When their love was in full bloom just like the lilacs back in Moscow, Dace and Alexei Sultanov would run barefoot through the rain together. They had been two peas in a pod since sweet sixteen. Their joint mantra was “Be Inspired and Inspire Others,” and they lived beyond the brim of life. Both were world-class musicians — Dace with her cello and Alexei with his piano. Alexei won the 1989 Van Cliburn Piano Competition at the age of 19, and this dynamic duo was on top of the world.
Dace describes Alexei as the kind of person who loved everyday life and would make you laugh and cry. “He was not the typical formal, serious musician you think of,” she adds. “He magnified his audience performing, and then he took off his tails and put on a T-shirt and did normal fun stuff like a regular guy on the street.” From bringing her an armful of flowers in her dormitory just to show how much he cared, to inciting laughter by spontaneously pushing her into the pool fully dressed, Alexei always made Dace feel “dizzy and happy.”
On the other hand, Dace depicts Alexei as a passionately magnificent, out-of-this world guy as a musician. “He would always have this fire resonating from him and once he touched the piano keys, just like a wizard, Alexei would create these magical moments where the listener is transformed to surreal universes,” Dace remembers. “You could feel a connection with different worlds and powers coming out of his fingers. It was unexplainable, powerful, passionate — every time you heard him play you were mesmerized.”
Then in 2001 Alexei was struck with a serious illness that paralyzed the left side of his body, his left hand — and his music. He suffered strokes and was in a coma for so long that it was uncertain whether he would survive or not. Dace recalls that when he did wake up, Alexei was hit with the heartbreaking reality that he could no longer walk or talk. His illness rendered him speechless in more than just the literal sense, leaving his piano silent along with him. “It transformed his whole life in a different dimension for us because it was a new world of recovering, surviving, and re-learning a lot of things because his brain was so severely damaged,” Dace explains. “He did not want to touch the piano — he was too devastated.”
When it came time for Dace’s birthday, Alexei’s determination overpowered what seemed insurmountable. He made the most of his right hand and music memory to play “Happy Birthday” for his wife. “It was so great that he did it on his own, and I noticed how much he inspired me in that moment,” Dace proclaims. “I felt so much happiness my heart was screaming out of joy. One little melody made me so happy!” That Christmas, Alexei went a step further by playing Christmas carols for family and friends. Dace says the room was “overflowing with amazing energy and emotions touching hearts deep into the core.”
The impact was so profound that it spread to even bigger audiences. Dace became Alexei’s left hand when he played, and they visited community colleges, churches, hospitals, retirement communities, and more to share their story. Together with Dace, Alexei continued to inspire others as they performed miracles during his few remaining years.
After Alexei passed away in June of 2005, Dace put her cello away and vowed never to play without her other half. On Dace’s next birthday, her friends surprised her with a party that she says lifted her up in that moment, but left her inconsolable once she was home alone. “I started to cry, but suddenly I could feel this ferocity coming like a huge wind pushing me out of my chair toward the closet where my cello was hidden for many months,” Dace recalls. That was the moment she realized this was her answer, her therapy, and what she wanted to do. “I was just lost and needed to have this kick and push, and none other than Alexei did it with his spirit and persona,” she adds. “I started to play again for myself and now I play for others.” That birthday, Alexei gave Dace the gift of inspiration to keep their music alive — even after he was gone — and her cello is forever marked by the tear stains of that moment.
Today Dace carries on the legacy she and Alexei built together, and FUMCFW is blessed to call her our beloved cellist. As a tribute to the love of her life and all-time inspiration, Dace performs an annual concert in memory of Alexei, in honor of his birthday. It started several years ago in Tokyo when Alexei’s Japanese fans asked Dace to perform a concert in his honor, and Alexei’s brother, Sergei, even played the piano with her. Dace says that she immediately recognized this as a great idea, so she continued the tradition here at FUMCFW with the inspirational Alexei Sultanov Tribute Concert we enjoy together each year.
The first year the concert was an intimate gathering in Leonard Memorial Chapel, drawing mostly close friends and their families. With each year, word spread and the crowd grew, until two years ago the concert moved to the Sanctuary and drew increasingly large crowds — from Cliburn enthusiasts to cello afficianados and others from across our faith community who come each year to hear and relive this beautiful story and the music that brings it to life.
Music forever changed the lives of Dace and Alexei Sultanov. Though one was lost, the other was found — and love will always remain.