Hai Zhang /Courtesy of the artist
Walter Kuehr and the Main Squeeze Orchestra at a rehearsal space in New York City.
Hai Zhang /Courtesy of the artist
What do you get when you put 14 accordionists in one room? No, this isn't just another joke poking fun at the accordion. What you get is the 14-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, an all-female, all-accordion ensemble based in New York City. The group has just released its first album.
Sometime in March 2002, Walter Kuehr woke up in the middle of the night. He'd dreamed he was on a bus with an 18-piece all-female accordion orchestra heading home from a concert in Boston. He was the conductor, and the orchestra was better than anything he'd ever heard.
"I thought that was like a sign from God," he says. "The most beautiful thing I've ever dreamt of, and I immediately felt like this is what I have to do."
The next day, the German-born musician started organizing. He owns an accordion shop on the Lower East Side — he's a fixture of New York's accordion scene. Yes, there is one. He says he knew he could make it happen.
"I have connections," Kuehr says. "I know the players. I know enough female accordionists. I can get the charts. I can do everything."
Nine months later, the group played its first concert. Today, the ensemble is made up of amateur and professional musicians who meet every Wednesday to rehearse.
The Main Squeeze Orchestra is a diverse group of women with a wide range of ages and cultural backgrounds, and their repertoire is just as diverse. They play everything from classical pieces to German folk songs to arrangements of The Beatles, Eurythmics and Madonna.
"Part of Walter's dream was to spread the gospel of the accordion," orchestra member Leslie Molson says. "I think probably when he came to this country, he would be surprised at people's reaction to the accordion. He'd be like, 'What are you talking about? It's great.' "
The Accordion: No Joke
Let's face it. The typical reaction to this instrument is best summed up in a one-liner. Like, what's the difference between an onion and an accordion? Answer: You cry when you cut up an onion.
Kelly Alba, another member of the Main Squeeze Orchestra, says her reaction was just the opposite the first time she held the instrument.
"This is the part that I never know how to say in a not-corny way," she says. "But I just put it on, and it was a sword-in-the-stone moment. It just felt right, and everything in the world made sense."
Alba says she likes the accordion's versatility: It's got melody, bass, rhythm, dynamic range, and it's intimate.
"It's heavy, and it's a commitment," she says. "You put it on your chest and you wear it right next to your heart. You squeeze it, and it's like a big musical hug."
What started as a dream has now turned into a full-blown labor of love, according to Molson, who plays the unusual bass accordion. The thing weighs in at 25 pounds, and Molson has been playing it with the orchestra since it began nine years ago.
"That's a long time," she says. "I gave the best years of my life now to the Main Squeeze Orchestra. And it doesn't even feel like that. It feels like it was just yesterday."
For Kuehr, the orchestra is the realization of his own American dream — one he's had since his very first days as an immigrant in New York City.
"When I arrived here 20 years ago in America, I had a suitcase and my accordion," he says. "I never let go of it. I always stuck with it."
No matter how they may feel, New Yorkers are stuck with it, too. Kuehr and the Main Squeeze Orchestra are plotting to make themselves inescapable in the spring, with more concerts and even another album.