Blistering virtuosity was the chief item on an Ajijic tribute concert’s bill of fare Friday, March 2, and by the end of the 50-minute program the audience packing the tiered seating inside the modern, expensive looking interior of the town’s Auditorio were as satiated and blissed out as a pack of wolves after a kill.
The event was organized by Northern Lights founder Chris Wilshere following the sudden, tragic passing of Quartetto Gelato’s Alexander Sevastian on Friday, February 16 in Ajijic. The show’s emphasis on technical wizardry seemed an apt tip of the cap to Sevastian, a Russian-born Canadian accordionist who dazzled spectators around the world with his lightning fingered technique and incisive musicality, elevating a lesser known instrument from beer-stained barroom to hushed concert hall.
Hours before the concert in the Wilshere’s bucolic back patio, there was little hint that a frenzy of gouging violins and piano hammering would shortly ensue. The players slouching comfortably around a large, circular wrought-iron table included violinist Wilshere, ever affable and fresh-faced in spite of his constant organizational onus, pianist James Parker, jazz singer Genevieve Marentette, violinist Stephen Sitarski, violist Katrina Chitty and Andrew Robertson, personal chef for the Wilshere household.
Not unlike, say, boxers or brain surgeons, off-duty classical musicians are a supremely relaxed lot; the intense concentration their trade demands has its counterpoint in the loose bonhomie that characterizes what little downtime they can finagle from their busy schedules.
Given the solemn occasion, the bonhomie around the table was suitably subdued, but shot through with a melancholic humor as players and chefs alike swapped stories of the esteemed, prematurely departed Sevastian.
At the auditorium hours later, pianist Parker, one third of Toronto-based Gryphon Trio, opened the concert with its only overt nod to the sadness of the occasion, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. However, it’s only the piece’s first movement that has earned it a reputation for the downbeat. The subsequent two movements have more blood flowing through their veins, especially as performed by Parker.
Back around the patio table, the charming and laid back Parker, still clad in his street clothes, grinned widely recalling a night in Guadalajara with Sevastian and several other musicians.
“A few of us went to the Arena Coliseo for a Lucha Libre show,” recalled Parker. “We got our ticket, nice front row seats, but we still had about 40 minutes before the wrestling.
“So we looked around outside and we see this total dive bar across the street. We get beers and sit in a corner table, me across the table from Alex. And then a busker with an accordion walks in.”
Chuckles rippled around the backyard table.
“He is the worst accordion player!” exclaimed the pianist. “He’s actually standing right behind Alex, going [mimics sound of a wheezing, off key accordion]. And Alex just sat there with this wide, beatific smile, resisting the urge to be, like, ‘Gimme that f---ing thing!’”
After Parker left the auditorium stage, the evening shifted into a higher gear with a series of combinations featuring brisk-tempoed barn burners and a few well-known blockbusters of European art music.
First, Parker returned to the piano bench with new sheet music, this time as an accompanist to Venezuelan cellist Gregorio Nieto, after which violinist Stephen Sitarski joined the two for a composition by modern Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, whose tango-heavy compositions prominently feature the bandoneon, a larger cousin to the accordion. (It should be noted, by the way, that Sevastian’s instrument of choice was the Bayan, an accordion-like instrument lacking a keyboard.)
In fact, Sitarksi’s own informal pre-show backyard eulogy concerned Piazzolla, a favorite of Sevastian’s.
“Alex was the featured performer at the Tequila House last year,” said Sitarski with a slight catch in his voice, referring to the home of Marion and John Bragg, whose abode for many years doubled as a concert venue during Northern Lights and which featured a giant barrel of the family’s own tequila – the musicians were said to often taste thirstily of the Bragg vintage after the public had left.
“So we did a couple of pieces with him, a string quartet with accordion. And then he did an arrangement of one of Bach’s massive pieces, the Prelude and Fugue. I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor,” smiled Sitarski.
“A few weeks later, Alex contacted us to do a recording of Piazzolla pieces.”
After Parker, Nieto and Sitarksi had brought the Piazzolla composition to its crashing conclusion and left the auditorio stage, pianist David Fung, slim, dapper and animated, bashed out an arrangement of Ravel’s demented Valse (waltz), a piece with only a tangential relationship with that most stately of musical forms. All but demolishing the piano’s 88 bone-white keys, it’s worth risking hyperbolic excess to judge Fung’s performance both hair-raising and breathtaking. Audiences leapt to their feet after the piece’s final chord faded to silence.
Considerably more subdued was another patio paean to Sevastian, this one delivered not by a fellow musician, but by chef Andrew Robertson.
“It was just a moment, the night before he died,” said Robertson softly. “He came and ate dinner, and sat out here playing his accordion afterwards. He had hurt his finger a couple months earlier, and he had pain, but was trying to work through it.
“Then Kurt [Starkey, a cellist who performs live with Quartetto Gelato] walked up and started humming along with what he was playing. Alex’s head lifted up, they made eye contact, and it was just … I told Kurt later it was like Sevastian was floating. It was an amazing moment.”
Swallowing, Robertson added, “That was the last time I saw him.”
A brief silence followed, broken gingerly by a meditative Sitarski.
“When someone is such a master of their craft and they make it look easy, a lot of people think that, well, they’re just naturals. But I can tell you, I don’t know of anybody who worked harder,” said the violinist. “He would practice six hours a day if he could, on top of rehearsing and performing.”
Friday night’s tribute to Alexander Sevastian, a tireless musician noted for his capacity to entertain audiences with feats of button-clicking virtuosity, was capped off fittingly by a frothy medley of orchestral pieces arranged for piano, to be played by four hands. Park and Fung traded low and high register duties several times over the course of the set, which featured ear worms by Brahms and Dvorak, among others.
Approaching the climax with elbows flying, coat tails flapping and sweat beading on their by-turns grinning and grimacing faces, Fung and Parker pulled the audience to their feet a second time as they brought their hands crashing down together upon the keyboard for a final, thundering chord, its lingering reverberations drowned out by wild clapping and cries of “Bravo!” and “Encore!” It was a reaction accordionist Alexander Sevastian himself had no doubt received on numerous occasions over the course of his too-brief but exceptionally fruitful life.
Sevastian leaves behind a wife and two children in his adopted country of Canada. A Go Fund Me campaign has been started for them, at gofundme.com/alexander-sevastian-memorial-fund. The page features an engaging six-minute video of live clips from 1997 to the present.