UBC student Sasha Luchkov plays for peace with Thrive Refuge

This April 12 saw the Chan Centre host Thrive Refuge’s Concert for Peace, featuring a performance by Ukrainian pianist and UBC music student Sasha Luchkov as the main event, with opening performances from pianists Ray Zhang and Ryan Hong.

Luchkov arrived in Canada in 2022 with the support of Thrive Refuge, a student-led initiative co-founded by Zhang and Isabelle Wang to help fund music education for recent refugees to Canada. They established a bursary in partnership with the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC), and Luchkov’s performance at the Chan Centre was aimed at raising funds for it.

As a side note, Luchkov’s arrival in Canada was documented by influencer Aylex Thunder in their crassly titled YouTube video “I Saved a Refugee Pianist from WAR.” The video’s thumbnail features an AI-generated image of a man playing piano in a blasted city with a large red arrow labelling him “REFUGEE.”

Despite a jarring tone-deaf aesthetic, the link to Thrive Refuge’s fundraiser in the video’s description rustled up more than a few dollars for a good cause, so maybe it all comes out in the wash.

As guests filed into the venue, Zhang played a quiet introduction on a piano set up beside a large art installation by Wang in the lobby. A transparent sheet of brown fabric was draped over a scaffold to give the impression of an umbrella. Guests were encouraged to buy red roses to place on the sculpture, with all proceeds going to the Thrive Refuge Bursary Award.

When the crowd, a healthy mix of suits and t-shirts, was seated on the main floor of the auditorium, Zhang and Wang took the stage beside a grand piano for an address on the evening’s programme, interrupting the guy next to me complaining to his partner about the diminishing virtues of Okanagan wines.

Following these addresses, Zhang sat down behind the piano to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C Major No. 3 and Schuuman’s Waldszenen. He said that his choice of pieces for the evening reflected an attitude of hope for the future.

After taking his bows, Zhang was replaced by Ryan Hong, who explained that he would be taking over for Zhang as leader of Thrive Refuge for the coming year. He outlined his hopes and plans for the future and gave a recital of Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor and Griffes’ Barcarolle.

While obviously a skilled pianist in his own right, Hong’s playing and choice of pieces lent themselves more to energy and vigour than the precision demonstrated by Zhang. Leaning over the keys, he rapped out staccato chords with the bass notes sometimes becoming muddied and lost, especially during the denser sections of Barcarolle.

When Luchkov took the stage, I was expecting his performance to be only marginally better than the previous ones — as a classical layman, I wasn’t expecting to parse the finer skills that set him apart from his peers. Within the first five minutes, I knew I’d been wrong.

Luchkov’s playing was as clear and precise as Zhang’s, but his choice pieces (Chopin’s Etude No. 1, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1) allowed him to show off his talent for negative space. His playing was filled with moments of silence that highlighted the notes surrounding them.

Beethoven’s sonata, with its recurring melodic motifs and frequently shifting volume, was the highlight. Luchkov played using his whole body, flourishing his hands and throwing his arms back spreadeagled when he finished a piece. After receiving his standing ovation and a bouquet, he took to the podium and expressed his gratitude and admiration towards the people at Thrive Refuge for their work to aid him and people in similar situations.

Zhang, Wang and Hong then returned to the stage with Luchkov for a surprise performance of an eight-hands piece played by all four of them across two pianos. While impressive, the piece was quite dense and not as refined as the solo performances.

After they had finished, Hong and Luchkov bowed and left the stage. Zhang and Wang thanked the audience for their support and I slipped out ahead of the crowd.

Walking to the bus loop, I could hear Don Toliver’s set echoing through campus from Block Party outside the Nest. The genre whiplash wasn’t entirely unpleasant.