There's an old joke that the definition of a gentleman is a man who can play the accordion and doesn't. It reflects the unfortunate reputation that musical instrument has endured in North America, where for many people it still conjures up visions of polkas, beer halls and SCTV's Shmenge Brothers.
If there was one man capable of shattering that image with ease, it was Alexander Sevastian.
Just hearing – and watching – the fleet-fingered Russian-Canadian accordionist attack a classical chestnut, such as Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor (originally composed for the organ), was enough to kick all those clichés aside and leave you in awe of both the accordion and the virtuoso.
Mr. Sevastian, who died on Feb. 16 of a heart attack in Ajijic, Mexico, at the age of 41, was an indefatigable accordion ambassador. Touring the world as a solo artist and with Canada's popular Quartetto Gelato, he was known to perform everything from Russian folk melodies to the thorniest avant-garde compositions with equal passion and skill.
"We have lost a major talent," said Joseph Macerollo, the distinguished Canadian accordionist and music professor, who was Mr. Sevastian's teacher and, later, a close friend. "There was a wizardry to what he did."
For Quartetto Gelato, the burly Mr. Sevastian, a native of Belarus, was "our Belarussian bear," said co-founder Peter De Sotto. "He was this big, warm, cuddly guy that everybody loved. You couldn't have a better partner."
Colin Maier, the quartet's oboist, said Mr. Sevastian's personality shone through in his playing: "He was a great accordion player, but it was his honesty and compassion that made his music special. Maybe he couldn't always express what he felt in words, but he could always express it in music."
Offstage, Mr. Sevastian was the solid rock that his colleagues leaned on. He organized the group's international tours and managed things on the road. He possessed a photographic memory that not only allowed him to remember massive amounts of music, but was also an invaluable asset when travelling. "He had the maps of cities memorized, places we'd been to before," said cellist Liza McLellan. "I think he could see the picture of the map in his head. And he knew all the highways across the USA."
Mr. Sevastian was in Mexico with the quartet to open the Northern Lights Festival de Febrero on Lake Chapala, which was to be the kickoff to a South American tour. On the day of the concert, Mr. Sevastian was discovered dead in his bedroom at the home where he was billeted.
Mr. De Sotto, who had known Mr. Sevastian for 16 years, said the loss was devastating. "As a group, we were extremely close. We shared so much," he said. It was Mr. Sevastian who had taken care of Mr. De Sotto when the violinist's wife, quartet member Cynthia Steljes, died of cancer in 2006.
"He was the glue that held everything together," Ms. McLellan added. "For us, he was like a brother and a father at the same time."
Born on Oct. 2, 1976, in Minsk, Belarus (then part of the Soviet Union), Alexander Mikhailovich Sevastian was the oldest child of Nadya, a computer engineer, and Mikhail (Michael), a chemist and amateur accordionist. Alex, also called Sasha, began playing accordion at the age of 7. He studied at Minsk's Glinka Musical College and then at the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music in Moscow, taking a master's degree in performance under Friedrich Lips, maestro of the Russian bayan, or chromatic button accordion.
Mr. Sevastian launched his professional career in Russia in 1996, touring as a soloist with the state broadcaster's folk orchestra throughout the country and to Ukraine, Germany, Italy and Japan. He also started entering – and winning – international accordion competitions, eventually becoming a four-time world champion.
"He was very ambitious, always eager to be the first," recalled his younger brother, Vitali Sevastian. "But he was very humble, very hard-working and goal-oriented."
It was at one of these competitions, in Moss, Norway, in 1998, that Mr. Macerollo first met Mr. Sevastian. Mr. Macerollo was adjudicating and Mr. Sevastian took the top prize. Afterward, the young musician revealed that he was emigrating to Canada and hoped Mr. Macerollo would take him as a student.
Not long after, Quartetto Gelato began seeking a world-class accordionist to replace the retiring Mr. Macerollo. The professor immediately recommended the "amazing kid" he'd met in Norway.
Mr. Sevastian moved to Canada in 2001, settling in Toronto with his parents and brother. He joined Quartetto Gelato the following year and became a Canadian citizen in 2005 – something he was boisterously proud of. Whenever he drove back across the border to Canada after a U.S. tour, Mr. De Sotto said, "he'd blow the horn as hard as he could."
While playing and recording with the globe-trotting quartet, Mr. Sevastian also studied under Mr. Macerollo at the University of Toronto, where he received his Advanced Certificate in Performance. "From both a human and an artistic standpoint, he was a joy to teach," Mr. Macerollo said. "Whenever you suggested something, he could deliver it for you, no matter how convoluted it was."
That made Mr. Sevastian an ideal interpreter of new music, such as Malcolm Forsyth's Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra, which he performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2008. "I worked with him on some of the most difficult works for solo accordion by Canadian composers," Mr. Macerollo said, "and he was able to enter fully into the challenges of a piece and deliver a very serious performance."
At the same time, Mr. Sevastian also excelled at the crowd-pleasing repertoire of Quartetto Gelato. He brought a heartfelt, theatrical flair to his performances. "Because he was a big guy, when he'd pull out the bellows on his instrument, it was like he was stretching his arm across the stage," Mr. De Sotto said. "Sasha's playing was beautiful to watch, it was like ballet."
He was always willing to try new things, added Mr. Maier, both musically and in life. Just recently, Mr. Sevastian, who didn't consider himself a singer, performed karaoke for the first time. The group were in a hotel bar in Lloydminster, Sask., after a gig, when Mr. Maier urged the accordionist to step up to the karaoke machine. "He said, 'Okay, no problem.' And he ended up singing Hotel California. And it was like, the best," Mr. Maier says, laughing. "He sang it with his Russian accent and the audience loved it, he was so good."
In 2004, Mr. Sevastian went back to Russia to fetch his sweetheart, Anna (Anya) Budennaya. They married in Rome, then returned to Toronto, where they started a family. Their children are Vladimir, 12, and Maria, 4. Ms. Budennaya is an amateur Russian folk singer who occasionally performed with her husband.
To supplement his artist's income, Mr. Sevastian took some students and also ran a driving school, catering to the local Russian community. He had recently begun playing with Toronto's Payadora Tango Ensemble and was also acting as a promoter, bringing in musicians from Russia. On top of that, he continued to practise his instrument six hours a day – sometimes in the middle of the night.
He was a perfectionist, both as a musician and in other aspects of his life, Mr. Macerollo noted. It may finally have taken a toll on his health. "He liked to do everything so that it was done properly," he said. "That starts to create internal stress."
Mr. Sevastian was also carrying an emotional burden. In 2016, his father, Michael, was killed in a car accident while on his way to pick him up from the airport. Mr. Sevastian blamed himself for the tragedy, despite the assurances of his friends that it wasn't his fault.
Regardless of the stresses, his colleagues said Mr. Sevastian was playing at his peak in the months before his untimely death. He leaves behind a recorded legacy that includes five albums with Quaretto Gelato and three as a soloist, not to mention concert videos and countless clips on YouTube. He has also left many listeners with a new appreciation of the instrument he devoted his life to.
"Alex brought the accordion into another light," Mr. De Sotto said. "He made people take it seriously."
Mr. Sevastian leaves his wife, Anna Budennaya; son, Vladimir; daughter, Maria; mother, Nadya; and brother, Vitali Sevastian.