Homemade Cookies, Metal Folding Chairs
by Ed Collins/February, 1997
“What I want to know is why I have to go with you to this thing?” Judy asked.
“Because it’s your responsibility as wife,” I answered.
We were sitting in the van in a parking lot, eating Der Wienersnitzel hot dogs, listening to the radio. “I think I’ll go claim our seats,” I told Judy between bites of a messy relish-and-onion dog.
It was a less than a half-hour before the concert and the room was all but empty. A few clusters of well-dressed elderly people stood in the hallway outside the room, chatting. I laid my sweatshirt on the first two aisle seats in the front row.
Back in the van I unwrapped a mustard dog. “What is it about me that makes this so exciting?” I asked Judy.
“Because you’re weird,” she answered matter-of-factly. I didn’t respond but I was thinking that it’s probably because I like to be surprised.
“Can’t we sit farther back?” Judy asked. “I don’t like to sit so close you have to interact with the performer.” Behind us and next to us, people were conversing in languages I didn’t recognize. One lady to our right wore a green button on her lapel that read “Kiss me, I’m Finnish.”
A plump woman wearing a folk dress of some kind climbed the stage stairs and spoke into a microphone. She talked about how proud she was, on behalf of the House of Finland, to be host of Veikko Ahvenainen.
When he walked onto stage he was just what I thought he would be–– 60ish, trim, handsome, a full head of hair, dressed in a dark tuxedo, wearing a bow tie and paten-leather shoes.
And wearing an accordion on his chest.
When he began to talk it was as though English was his third or fourth language, and he hadn’t spoken it in years. He made no apologies as he groped for words. He began by describing the instrument that was hanging from his shoulders. “It was given to me by the Russian government, only one of 16 in world, made by (something-or-other) Volkovich. It’s not an accordion but a…” and he spit out a Russian-sounding word that sounded like porkpie.
Then he introduced a Finnish folk song. I couldn’t wait to hear the accordion. What could make it so special? I wondered.
I also wondered if this was going to be a long evening and how much grief Judy would choose to give me.
There were six rows of 20 buttons on the baseboard and the distinctive sound he made from the Russian accordion came from the deep resonant bass notes. They sounded like they came from a huge pipe organ. Veikko made his porkpie sound like a small orchestra.
After playing Ghost Riders in the Sky he walked to the edge of the stage and began to talk to the audience.
“In my life I’ve been very good luck,” began Veikko, who went on to say that he had played all over the world, including the great concert halls in the Soviet Union. “Concerts sponsored by the Russian government,” he continued. “Every time I came back to the same city–– like Moscow, Leningrad, St. Petersberg, I was welcomed by the mayor, the minister of culture, the director of the philharmonic, many, many people. Now I’m very grateful if a taxi driver wait for me at airport.”
It cost $7 for our seats. There were about a 100 people in a room that seemed appropriate for a junior high school play. I wondered what he thought. The metal folding chairs, the homemade cookies and coffee in the back. People like me who wore sweat shirts and tennis shoes.
Each song ended with enthusiastic applause from the sparse crowd. Veikko’s habit wass to nod his head repetitively and occasionally bend from the waist in response. A humble, eyes-cast-downward “I’m not worthy” look seemed feigned to me. This guy is great and he knows it. In a modest way he told us of his playing in front of thousands all over the world.
His right hand swept across the white and silver buttons as the left hand punched the black bass buttons sometimes furiously. The dexterity of his wrist and fingers impressed, but it was the bellows that amazed me. The strength, the force, the accent of each note was shaped as he manipulated the bellows to whisper a note or shout it out.
He introduced a classical piece by a Spanish composer and then a self-composed piece about winter. “I want to paint a picture of a winter storm with this instrument.”
I was in the presence of greatness. The music elicited a feeling, an image.
Veikko sat with his accordion resting on his knee. He rarely looked at the audience as he played; his eyes were usually fixed on the top of his accordion, occasionally he glanced at the ceiling.
“Ladies and gentleman, it’s polka time now,” he said, rather amusingly. People applauded as he stood up to play.
“There are one hundred thousand accordion players in Finland; they all play this polka,” said Veikko. “There are one million accordion players in Russia; everybody plays this Finnish polka. And there are two million accordionists in China; every one play this polka.”
After a short intermission, where Veikko sold his tapes and CDs from behind a folding table in the foyer, he strapped on his Italian-made, rhinestone-studded Giulietti accordion and walked to the back of the room. I was sitting by myself watching him when he walked past me. He glanced down and asked, “Do you play the accordion?”
I hesitated a second before saying, “Yes, the piano accordion. I’m a beginner.” He nodded and continued walking.
Actually I’ve been playing for over ten years; still I consider myself a novice––too uncertain to call myself a player. It took me a good five years before I could play in public (people that I knew) without getting so nervous that my hand would sweat profusely. Often I was reduced to the point where I couldn’t tell one note from another, let alone play a recognizable tune.
For about 20 minutes he played standing up near the cookie table. In front of him elderly men and women danced to the waltzes and polkas. I imagine most were European immigrants, and the music brought them back to their youth, during a time when entertainment meant either playing music, dancing or singing, where acoustic music reigned and the accordion was king.
“OK, now I play the last two waltzes for you. Everybody dance,” said Veikko. I sat there and watched a dozen couples shuffling stiffly to the music. He played Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago. The music came from the box on his chest. And it filled the room.