Walter Kühr awoke one night from a vivid dream, bellowing with musical inspiration. His vision was female musicians sporting accordions in a magnificent ensemble. The owner of Main Squeeze, one of the last accordion music shops of its kind in New York City, Kühr quickly began recruiting female students. His vision eventually became the Main Squeeze Orchestra.
“First of all, the accordion is not a dying art at all,” Kühr declares. “It’s totally the contrary. It is the hippest thing on the planet. Every young musician wants to buy an accordion.”
Born outside Frankfurt, Germany, Kühr’s mother handed him one of her accordions when he was just six years old and asked him if he wanted to learn. “Everybody in that region played accordion,” he explains. He took to the instrument, eventually performing polkas and tangos in local clubs, as well as playing piano in a jazz band.
Nearly 23 years ago, at age 33, Kühr made his trek to America, bringing with him only a small suitcase and an accordion, his most prized possession.
When he stumbled upon a dying video store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he purchased the old space for an accordion shop, fixing it up over several months, and investing $50,000 he had received from his deceased grandmother. In May 1996 he officially opened the shop, naming it Main Squeeze.
In 2002, Kühr awoke from his dream of creating an all-female accordion orchestra. “I woke up and was mesmerized,” Kühr says. “I didn’t even go back to bed. I just made coffee and wrote down the dream and the steps I had to take.” He quickly began to recruit players, and plan musical arrangements, rehearsal spaces, and more.
“It was the first time I was really organized in my life,” he laughs. “I had to make it true. I couldn’t leave it a dream.”
When a female player came into his shop he’d ask them if they were interested and write down their telephone number. He also had a large pool of students to choose from, but still it took him nine months to gather the original 18 women and find a rehearsal space.
Kühr handpicked the musicians who came from diverse backgrounds, but didn’t hold “official” auditions. He scout-ed talent, oftentimes throwing sheet music in front of potential players to see if they were a legitimate fit. “The personality had to be a fit,” Kühr explains. “The player cannot be too ambitious. It is an ensemble. Any type of front woman wouldn’t work.”
Three of the original members have moved away and he never replaced them. He says that 15 is a good number for strength, power, and stage room. Of the 15, most are part-time musicians with other “day” jobs; only two of them play professionally outside of the orchestra.
Several years ago Kühr began giving Elaine Yau lessons, after she found a vintage 1960s Italian-made ladies’ accordion in his shop. In 2007 he gave her a call asking if she could substitute for one of the girls in the band for a Valentine’s Day gig. So the 42-year-old mother of two dropped by his shop to have a look at the program.
“I got tricked into doing an audition of sorts, right on the spot,” Yau confessed. “He sat me down and put a part of the Brandenburg Concerto in front of me. A few bars later he clapped me on the back and said, ‘You’re hired.’” She says she has fallen in love with the group and even played through two pregnancies.
“During those months as I got bigger and bigger, I told everyone I would keep playing until either the shoulder straps ran out of extra holes, or I got so heavy in front that I might just tip over,” Yau says. Aside from the orchestra she works as managing director of a privately held technical consulting firm.
After their first performance at the Cut-ting Room in Manhattan, Boo P. Scherf, a friend of two sisters in the band liked the idea so much he started writing arrangements for the group.
“This guy was totally motivated and encouraged to write all our arrangements, which is certainly more interesting than buying the arrangements that every other accordion orchestra uses,” Kühr says. Scherf continues to arrange every tune for the Main Squeeze Orchestra.
“The money is the least important thing,” Kühr explains of his orchestra. “I want to play good music with good players, and with a matching, comfort-able ensemble.”
Kühr conducts the band’s live performances, which range from holiday appearances to niche music, representing classical genres and pop culture. Each player dresses in a unique costume for every performance.
The group’s performances have different themes depending on who they are playing for. In recent years they did an all-Russian classical set featuring arrangements of great composers such as Modest Mussorgsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. They also redo pop chart toppers and film music landmarks such as the Star Wars theme song.
Band member Rachel Swaner, 34, says her favorite gig was when they were hired to play a cultural event. The graduate student of New York University recalls the event as “fancy,” and the orchestra showed up dressed in a way that perhaps offended the conservative audience. Also, Kühr had changed the set order right before the show, but not all members were aware.
“At one point half the group was playing a Romanian folk tune, while the other half was playing the theme song to Hawaii Five-O,” says Swaner, who is an associate director of research at a non-profit think tank. “We were not a big hit, and I think they withheld our payment.”
Swaner has been with Main Squeeze since 2003. At the time, she began playing with the group she was not doing much creatively and felt that her identity as a musician was lost. Now she is involved in several music projects, including an Americana rock band, a bluegrass duo, and Balkan no-wave band.
“I still play with Main Squeeze because the members have become like family,” Swaner says. “Our performances are always fun and different. That’s one of the things I love about playing with MSO. We have such a wide range of repertoire and types of performances.”