Freedom’s child I was born in Taurage, a small town in the west of Lithuania, in 1990, just when the country was gaining its independence from the Soviet Union. I’m very proud to be the freedom boy. My mother was a single mother, she works as a cook, and I don’t have any siblings. I remember tapping my fingers on the table when I was three and telling everyone I was playing the piano – I was copying someone I’d seen on TV. My family didn’t have the money to buy a piano so I was given a small child’s accordion instead. No one taught me how to play. I just learned by myself from the age of three, playing the instrument by ear.
Hitting the right note When I was eight, we heard about an accordion teacher in Šiauliai, in northern Lithuania, so we moved there to be close. After so many years of just playing what and how I pleased, I found lessons difficult. I was taught how to place my hands correctly, the theory of music – I hated it and ignored much of my practice. Then, after two years, something clicked. Of course, it helped that my teacher was really inspiring and believed in me. I also had piano lessons, but the piano never excited me as much as the accordion.
There are a few kinds of accordion and I play the piano accordion. The accordion was patented in Vienna in 1829, so it’s ironic, with all the city’s classical composers, that none were around to see this beautiful instrument. Mozart himself wrote letters to instrument makers asking them to make an instrument that would be portable, could sustain sound for a long time and could play polyphonic music. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to experience this instrument. I like to think of the Chinese instrument known as the sheng – a mouth organ that is played by blowing through a mouthpiece in the side – as the first prototype accordion. It has been around for more than 2,000 years.
A turn at Ronnie Scott’s When I was nine years old, I played for almost 300 people on a stage with musicians who were 16 and 17. It was really exciting and it was then that I realised I love being on stage. My teacher used to say, “The bigger the audience, the better you play.” At the age of 13, I started preparing for really serious competitions and that meant I had to practise a lot in the summer holidays. I would stay at my teacher’s house for a few months over the summer. I couldn’t play football or hang out with my peers – I just practised really hard. I look back fondly on those summers.
My first trip abroad was to Italy, when I was 13, for a competition. Since then, I’ve won more than 30 prizes and awards. Competing is different from concert performing: it’s more about absolute accuracy and the competition, and performing is more about the artistic integrity, and you communicate with the audience. In 2008, I entered the Royal Academy of Music in London. It’s the only place in England that supports the study of the accordion. I’d had quite a sheltered life up until then, so it was exciting to be in London discovering things and being around musicians. I met a few musicians who had a slot at Ronnie Scott’s and they invited me to play with them. Although Ronnie Scott’s is a jazz club, they’re quite open and we played mostly African and Latin-influenced music.
Lithuania’s Got Talent In 2010, while I was a student, I entered the Coupe Mondiale, the annual world accordion championship, in Croatia. I took part in the piano accordion section and won. That same year, I entered the Lithuania’s Got Talent competition. It had only started the year before and I thought if I want to reach a wider audience then I need to connect with more people.
When I was backstage I heard someone shouting, “Where’s the boy with the squeezebox?” I really don’t like it when people use such derogatory terms for the accordion, so I was furious when I got on stage and said, “Someone backstage says I play the squeezebox. I’m here to show you that the squeezebox is quite different.” I played something quite complex and then they asked for some music more suitable for the show, and I did some tango. I ended up winning it. That was a bizarre year: winning the most serious competition for accordion players and then winning a TV show.
Changing China After my four-year degree, I stayed on in London for another two years to record an album. Martynas came out in 2013 and brought me a lot of attention internationally. I miss London – I miss my friends, the musicians, the atmosphere. I’ve got a place in Islington where I can stay when I want, but these days 70 per cent of my time is spent travelling and my schedule is always changing. In August, I am usually in Lithuania, but the rest of the time, I’m on the move. Last year, I toured 16 cities in China. It was interesting and challenging – the audience talked and filmed the performance, and even played it back – but I think it was worth doing and the audience was a little changed after they left the concert.
A song for independence It’s hard to hold down a relationship because I travel so much. My busy schedule also makes it difficult to record a second album or even find time to practise. Next week, I’ll be in Tel Aviv, then I’m on to London to play St Martin-in-the-Fields (a church that hosts concerts), and then two concerts in Latvia. I finish in Berlin with my string quartet, where we will premiere a piece written for Lithuania’s 100th anniversary of independence from Tsarist Russia. It’s a big thing for us as Lithuanians and I’m pleased to do it in the Konzerthaus Berlin.
The sum of its parts I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d been given an instrument other than an accordion when I was three, but I keep coming back to the fact that there’s something special about the instrument. I like that it’s very mechanical – it’s made out of more than 10,000 parts. This love of machinery also translated into a love of cars; as a child I enjoyed sitting in the car and exploring all the buttons. I don’t have many hobbies, but I love cars. I have a BMW 5 Series, a very powerful car, and had an Audi that I just sold. Later in life, I’d like to have a few more cars, perhaps a car collection.
Martynas Levickis was in Hong Kong last month to perform with the City Chamber Orchestra.