, and I’m sure he’ll be there in spirit.”

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