- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

KANSAS CITY, Mo. A single accordion in the room is quite enough for many people, bringing to mind Lawrence Welk, polka music and lederhosen.
Imagine the reaction when an orchestra of accordions takes the stage.
"We have an image problem," says Joan Sommers, director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Community Accordion Orchestra. "People don't know what the instrument can do."
Those who resist heading for an exit are pleasantly surprised by Miss Sommers' orchestra, one of the nation's most acclaimed accordion groups.
For 42 years, the orchestra's musicians have squeezed everything including Gershwin and Bach from their boxes, earning awards and praises along the way. Until Miss Sommers retired from teaching in 2000, the orchestra attracted students from around the globe to a college in the U.S. heartland.
"The Missouri orchestra, I think, is probably the best one in the United States," says Walter Kuehr, who owns an accordion shop in New York City and leads an all-female orchestra there. Mr. Kuehr, a native of Germany, says some accordion music is "cheesy" but that that is not the case with the music that Miss Sommers' orchestra plays.
"This is purely classical. This is not cheesy at all. This is really, absolutely high quality," Mr. Kuehr says.
The accordions produce a wide range of sounds. To the uninitiated listener, a recording of the group may seem to feature a variety of instruments, including clarinets and flutes. During a live performance, however, it becomes clear: Except for the percussionists, it's all accordions, all the time.
Switches on an accordion allow a player to change among four reeds, from the high piccolo reed to the low bassoon reed. Also, some of the orchestra's musicians play bass and tenor accordions, providing an even wider range.
"It is incredible," Miss Sommers says. "If people have never heard an accordion orchestra, they think it's just 10 accordions playing. But it isn't. It really is an orchestral sound."
Miss Sommers was 9 years old when a salesman knocked on her family's door in Independence, Mo., and convinced her parents that the girl and her brother should play the accordion. By age 14, Miss Sommers was teaching others how to play.
"It was something I liked very much, it seems like, from the beginning," says Miss Sommers, now 69.
She didn't go to college, but that didn't prevent her from establishing the University of Missouri-Kansas City's accordion program and orchestra in 1961.
The orchestra has won national titles and has toured Europe, New Zealand and Australia.
Now 15 musicians strong, the orchestra has had as many as 60 members at one time, some from other countries, including New Zealand, China, Norway and Canada.
Kevin Friedrich, a New Zealand native, joined the orchestra in 1980, when its reputation had been established in accordion circles. He said he enjoyed the quality of the music and the opportunity to hang out with other accordionists.
"It was quite special, really," says Mr. Friedrich, who now lives in New York and is president of the International Confederation of Accordionists.
These days, the group gives a concert in Kansas City every spring, then hits the road in summer. The orchestra also plays for churches, conventions and other groups. It has recorded six albums, available on CD from the university.
When Miss Sommers was teaching at the university, she typically had about 10 accordion students who formed the backbone of the orchestra, augmented by musicians from the community.
The school has stopped accepting students into the accordion program until a decision is made about replacing Miss Sommers, and only one orchestra member is a student at the university.
Miss Sommers continues to lead the orchestra and is planning a major tour in 2004. She says she hopes budget concerns won't keep the university from hiring a full-time teacher soon.
"We've always been a leader here," she says.

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