Ksenija Sidorova would be the first person to admit that the accordion does not currently have the same high-art credentials as more traditional soloist instruments like the piano or violin. Although this is something she is rapidly helping to change, it’s still more associated with street performers and folk music than the concert hall. In fact, the tenacious Latvian’s introduction to the instrument was itself something of an accident. “It was pretty random,” she says of her discovery of a small squeezebox in her Russian grandmother’s attic, aged six. “It was a tiny one, so nothing too serious. And she said, ‘Well, let’s just try to play traditional folk songs.’ So my parents were not too keen on that when they saw me with it!” It turned out that it was in her blood – though from a largely unmusical family, Sidorova’s grandmother was proficient at the garmoshka, a “prototype accordion”, regularly cracking the instrument out at parties and family events.

Ksenija Sidorova © Liene Petersone
Ksenija Sidorova
© Liene Petersone

But Sidorova’s immersion in the accordion didn’t come until later, when she studied the instrument at her local music school. Her initial study plans, however, raised some eyebrows in the school administration. “They were surprised, because usually they say it’s the pianists who fail that go to play accordion! They were thinking that if it didn’t go very well by the end of the year, they’d let me go. But I stayed there for the next ten years, happily ever after.” At the school she discovered that there were other young accordionists, but it wasn’t until she came to London to study at the Royal Academy that she found people whose feelings about the accordion’s potential matched her own. “What I liked about London was that they treated the accordion as a classical instrument, not as a folk instrument. If you go to study at the Moscow conservatoire you will be in the folk department, but in London you belong to all the groups… With contemporary music the instrument really got its identity back on track. It’s much more serious now.”

As well as contemporary music, the sounds of Spanish and Latin American countries feature heavily in Sidorova’s artistic DNA. Musicians like the Argentinian bandoneon player and composer Astor Piazzolla and the French tango accordionist Richard Galliano were strong influences, Buena Vista Social Club figure in her home listening and her first CD release was a collection of pieces from Carmen. But she says this fascination with the music of hot, Latin countries isn’t a reaction against her Latvian background – it has much more to do with “the nostalgic moment of it. It’s very intimate, very emotional.” To illustrate her point, she points to the apparently voracious appetite for tango in countries like Finland and Norway. Meanwhile, having recently settled in Madrid, Sidorova has an internationalist outlook and a keen sense for national character. As well as Spain’s flamenco music, she is inspired by the people: “If they don’t like what is happening they let you know. I quite like this kind of openness. It’s something that doesn’t exist in Latvia.” And surprisingly, she initially found the openness of Londoners “extraordinary”, though subsequently living there for 12 years allowed her to gain a, let’s say, nuanced view of London etiquette: “I still love London so much, with all the hidden things – like with what people say and what they really mean… It’s my home.”

But while her itinerant lifestyle and Russian heritage has given Sidorova a firmly international outlook, she still feels that her Latvian background is an important part of her identity. She believes that while in today’s climate “you really have a sense that the world is out there for you,” it’s also “very important to remember the root. It helps you to stay grounded, know your place and really keep some traditions.” Consequently, she still observes Latvian Easter and Christmas traditions while living in Spain, and goes back to her parents’ every two months. “It’s usually the big tradition of mothers being around, cooking 20 different dishes every day,” she says. “I think every person should be proud of where they come from.” But it’s not just familial ties that make Sidorova proud of her country of birth: it’s also its thoroughly musical culture. Latvia’s huge Song and Dance Festival which brings together tens of thousands of choir members from across the country, and famous classical music exports like Gidon Kremer and Pēteris Vasks, have made it world-renowned as a land of music – not bad for a country of under two million inhabitants, which is less than the city where Sidorova now resides. “Music is with us from early childhood and it’s cool that it takes quite an important role,” says Sidorova of Latvian culture. “Latvia continues to produce a lot of musicians, both classical and other genres. I’m proud of that!” She believes that music was an important tool used by Latvians to navigate turbulent times. “Actually this is when the popularity of accordion picked up, in the Second World War,” she says. “Because it was an instrument you could take to the forest. You could play it if you were happy, if you were sad, at any point, and it was something that accompanied people along their way.”

© SL Chai
© SL Chai

Sidorova’s own instrument, however, isn’t the kind of beast that you can just lug into any forest glade: at three and a half stone, travelling with it is one of her few bugbears about being an accordionist. “It’s a thing to drag with you!” she laughs. But while the instrument itself is heavy, the artistic baggage it carries is comparatively light, with Sidorova observing that “serious” repertoire for the instrument doesn’t go back any earlier than the 1960s. Consequently, she says, accordionists are still engaged in a process of learning from other musicians and traditions to widen their expressive arsenal, working out different playing styles to fit certain genres and ensemble formats. Standing out when playing with an orchestra, for example, poses a challenge due to the accordion’s ability to approximate the sound of instrumental ensembles. Consequently solo recitals are frequent, though whilst being able to stand as a one-man band, Sidorova much prefers travelling and playing with other musicians, pushing herself into unusual new settings. One example might be a performance of Callum Au’s jazzed-up version of Bach’s D minor keyboard concerto with the Latvian Radio Big Band. “I like being out of my comfort zone,” she says of the performance, “But playing with jazz musicians is quite scary for a classical musician when you need to improvise.” But though she didn’t have to do much improvisation in the performance herself, she still felt that she was able to bring something fresh to Bach’s music: “It was a lot of fun and I think it gets the groove. The accordion brings more dance-y, bouncy effects to the music of Bach – especially the French and English Suites.”

© Gavin Evans | Deutsche Grammophon
© Gavin Evans | Deutsche Grammophon

Collaboration with the Latvian Radio Big Band is just one of many cross-over activities Sidorova has engaged in. In 2014 her tour of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands with an assemblage of pop and classical musicians included a performance with CeeLo Green to perform the soul-pop smash Crazy, and she later joined Sting and Sir Bryn Terfel to perform The Police’s Roxanne at the Royal Albert Hall. But while she enjoys branching out, she considers these as just diversions to her main calling as a spokesperson for classical accordion. “Other things are just me experimenting on the side,” she says. “And especially nowadays it’s very important for musicians to be versatile. In the current world, people want you to be everything. But it’s still very important to know your traditions, your background, and stick to the thing that you love the most. And for me that is classical music.”

Bringing this to the world is what she’ll continue to do this year, with a US tour with longtime collaborator the mandolinist Avi Avital on the cards, in which they’ll be performing a new concerto for soloists and orchestra by Benjamin Wallfisch. Meanwhile, Sidorova is also working on a solo concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, written by Argentinian composer Claudia Montero. With so many new works to be performed, it seems like high time to work on a follow-up recording to 2016’s Carmen, though there are no firm plans yet. “Something will be cooking for sure,” promises Sidorova. More pressing is her appearance at the Born in Latvia project in Jūrmala, near Riga, in which she’ll be presenting a performance with a young musician alongside famous Latvians such as Kristine Opolais. Having followed some of the young artists that will feature in the concert since they were six, she takes her involvement seriously, hoping her time with the 12-year-old violinist she is performing with will prove fruitful. “Just recently I was a student myself,” she says. “And to be a mentor is a very big responsibility I think.” Perhaps she’ll inspire some young audience members to take up the accordion, this – as she says – less “normal” of instruments.  

Article sponsored by Investment and Development Agency of Latvia.