Part of the Family


Pianist Illia Ovcharenko on Honens, Horowitz, and destiny- an interview


WFIMC: You lived in Israel for four years, studying at the Buchman Mehta School of Music. Did you choose to study in Israel because of the school?
Illia Ovcharenko: Actually I chose it because of Professor Vardi. I wanted to see the place where he was born, to experience the culture… I really thought it to be a kind of “spicy” idea. It’s easy to live there, courses are in English, and they offer great scholarships. It was very nice for me living there for four years.

How did you get to know Arie Vardi? Did you see him back in Ukraine?
It was always my dream to study with him, I had heard so much about him. And somehow it was very easy: a friend gave me his e-mail address and I wrote to him. He had never heard of me, but he wrote back and asked me to come to Hannover to audition for him.

2022 must have been quite a year for you. Can you tell me about Honens- now that this is all over, what does it feel like? It must have been an incredible experience from beginning to start!
It was a truly incredible experience, and I must say, I can describe it with one word: destiny. I feel like it was all meant to be. Thinking about the past, about what happened prior to this competition...



First of all, it was my grandmother who told me to apply. She knows absolutely nothing about music, she is just a music lover. But she has this… sense, some skills, I don’t know what to call it. You can believe in it or you don’t. I do. She has always helped me, and when I told her about this unique competition with unique rules, when I told her I was worried about whether I should apply, she said I should go. There is a lot of repertoire, a lot of collaborations, chamber music, violin, vocal accompaniment, solo piano, concerto with orchestra- a lot of different things to prepare and to be ready for. So I asked her: should I do that? It was three years before the competition, but she suddenly insisted. She said: you have to it! You have to do exactly this competition.  So I applied. And somehow I felt really connected to this competition. I think that this "complete artist" agenda they have, it´s really perfect. It’s exactly what the music world is looking for, what the agents, managements are looking for: a complete artist. Not only to perform well, but also to present yourself, to be able to give interviews, to connect with your audience: I really feel this competition has all of it. 
So I applied, and what happened afterwards was really very interesting. And funny… First of all, I couldn’t get my visa for the longest time, and three days before the competition I thought, well that was it, okay, I’m not going. The visa application was not proceeding, and I was waiting for almost half a year to get it, with no reply from the embassy. So I wrote to the CEO of the competition, saying I was not coming. But then, he was extremely kind, and I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to help me and my friend, who had the same problem. The amount of help he gave us was unprecedented. We got our visa within one day- it was just incredible. I was deeply grateful to what he did. Being not able to come, and then having to go from one day to the other was very exciting.
But then there were other things. The most memorable happened on my flight to Calgary. I was in my seat on the plane, an Air Canada plane, and suddenly the pilot of the plane stood in front of me. He asked “Hello, are you Illia Ovcharenko?” I was really shocked- I thought maybe there were some visa problems, or something was wrong…but he just said: “Don’t worry, you know, I am your sponsor, I am your host family, nice to meet you!” I couldn’t believe it. My host family was flying me from Frankfurt to Calgary? 
Of course, the host family turned out to be really incredible. I could feel that they were with me 100%, they would understand me 100%, and we had such a great time. 
So basically everything from beginning to end felt like destiny.

Did your host family father fly you back as well?
No! Unfortunately no. But you know why? He was thinking maybe to fly to Frankfurt after the end of the competition, but then he changed his mind and thought, well, this guy is going to win, so he has to stay longer anyway!

Do you have more stories like that? Does this kind of thing always happen to you? How about the Horowitz Competition?
This story about Honens is really something special, which never occurred to me before. With Horowitz, it was a bit easier.I didn’t need a visa, of course (laughs) but there were a lot of memorable moments too, of course. Probably the most memorable in my life. It changed my career, it helped my confidence. After this particular competition, I realised that I could proceed with my goals.
Actually, I did this competition twice, and both times in the intermediate group. The first time, I was the youngest competitor, I was thirteen, and I won 6th prize. I could not believe it at the time. I must say that… I think I improved a lot, but when I watch these performances, I cannot believe how I got to the second round, let alone the finals. But they believed in me, they told me to proceed, and this really helped my confidence. 
Doing the competition for the second time, and winning first prize, it felt like coming home. Coming back to the Philharmonic, where I had played quite a few times, and it was just all pleasure. I was never that nervous, it felt more like a concert, I was having fun, communicating with the audience: it was a wonderful experience.

What’s the image of the Horowitz Competition in Ukraine, for Ukrainians?
For Ukrainians its probably the biggest musical event in the whole country. It’s definitely the most prestigious competition in Ukraine. Everyone is waiting for it, looking forward to it. From early on, every pianists´ goal is to one day participate in the Horowitz Competition. It is a very important stepping stone, it’s boosting your career in Ukraine, giving you a big presence in the country and abroad, and it has a very special meaning for us. It’s really the only world class competition we have. It makes you believe in yourself more, become more confident, and you can start entering other competitions. 
But moreover, when you win the Horowitz, when you are a laureate, you become part of a family. You will have a mentor, you have someone to turn to in any situation, who will always help you. For me, the Horowitz Competition has become part of my life, part of my heart. The way they helped me for the future is just irreplaceable.

When you say “biggest music event”- you really mean that? Compared also to festivals, opera, concert series?
Absolutely. It is like a celebration of music. Everyone goes, the halls are always full, the posters can be seen everywhere around the city, everyone knows it’s happening, the media is there- it is really the biggest musical event in our country. 
What does Horowitz mean to Ukrainians, and to you especially? Do you listen to his recordings?
Always. I just listened yesterday, and the day before, to his Scarlatti Sonata in B minor. To be able to play this sonata with such deep sentiment, with such impressive touch, with this sound- it’s something I want to achieve, but I think it’s somehow not human. I cannot describe it, I cannot describe how he plays… the piano is like butter for him! He is doing everything he likes, and doing it with such confidence and personality that you believe in every note he is playing. Every note has a meaning, and you understand what he is doing. 
To listen, to know that there is a person playing like this, who was born in Kyiv, is incredibly motivating. It really makes you want to try harder to become just a little bit more like him. 

Just a short question about the current situation… you have family in Ukraine, you were born in the north part of the country...
I am from the north, from the city of Chernihiv, where composer Levko Revutsky was born. All of my family is there right now.

Including your grandmother?
Including my grandmother. But luckily we recently met in Poland. She went with my mother just to meet me in Poland. It was such a journey-2 days on the bus for such an old lady, just to meet her grandson, and two days back. But it was just sheer happiness for a few days!

Has the situation changed for you? The war has intensified, and so has division between the two countries. But I wonder how this affects you. Some people for instance complained that you won in Honens playing Tchaikovsky. Are you facing these problems in your concerts? Do people tell you not to play Russian composers?
No, no-one tells me not to play them, but I really understand people´s feelings about this, and even myself, I feel uneasy. It’s controversial, but I really don’t want to hurt people´s feelings. So I try to include more Ukrainian composers in my programs as well, such as Revutsky, Silvestrov, Lyatoshynsky. I will play the Brussels opera premiere of Sergei Bortkiewicz´ Concerto for the left hand, for example. I think it’s important for people to get to know Ukrainian music. It´s truly wonderful but still completely unknown. It was written about 100 years ago and is one of the pieces that were ordered by Paul Wittgenstein, along with Ravel, Prokofiev, and Britten. But no-one today knows the Bortkiewicz. Listen to it- its truly beautiful!

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