Awards are nothing new for Ukrainian pianist Illia Ovcharenko. As the winner most recently of the 2022 Honens International Piano Competition, he is in the midst of a 2022–2023 season that includes two Carnegie Hall performances and an international tour.
The Honens competition Laureate must be a “complete artist” who is “a consummate communicator and collaborator, a risk-taking explorer, a dreamer” and who “inspires the heart and engages the intellect.” Though only 21, Ovcharenko has proven his worth by these standards already. (The Honens runners-up were 26 and 27.)
International Piano called Ovcharenko “technically flawless and impeccably musical” and hailed his “stupendous performance of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor.”
The pianist spoke with Blogcritics ahead of his February 26 performance at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.
Blogcritics: First, with Ukraine so much on everyone’s minds these days, how important is it to you to be presenting the music of the Ukrainian composers Levko Revutsky and Valentin Silvestrov?
Illia Ovcharenko: It is very important to me, especially nowadays, to represent Ukrainian culture. In Ukraine, we have so many great composers who are unknown globally; however their music is truly beautiful, unique and worth more exposure worldwide. Music is my way of speaking up and showing my support to the people of my country, wherever they are, in Ukraine or temporarily outside of Ukraine.
Ukrainian composers Levko Revutsky and Valentin Silvestrov are very dear to my heart. Levko Revutsky (1899-1977) was from the Chernihiv region just like me (and actually the first competition I have ever won was named after Revutsky, so I always feel warmth recalling those unforgettable memories) and Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937) is from Kyiv, where I [did] most of my studies.
A Meaningful Concert Program
BC: The February 26 concert also includes Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor and a Chopin Polonaise, along with two Scarlatti sonatas. How do these selections fit together?
Ovcharenko: The first half, of Scarlatti and Liszt, is comprised of music that is currently very meaningful to me. Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata K.87 is my personal prayer, while the Liszt Sonata is a monumental struggle, ending quietly in uncertainty followed by ashes left behind.
The second half of the program features works by Levko Revutsky and Valentin Silvestrov, born respectively in Chernihiv and Kyiv, the two cities I consider hometowns. My musical and cultural heritage was formed in those cities, a line of influence paralleled by their own personal connection to each other, as Revutsky was one of Silvestrov’s teachers.
The recital will conclude on a note of optimism and hope for the future with Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise (1842), which was composed during and after the Revolutions of 1848 and later perceived as an inspiration for the people who fought for their rights.
BC: Your performances of the Liszt sonata have earned special praise. Does the piece mean something special to you?
Ovcharenko: This piece is very dear to my heart. It is one of my favorite pieces and I have loved it since I was 13 years old after listening to Vladimir Horowitz’s recording of it. I strongly believe that music is all about love and sincerity and that is exactly how I feel with this piece.
BC: You performed a different program at your Weill Recital Hall concert in January, including music of Schumann, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Avner Dorman (whom we had the pleasure of interviewing last year). Is it very challenging to prepare such a large and varied repertoire over a short period?
Ovcharenko: Yes, it is challenging. At the same time, it is very inspiring and exciting. I also enjoy a challenge, especially when this gives me an opportunity to share music with an audience! This is what I have always dreamed of.
Birth of a pianist
BC: Did you come from a musical family? And what were your musical beginnings?
Ovcharenko: No, not all of my family comes from a musical background. My mother is an engineer-programmer, and my father is an athletics coach.
That’s why the story of my beginning is quite interesting. My mother was invited to a classical music concert of a pianist in Ukraine, and she brought a six-year-old Illia as well. That was destiny as I now understand it. Right after this concert I told my mom I wanted to be a musician.
For two years I was begging her and finally we decided to try. First, I was singing but I continued to want to be a pianist. Around the age of nine I started playing the piano.
BC: What about your secondary education? I’ve read that you earned a bachelor’s degree in Israel and are now studying for a master’s at the Hannover Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien.
Ovcharenko: That’s correct. First, I was doing my Bachelor’s degree in Tel Aviv, and starting in October 2022 I began studying in Hannover pursuing my master’s degree.
Speaking about my education, it would be impossible not to mention my Professor Arie Vardi, who I’ve studied with for five years. He has changed my perception of music. He has been a real mentor and like a family member who always offers me the greatest support.
Honens: A Musical Olympics
BC: Winning the Honens International Piano Competition is more than a cash award; it also includes concert engagements, a recording, management and more. The competition process also involves collaborations with other musicians. What was the experience like, personally and professionally?
Ovcharenko: I felt like I was participating in the Olympics, in a way.
First, you must qualify in order to be eligible to proceed to the quarterfinals. And then, you prepare for several months for the most important events – the semifinals and finals. Since COVID happened, the whole 2022 competition took a little more than two years.
I found it similar to the Olympics. Competitors prepare a very demanding program, which was very exciting for me to do. In the end, what I really enjoyed the most is a feeling of authentic concert performances, which the Honens Competition made possible through essentially allowing competitors to play two recitals, in addition to their unique programming requirements.
BC: You’ve won a number of other competitions prior to Honens, including the New York International Piano Competition in 2022, the Michelangeli Prize at the Eppan International Piano Academy in Italy, and the Horowitz International Piano Competition in Ukraine in 2019. How do you prepare for these high-stress events?
Ovcharenko: Competitions are especially high-stress events. However, I am mostly trying not to think of that once I am on stage. The only thing that I focus on is the music and recreating what the composer wrote from my particular artistic lens. For me personally, each competition became a little less stressful.
BC: What are some highlights in your schedule after the Feb. 26 concert?
Ovcharenko: I am truly honored to be participating in great festivals throughout this year, like Dresdner Musikfestpiele, Duszniki Chopin Piano Festival, Gstaad Menuhin Music Festival, and Toronto Summer Music Festival. Additionally, I will be an artist in residence at Auvers-sur-Oise Music Festival and a Piano Fellow at Bravo! Vail Music Festival this summer.
I just performed my debut with La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in Brussels and will have my debut with Orchestre National ile de France in June. Other events include my debuts at Elbphilarmonie in Hamburg, NDR Philarmonie in Hannover, and Schumaan Saal in Düsseldorf as well as my return to Salle Cortot in Paris.
Illia Ovcharenko performs at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 26. Visit his website for his concert schedule.