The Northern Lights Festival de Febrero, a normally joyous occasion featuring an international array of musicians assembled lakeside for two weeks of aural art, was darkened by sudden tragedy Friday, February 16, when accordion virtuoso Alexander Sevastian died of a heart attack in his room, just a few hours before he was slated to perform with Toronto-based jazz group Quartetto Gelato. He was just 41 years old.
The Friday concert, scheduled at 7:30 p.m. at the Auditorio, was understandably canceled, but the following Monday, when Sevastian was to present a program of Bach and other pieces, violinist and festival founder Chris Wilshere rounded up the visiting musicians for an evening of upbeat musical divertissement. The centerpiece of the evening was Mendelssohn’s String Octet, a high octane, blistering work that the audience, in the words of festival organizer Roseann Wilshere (mother to Chris), “went bananas for.”
For those who had seen accordionist Sevastian live, “blistering” would perhaps be an apropos description of his performances. He was famous for playing arrangements of difficult pieces by, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach, such as the famously note-heavy Toccata and Fugue.
Born in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, Sevastian moved to Canada in 2002 to study at the University of Toronto, where he also joined Quartetto Gelato, renowned for the technical prowess and musicality they bring to bear on a variety of genres, including classical, tango, folk, and gyspy jazz. Prior to his move to Toronto, Sevastian had already gained a reputation as a fearsome talent, performing with a Russian TV orchestra as a featured soloist and taking first place in several international accordion competitions.
Aside from his work with Quartetto Gelato, Sevastian had a thriving career as a soloist, performing with the Toronto Symphony in 2008 and touring as a one-man act around the world. In addition, his playing has been immortalized on several recordings, including “Russian Favorites,” which includes pieces by Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” on which he plays arrangements of Bach, Scarlatti, Schubert and others; and albums he recorded with Quartetto Gelato, which include a disc of music by latin composers and a Christmas album.
Aside from his undeniable musicianship, Sevastian was also known for his generosity. An anecdote told to The Reporter by festival organizer Judy Parker describes a touching act of kindness. Last year, a gentlemen with a severe case of multiple sclerosis, a friend of the Wilsheres down the road from their house, was unable to attend a concert featuring Sevastian. The accordionist, catching wind of this after playing the scheduled event, gave a 30-minute private concert for the ailing man in his home.
While still no doubt shocked and saddened by his sudden passing, the community of musicians in town for the Northern Lights Festival are rallying together to pay tribute to Sevastian in the best way possible – with a concert. While the program is still TBA, sources say it will hew to a collection of classical greatest hits. The show is scheduled for Friday, March 2, 7:30 p.m. at the Auditorio de la Ribera (Boulevard de Jin XI 110, Ajijic). Tickets can be purchased at the door an hour before showtime.
For more information on Alexander Sevastian, go to alexandersevastian.com. In addition, a GoFundMe campaign has been started for his family, at gofundme.com/alexander-sevastian-memorial-fund.