Paris and accordions have a very unique relationship, almost “Marmite” in nature: tourists love it, locals hate it. It has become so quintessentially French, underscoring any traditional cinematic scene of Parisian scenery (and my morning metro commutes, thank you buskers) that most Paris locals sigh at the sight of an accordion. Very few possess the skill of still sparking an audience’s curiosity and imagination with an accordion: Richard Galliano is one of those few. Filling the seats of Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet is no easy feat, one usually reserved for the huge successful musicals often staged here; and yet, the audience came in packs and droves.

Richard Galliano © Vincent Catala
Richard Galliano
© Vincent Catala

Before a single note was even played, my interest had already been peaked. Seeing a solo cello and accordion on stage together is a rare sight; looking at the programme, it was clear to see that a very well structured and thought-out concert lay ahead, seeking not to simply place Galliano and the accordion in the limelight, but rather in turn accentuate the various forces of the instruments on stage, going from Bach to Piazzolla, with Boccherini and two of Galliano’s own compositions along the way (including a world première).

Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in c minor BWV1060, here transcribed for accordion and cello, set the opening bar high for Galliano and Henri Demarquette on cello. After the initial shock of hearing a small chamber orchestra, a cello and the sudden distinctive and almost piercing timbre of the accordion, Bach’s melodies and harmonic progressions gradually found their shape. The Royal Chamber Orchestra of Wallonia was light and responsive, with excellent direction by Frank Braley, though a lack of communication between conductor and soloists (and vice versa) did result in occasional rhythmic lapses. Colleagues and friends for many years, Galliano and Demarquette have a musical rapport that is clear for all to see and hear. However, Bach’s concerto was a bold choice with which to open the concert, and perhaps a dangerous one. The accordion is a unique instrument, a wind instrument with keys and chords and its sound drawn from thin air by the movement of the musician’s hands. Phrasing is therefore a difficult task on the accordion, and one that was unfortunately slightly lost in the opening movements, particularly the second. Better suited to the lightness and agility of the third movement rather than the long held notes of the second, I was nonetheless at odds with this transcription: though technically perfect, the accordion’s somewhat romanticised timbre and phrasing seemed incapable of remaining in line with the overall sound of the orchestra and cello, ultimately creating an irreconcilable division between the voices.

Piazzolla’s Grand Tango for cello and orchestra quickly brought the audience’s sole focus onto Demarquette, seemingly far more in his element here than before. A brutal and almost unpredictable work, the performance was seductive, full of swing and swagger and a real connection between the orchestra and the soloist. Galliano’s own work Opale Concerto for accordion and orchestra only added to the frantic and excited atmosphere. Blending raw Balkan, nostalgic Parisian and bustling American influences, Galliano’s performance of his own work was unsurprisingly brimming with passion, confidence and showmanship, moving from virtuosity to seductive emotion in the blink of an eye.

Boccherini’s Symphony in D minor “La casa del diavolo” was the perfect addition to the programme, allowing the orchestra and their leader to show their unquestionable talent and musicianship. With excellent control of the early classical phrasing and balance between the orchestral forces, it was clear that the orchestra could just as easily captivate the audience on their own. However, Galliano’s Contrastes, commissioned by the SACEM and performed here for the very first time, reunited all the musicians for the concert’s finale… and what a way to finish! Full of powerful and contrasting emotional builds, Galliano’s music made excellent use of the strings for balanced strength and warmth, but also great tension, endlessly shifting from major to minor as the opening minor theme returns, piercing the occasional moments of gaiety. Evocative and steeped in cultural influences, the music seems both strangely familiar and yet unknown, a music we have heard somewhere long ago, all the while nonetheless discovering a new blend of sounds.

With a thunderous and steady applause from the audience demanding encore after encore, there was no doubt that the accordion had found a welcoming audience in Paris.