Classically Trained: Just for polka music? Not so

COSTA MESA – I'll admit that I was at first a little hesitant to attend a festival full of accordions. I once played in a band with a song featuring an accordion, but that was the extent of my experience with it.

The accordion and its so-called ugly-duckling cousin, the bagpipe, may be the most stigmatized and stereotyped of all instruments. Many find their sound, even under the hands of a skilled player, akin to an irritable substitute science teacher scratching her nails down a chalkboard.

But perhaps it's that very reputation — and the desire to dispel it — that brings out such an enthusiastic crowd to play and listen to these instrumental underdogs. That's the sense I got when wandering the four stages Sunday afternoon of the second annual Orange County Accordion Festival, affectionately known as "The Big Squeeze," at the Orange County Market Place.

There was a whole lot of squeezing going on of those funny boxes that were supported by some guitars, a harp, drums, penny whistles, synthesizers and fiddles.

But who caught my eye the most was accordionist Johnny McKenna, a member of the Los Angeles-based Celtic rock quintet Slugger O'Toole.

Except for his Bronx accent, he was Irish as can be. The son of Irish-born parents and wearer of a green T-shirt and socks with shamrocks, McKenna played on his 93-year-old mother's old-school accordion. He loves the box engraved with the family name so much that he proclaimed to have seen some kind of holy face after playing it.

"It's become my new religion — the Irish accordion," McKenna announced.

His songs inspired by the hard life of the fabled Emerald Isle could be overhead by patrons next door at Carlos' Cantina. The "Home of the World's Best Taquito" pouring cold Coronas with lime and dishing deep-fried Mexican fare was the only taquería in town, probably ever, whose ambience bled with the soul of Ireland (if only for a day).

Great performances abound Sunday, from the Zydeco and Cajun soul of the American South to the salsa and meringue flavors from Latin America. Some enthusiastic attendees — including the skilled Becky Bennett and Mark Signaigo, both of North Hollywood — danced to their favorite jigs even under the unforgiving hot sun of the day.

As far as reversing "the accordion's narrow image as a polka music instrument" — a partial goal of the festival, according to event organizers — I'd say mission accomplished. But there's still one more instrument's reputation to heal.

So when's the great annual bagpipe festival?


On the classical side, the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony has a great lineup this week. From Thursday to Saturday nights at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall is the first of the "Music Unwound" series.

The melodic and entertaining "Pictures at an Exhibition," first composed for piano by Mussorgsky and later arranged for orchestra by Ravel, takes listeners through a variety of interlinked movements inspired by a gallery of watercolors and drawings. The various scenes musically depict subjects that include a medieval castle, a Polish cart drawn by oxen, quarreling French women and the catacombs of Paris.

Before the concert, more than 20 iPads will be out for concertgoers to create their own compositions by drawing shapes, playing with colors or fiddling with some virtual pianos. The works of Laguna Beach artists September McGee and Marc Whitney will also be displayed in what organizers are calling another "pictures at an exhibition."

Also on the program is Ravel's Piano Concerto (featuring French soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) and Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." The 2008 Academy Award-winning animated short of the same name will be played alongside the Prokofiev suite that serves the dual purpose of telling a great story and highlighting various orchestra instrumental colors — namely the sinister-sounding French horns depicting the hungry wolf.

"Halloween Goes Hollywood," a 45-minute themed concert geared for the kids, is at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Tunes from such hits as "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" will be played.

Led by assistant conductor Maxim Eshkenazy, the concert also features the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra playing alongside their professional colleagues. Going beyond just music, the concert will also have five actors telling a story of Dracula and Igor opening the Hollywood Horror Hotel — the delightful vacation home for the famous monsters of film legend.

To top it off, kids coming early to this concert, and dressed up in their Halloween costumes before the trick or treat day, can attend the Musical Carnival. The event at 9 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. will feature meet-and-greets with Halloween "celebrities" and symphonic musicians, arts and crafts, and musical entertainment.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

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