‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
— from “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
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,” Dace points out. “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.” For instance, Alexei loved to cook. Dace calls this his “human side” (as opposed to his reserved musician side) in which he could just be fun, happy, and crazy. 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.” As she puts it, “He was so generous and shared everything. He was amazing — that was just his character.”
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,” she 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.” Dace says Alexei’s music was so amazing that you didn’t believe what you were hearing because it didn’t sound real. “Every time he would perform he would give 120 percent to his audience,” she adds. “He said even if one person is in the audience, you should play for that one person like there are 1,000 people. Each individual counts and is there to listen and be inspired by you.” Dace admits that after Alexei played they would even forget about their disagreements — like everything had dissolved and nothing else was worth it.
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 also 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. “We started to talk about never giving up,” Dace remembers. “It doesn’t matter what kind of condition you are in — inspire and encourage others around you, lift other people up, forget about all your troubles, and give what you can.” Together with Dace, Alexei continued to inspire others as they performed miracles during his few remaining years. “Just like years ago, whether for one or hundreds, that spirit came back of giving 120 percent of whatever he was at that moment at whatever level.”
The last time Alexei performed for a large audience was in November of 2004 at their citizenship ceremony. Almost 1,000 newly American citizens, including Dace and Alexei, gathered with their families at the Fort Worth Convention Center. As they were being sworn in, Alexei played “America the Beautiful” on the keyboard. He was USA all the way dressed in red, white, and blue with the American flag attached to his wheelchair. “The new citizens started to sing and cry at the same time, and it was so beautiful and emotional,” Dace declares. “That moment of connection was unforgettable.”
After Alexei passed in June of 2005, Dace put her cello away and vowed never to play without her other half. “I was sure lighting would strike me and I would be gone,” Dace reveals. “At that time I did not know that wasn’t the answer and it was not my time.” On Dace’s next birthday, her friends surprised her with a party that lifted her up in that moment and then left her down 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. “I was resisting but I could feel this passion and power to play because that’s how I was feeling.” Dace says 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 the music alive — even after he was gone — and her cello is forever marked by the tear stains from 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. It started several years ago in Tokyo when Alexei’s Japanese fans asked Dace to perform a concert in his honor. Alexei’s brother, Sergei, even played the piano with her. Dace says she realized this was a great idea, so she continued the tradition here at FUMCFW. This year’s commemorative concert will be even more special as the couple’s friends and fellow musicians, Pianist Larisa Cherkasov and Violinist Eugene Cherkasov, perform alongside Dace, accompanied by Organist Peggy Graff.
Alexei met Eugene back in the 1990s when they performed a piano concerto together in West Texas. The maestro introduced them, and then Eugene invited both Alexei and Dace to his house for dinner. That’s also where they first got to know his wife, Larisa. A few years later Eugene joined the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and Larisa works at Texas Christian University, so they are close-by. “They are very dear friends and wonderful musicians we have known for many many years,” Dace declares. “On occasions we play together, so it’s going to be a treat to hear those outstanding musicians.” Peggy and Dace have also become close friends through their work together at FUMCFW. “I love to play with Peggy — she’s wonderful!” Dace exclaims. “She will play the organ and she is outstanding as well.”
This year’s concert will be held in the Sanctuary to allow more room for its growing audience. Dace says she sees this as a great opportunity to introduce chamber music to the audience. “It is more like chamber music because we are playing a couple of monumental works by Brahms and Mendelssohn,” Dace elaborates. “In trio, there are three instruments conversing and having an amazing momentum of sharing melodies and blending harmonies together.” Larisa and Eugene will perform works both individually and with Dace, including compositions by Sarasate, Chopin, Brahms’ “Cello Sonata in E minor,” and Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No. 1.” Peggy will accompany Dace on the Anne S. and Henry B. Paup Sanctuary Pipe Organ as she performs Massenet’s “Thais.” This group of celebrated musicians will bring the powerful spirit and wonderful memories of Alexei Sultanov to life during the springtime he loved so much.
Even when Dace is not playing her cello or listening to Alexei’s music, she still draws inspiration from other sources. From working for a neurologist to rollerblading along the Trinity River, she loves to live in the moment. “I like being together with nature, watching the sky changing its moods, birds and bees spreading their wings, and blooms opening up,” Dace says, “All that beauty makes my day.” Her dream project is to someday build “Alexei’s Inspirational Fountain” as a memorial for Alexei in the city of Fort Worth that they lived in and loved for so long.
As Dace envisions it, the fountain will play Alexei’s music as the Texas wildflowers bloom around it by day and the colors blend together as it lights up by night. It is meant to represent perpetual energy in motion. “It will give people some little drops of inspiration to their lives,” she explains. “So many times a lot of people feel down and lonely and sad, and that moment of kick is inspiration. I want to inspire others, even strangers.” According to Dace, the fountain is emotionalistic rather than materialistic. “I realized I am already building a fountain by playing my cello, creating these events, telling these stories — so I am already taking that first step,” she adds. “The fountain is a spiritual way to tell stories about Alexei’s everlasting passion and persona.”
Music forever changed the lives of Dace and Alexei Sultanov. Though one was lost, the other was found — and love will always remain. Join us on Sunday, May 22, at 6:30 pm in the Sanctuary for what is sure to be another inspirational Alexei Sultanov Tribute Concert.