Samuele Telari has, for many years, been awarded that rather grand title: ‘ambassador’ for his instrument. Harmless praise? Well, possibly. The pessimist, however, might argue that this epithet conceals the troubling idea that it just isn’t quite enough to be a remarkable musician. The ambassador must persuade, convince, justify to those such as the Wikipedia contributor who’s noted that nowadays the accordion can be seen ‘occasionally even in serious classical music concerts’. To think! Reflecting on this state of affairs, I had an uncomfortable realisation: by occasionally introducing Samuele to promoters and potential audiences as something ‘a bit different’, I may have inadvertently done him and his instrument a disservice. You might contend that in the musical world introducing people to something - whether composer, instrument, or artist - unfamiliar should be done with a soft touch, perhaps out of respect for their existing (assumed) knowledge and (assumed) preferences. Moreover, such efforts to pique interest might even be most likely to succeed when conducted with a sensitive and enticing tone. The problem with this perspective is that if instruments - the accordions, recorders, classical guitars et al. - are presented as ‘wild cards’, they remain in the ears and eyes of many, consigned to this fate, subconsciously or otherwise. The time has surely arrived to release from captivity these endangered species: they’ve long been ready to fend for themselves.

Writing in The Times, Ann Treneman described online learning as ‘like swimming with your clothes on’; I think the same can be said for online teaching - for many professional musicians, currently the only source of income. When Samuele and I Zoom, he appears quite drained from a day of virtual lessons, musing ‘you can really appreciate what it means to be with someone in the same place and teach’. In the first month of lockdown, Samuele was actually ‘quite happy’ to have a break from his usual travel demands between Spoleto, Potenza, and Cesena (I’ve done the G. Maps work: this is a long way), and plenty of time to practise for summer recitals in Como, Aldeburgh, and Verbier, to name a few. Soon it began to sink in that these performances would all be cancelled, and at this point, Samuele tells me that he had to stop playing completely. The feeling of ennui will be recognisable to many: having spent ‘all day in the same chair’, Samuele would look back on the day and, despite knowing that he had been reasonably busy, was overwhelmed by the sense that he had achieved nothing. This was, understandably, ‘very hard to accept and to find a way to escape’. After a downturn, then, Samuele gradually started to ‘play something just for fun and for pleasure because I couldn’t really study pieces for concerts… my mind couldn’t support this kind of study. I just played when I wanted... something that I “shouldn’t play”, or maybe something that I wanted to play before but didn’t have time’. Thankfully, routine established, and with the number of Italian cases continuing to fall, the darkest moments appear to have passed. 

Samuele TelariSamuele Telari

Samuele Telari

One of the most rewarding aspects of the ‘Portrait of a Young Classical Artist’ mini-series has been trying to get a better grasp of a basic question: where did it all come from? Samuele chuckles, admitting that he’s not entirely sure. Neither parent is a musician - his father is a courier and mother, a housekeeper - and though his brother has ‘a good feeling for the arts’, he managed only two months as an accordionist (possibly lacking encouragement from his teacher, whom Samuele summarised as ‘very old, quite strict, and not very polite’). No obvious source, then, so I ask Samuele whether his parents’ musicality might have gone unrealised. Perhaps so, indeed his mother has been ‘listening to me for 20 years’ and, despite no formal musical training, ‘could understand... if I’m studying something new, I might ask if she likes it, and she makes the right comments.’ The maternal side certainly appears to exhibit the strongest claim, as Samuele says his father is ‘maybe one of the most far away from music’(!). I ask if they ever voiced any concern about Samuele choosing a career path not exactly renowned for its stability or material rewards. It seems not: “they always supported me, but I think that they would have supported me whatever I did… I think because they saw that, from when I started, I was very happy’. Samuele started playing at six and describes these early years as ‘like a game’. Those summers were spent at a music school led by a particularly inspiring teacher, who also happened to be an accordionist. During this time, Samuele lived with his grandparents in a very small village, and only started to realise that playing the accordion was an unusual pursuit because his grandparents’ friends showed far more interest than his classmates. Now when he visits schools and children are curious to learn about the accordion, he explains that ‘in my case, I never felt it was strange because it was the first instrument that I met. For example, I play Pictures at an Exhibition, but I only realised that it was written originally for piano three years after I was listening to an accordion version!’.

There comes a point at which any especially talented teenager will face hard decisions about their long-term intentions and consequent level of dedication. I ask Samuele about this juncture: ‘I realised, I think, when around 14 I had to buy the classical accordion, so it meant quite a big expense. I was no more a child and started to feel a bit the responsibility to ask my parents for the money for the instrument, for the lessons, for the competitions, and yes it was the moment when I chose’. He attended ‘competitions and recitals very, very often, so I was very used to playing in public so I knew that I liked to be in front of someone and play… it was quite natural for me. And I saw also that people liked what I did’. Despite this commitment to the instrument, ‘I didn’t think about going to academy...I didn’t know at all about what it meant to be a musician… I really didn’t know anything. Of course when I went to the Academy I think it changed because I started to know a lot of people of my age who lived the same, playing different instruments: they really opened my mind.’

Does it become wearying to know that a cellist, say, is more likely to be asked to perform a recital not because this performer is more creative, or virtuosic, but due to the simple fact of their chosen tool of expression? Showing laudable patience, Samuele explains ‘I don’t feel frustrated if someone asks me … I understand that it is normal to be surprised if you see a young guy play classical accordion’. Most exasperating, it seems, can be the views and reactions of classical musicians: ‘for people who want to be artists, the first thing is to be open’. We can perceive this openness through Samuele's programmes and numerous collaborations. As a soloist, Samuele frequently presents a mixture of original and arranged or transcribed music; reinterpreting pieces and experimenting with different voices are simply the norm. And unlike so many, he is completely at home playing 20th and 21st century repertoire:‘I think that generally I have this feeling for modern arts… not that I like them more, [but] maybe sometimes it’s easier for me to understand what it means. As accordionists we are more used to playing this [contemporary music] than violinists, and pianists’. Samuele’s involvement with Opificio Sonoro offers a good example of this priority. The collective are keen to ‘create some dialogue between modern and old’, for example, with programmes such as ‘Sciarrino and Scarlatti; Donatoni and Bach’. Samuele feels a ‘mission to experiment’ but is conscious that at times there must be ‘a way to have a compromise’ with the public (maybe we need to set up a ‘nudge unit’ à la David Cameron that focuses on broadening the appetite of concert goers?). Samuele believes that strong emphasis among contemporary musicians on premieres can sometimes be ‘a pity’ as pieces continue to develop through performances in diverse contexts, by different performers. Though a premiere is easier to sell, and can often be a compelling event to witness, it is not the final product. Samuele views the feeling that once premiered ‘you don’t have to play anymore’ as rather strange in its divergence from prevalent attitudes towards the (re-)performance of music from previous eras.

Pondering the future has become an inevitable part of lockdown, especially so, perhaps, for performing artists. I ask Samuele whether he ever pictures himself doing something other than playing accordion, and find his response to be refreshingly equivocal: ‘it really depends… now, in this moment, I answer yes, I want to do it for the rest of my life’. However, sometimes, ‘I think I don't know, I have some doubts, I start thinking if it’s right to spend a whole life doing the same thing. I don't know, maybe it depends also when I am more negative or things are not going so well... but yes, I know that I change my mind. It’s not for sure, but of course it's the only thing I can do well - that, I know! And the thing that I need to do for sure’. For those without a strong vocation, such doubts might surprise; however I would submit that it is the questioning musicians - those who are able to look outside the music world - who tend to be the most liberal and interesting performers (...and people). Samuele certainly has exciting prospects awaiting: foremost in his mind are making a new CD recording (his first, extraordinarily varied, album ‘Limes’ was released in 2017), and a typically innovative project with YCAT recordist, Tabea Debus. Their future programme, ‘Rotations’, perfectly captures Samuele’s desire to expand the traditional scope of a classical music concert; engaging with a choreographer, the performance will fuse the music of Jan Rokus van Roosendael with Renaissance and contemporary music. For Samuele, thinking about the ways in which music can relate to other arts is particularly stimulating: another opportunity to ‘think about what I do in a different way’. This is part of his ‘dream’ to discover ‘ways to play concerts together with other arts... trying to figure out a new way to show and propose my music’. Samuele’s musical life has thrived upon thinking about his instrument with restless creativity: it’s intrinsic to his musical outlook. He says to me ‘music has to’s not normal that we stop’. We just need to keep up.

Sean Dunn