His Main Squeeze

Julien Labro redefines accordion and bandoneon, and how we feel about them.

4 mins read
Julien-Labro looking out a restaurant window

In the musical world, free-reed aerophone instruments – the accordion, bandoneon, concertina, harmonica, harmonium, and melodeon – may be the most misunderstood and the most underrated, especially among American audiences.

Given this background, the upcoming appearance of French-born, free-reed composer and virtuoso Julien Labro as part of the Camerata Pacifica’s world premiere of “Petite Suite” is, as he says, “A first! It’s an extremely creative use of instruments in an unusual way no one has really heard before.”

“Petite Suite,” composed by Grammy-nominated Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad, brings together an unorthodox marriage of instruments in a true chamber ensemble setting: Julien Labro, accordion; Ari Aznavoorian, cello; Nicholas Daniel, oboe; Jose Franch-Ballester, clarinet; and Ji Hye Jung, percussion.

We recently caught up with Labro by phone as he prepares to wing west for his Tuesday, May 21 gig at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, preceded by performances in Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks on May 17 and 19 and followed by a final performance at The Colburn School on May 23.

Labro, now a resident of New Jersey, began playing the accordion at age nine. Then, at age 12, a random record store discovery changed his life: a cassette recording of Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine composer who brought jazz and classical elements into the sultry new form that came to be called “nuevo tango,” elevating tango from the underworld of the brothels and prisons to concert level.

“The two instruments really could not be more different in terms of personality.”

Julien Labro

Piazzolla composed and performed with the bandoneon, not accordion, and thus the young Labro embarked on the creative journey that continues to hold him, as well as his global audiences, spellbound. 

“The two instruments really could not be more different in terms of personality,” says Labro, who came to the United States from France at age 17.

“The accordion wants to be the life of the party,” concludes Labro. “It has all of these switches that select a combination of reeds to try to make it sound a little bit like something else, or at least that is the intention. It’s a chameleon. An accordion has a ‘piccolo reed,’ a ‘bassoon reed,’ even a ‘bandoneon reed.’ It’s as if the accordion is unsure of its identity. The sound is bright, happy-go-lucky, sparkly, a bit scattered, like a party guest who can carry on ten different conversations at once. It’s very entertaining, and that’s why it lends itself so easily to a sort of circus-like feeling or that vaudeville vibe. In fairness, an accordion is like carrying around a whole orchestra, like a portable piano.”

The bandoneon, he says, “is unforgiving. It’s not searching for its DNA. It’s not shy about who it is, and the feeling I get from it is darker. When I discovered Piazzolla, it gave me goosebumps. It was so emotionally charged. That’s when I realized that music could really touch places in your soul like nothing else, including deep-down places. The accordion isn’t really as comfortable going there.”

The distinction between the two similar-seeming instruments is, he says, of paramount importance. If the versatile accordion might be called the Swiss Army knife of free-reed aerophones, then the bandoneon is a pure silver dagger, no frills, no bells and whistles. This distinction makes the choice of accordion over bandoneon for inclusion in “Petite Suite” especially surprising.

“That’s when I realized that music could really touch places in your soul like nothing else, including deep-down places. The accordion isn’t really as comfortable going there.”

Julien Labro

“Sixty percent of my composing is for bandoneon,” says Labro. “But the artistic director Adrian Spence was completely clear about wanting accordion, not bandoneon. I hardly had any say about it.”

Clarice Assad describes her composition this way: “Petite Suite’’ brings together elements of French chanson and Latin-American music, combining classical and jazz notation with room for improvisation by the accordion player. It’s a playful and nostalgic work that draws on my memories of childhood and adolescence spent visiting and living in France.”

A man and woman sitting next to a laptop
Forget “Champagne Music.” Photo: Julien Labro

Simply put, the sound of the accordion instantly conjures schmaltz, recognizable in bouncy waltzes, polkas, mazurkas or the proverbial gay tarantella. Popular not posh, the accordion conjures rustic, ethnic folksiness, often charmingly off-key – think Clifton Chenier, King of Zydeco.

Today, in Louisiana and across the American South, Creole and Cajun accordionists celebrate the instrument’s “chanky-chank” or low-class persona as a point of cultural authenticity and pride, overriding any stigma.

“Many Americans,” says Labro, “associate accordion music with traveling as tourists to France, Germany, and Italy. You’ll hear someone playing accordion in a bistro or cabaret.”  

The tone is rich, deep, and often somber, partly because of the metal amalgam used in its maddening hundreds of parts, making it perfect for the lamenting and defiant soul of tango.

In contrast, the bandoneon finds its roots in sacred Christian music, originally used in funeral services in small German congregations and elsewhere in Europe where a massive pipe organ was not present. Clergy, evangelists, missionaries, and military chaplains carried the compact instrument far from its European origins. The tone is rich, deep, and often somber, partly because of the metal amalgam used in its maddening hundreds of parts, making it perfect for the lamenting and defiant soul of tango.

The bandoneon is notoriously difficult to learn and confronts the musician with a seemingly chaotic arrangement of 71 buttons grouped on either side of the bellows, with 38 for the right hand and 33 for the left. The instrument is called bisonoric or diatonic, meaning that each button can produce two notes when the bellows are compressed or expanded through the push-or-pull action. This designation may become somewhat of a misnomer, however, since some modern bandoneons are now capable of playing in all keys.

The notoriously difficult bandoneon. Photo: Julian Labro

Of the accordion, which generally relies on a piano-style keyboard, Labro says, “It’s like I’m hauling around this huge typewriter.”

“One of my goals,” says Labron, “is to show audiences, especially American audiences, that the accordion is multi-faceted. It does have those folksy, ethnic colors as part of its identity, and that’s fine. But it’s also earned its place in a classical ensemble and continues to prove itself. I’m bringing that, one concert at a time.” Labro confides, in closing, that his encore on May 21 will be his arrangement of a Piazzolla piece.

In addition to its busy performance schedule, Camerata Pacifica is committed to serving the community. In 2021, in collaboration with UCLA Health, the nonprofit organization developed The Nightingale Channel, a landmark resource for hospitals providing programming drawn from the ensemble’s extensive video library of its performances delivered bedside via iPads to patients and care teams.

Based upon the well-documented positive effects of music in healing, The Nightingale Channel has been adopted by UCLA Health, UC Davis Health, Keck Medicine at USC, Loma Linda University Medical Center, City of Hope National Medical Center, and Augusta University Health, and is being introduced to other hospitals across the country. 


Camerata Pacifica
“Petite Suite” world premiere by composer Clarice Assad
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
7:30 PM
The Huntington’s Rothenberg Hall
1151 Oxford Road
San Marino, CA 91108

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/aw0e

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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