La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

A concerto for the left hand ... and for Ukraine

Illia Ovcharenko plays Bortkiewicz

Jasper Croonen
Reading time
5 min.

“I used to always be nervous right before I stepped on stage. Now I think of my family and friends who remained in Ukraine. Having to live with the knowledge that a bomb could drop at any moment puts the term ‘stress’ into perspective…” Of course, pianist Illia Ovcharenko is constantly concerned with the situation in his homeland. From behind the ivories, he too tries to contribute something, by highlighting the sometimes stunningly beautiful music of his compatriots. He’ll be introducing you to Sergei Bortkiewicz during the Don Juan concert.

To say 2022 was a conflicted year for Illia Ovcharenko is an understatement. The year his homeland was dragged into the bloodiest conflict in its recent history was also the year of his big artistic break. In December, the just 21-year-old pianist  – then already the winner of over 20 piano competitions  –  added the prestigious Honens Competition to his record, and a week ago, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall. “Of course, all of it has been life-changing, and I truly believe the tragedy and the successes are inextricably linked.”

In what ways?

Illia Ovcharenko: Everything I have achieved in the past few months, I dedicate to my friends and my family members who are still in Ukraine. In the beginning, right after the war broke out, it was just too difficult getting back out on stage again. But when you feel how your family back home supports you  –  even in this situation  –  and how proud they are of what you’re doing, then you can't help but draw strength and inspiration from that. And seemingly, I also manage to convey that surplus to the audience, because everything has suddenly moved incredibly fast. The concert and interview requests are hard to keep up with, but they allow me to tell my story and talk about my culture.

And therefore also about... Sergei Bortkiewicz.

IO: Yes, or about Levko Revutskyi, Valentyn Silvestrov… Without these tragic events, these artists might never get the attention they absolutely deserve. By playing them, I want to promote the Ukrainian repertoire. And Bortkiewicz is really one of the majors for me. He was born in Kharkiv, in the north-east where there is now plenty of fighting, and fled to Vienna after the Russian Revolution in 1918, where he enrolled in the European late-Romantic movement. I really don’t understand why his music isn’t performed more. The world needs to get to know him; then, as far as I’m concerned, everyone can form their opinion about his music.

What everyone already has an opinion on is whether or not Russian works should still be performed today. What is your viewpoint on that?

IO: During the final of the Honens Competition, for which I had had to submit my repertoire already two years ago, I had to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. That was hard and painful, especially knowing that the Russians really use it as an alternative national anthem - during the Olympics for instance. In the current situation this is not a piece I would choose to perform. But for composers like Prokofiev (who was born in Ukraine) and Rachmaninoff, who himself fled from the Russian regime in 1917, the situation is not that unambiguous. In these circumstances, however, I see it as my main mission to promote those great Ukrainian composers who, despite the quality of their work, have received much less attention.

What makes Bortkiewicz’ Piano Concerto No. 2 so special?

IO: He has that typical, late-Romantic temperament; the first movement is also literally an ‘allegro dramatico’. There is that one theme that immediately sticks in your mind. Its structure is intriguing, almost Lisztian in construction: The piece seems to be written in one movement, but seemingly leaves you, as a performer, the choice to divide it up. Plus, his cadenzas really cover the entire expressive range of the piano; you can put so much into it as a pianist. On top of that, it is a concerto for the left hand, so you can only use one hand. Bortkiewicz wrote his piece for pianist Paul Wittgenstein,  who lost his right arm in the First World War.

Like Ravel, Korngold, and Britten…

IO: This is much more dramatic than the rest. I have also played Ravel, know Britten’s piece very well, and personally, I think Bortkiewicz captures the tragedy of war much better. This is another reason why it feels so right to perform his pieces just now. It fits perfectly.

How does someone with both arms deal with that enforced restriction?

IO: It is quite a challenge to overcome, and mainly a matter of getting the rehearsals right physically. Before you know it, you are playing your left hand to pieces. I won’t name names, but the career of a very well-known pianist was briefly on hold a few years back because he was rehearsing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand incorrectly. So I took a particularly conscientious approach. First, I thoroughly analysed the score to see where the focal points of the piece are. Where all my energy should go. I then sought advice from a professor in New York on my position behind the piano, on the posture of my hand… If you don’t get that right, you’re doomed to injury. You might still get away with that if you have to play something once or twice. But not if you have to rehearse this kind of piece for days on end.

Playing this Ukrainian repertoire will be extra special in Brussels, as hundreds of your compatriots will attend this concert for free. What do you want to give them with this concerto?

IO: Above all, I hope it will be a nice, shared experience. Hopefully, that this music touches them, brings up fond memories of their homeland, and serves as a message of hope. Because if they are in Brussels now, that means they have not been home for a year. Let this concert be a sign that better days are ahead.