Calgary — The 2022 Honens competition ends with an evening of 19th and 20th-century concertos: the piano approaches the final, steroidal stage in its evolution and roars against the orchestra. Three in a row risks nerve damage, but the muted mauve walls and grey stick-on columns of Jack Singer Hall are blandly soothing, like a shopping mall food court with the lights turned low.
Illia Ovcharenko arrives as the crowd favourite — I hear his name on many lips — after last night’s excellent Mozart. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is an appropriate choice for this polished musician who isn’t taking unnecessary risks. And perhaps it was nerves (he’s 21, the youngest) but tonight was his turn to come return to earth and make some noticeable mistakes. Nothing awful, but it revealed how, if you play with even a slightly constrained emotional range, the pressure to be perfect is doubled. And though his performance was held together by his characteristic piercing energy, I wanted more feeling.
The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra led by Jeffrey Kahane, was lush and strong all night. Some of the melodic hand-offs between the orchestra and Ovcharenko were elegantly sewn, but a couple were frayed. Was it because of the pianist’s nervy timing? You’d have to stare deeply into the conductor’s eyes to know for certain. They took the Andantino at a glacial pace but the tempo made ample room for the wind soloists and it forced Ovcharenko to breathe, with pretty and expressive results. The final Allegro was a touch messy but rambunctious and delightful. Is this the “complete artist,” whatever that means in your twenties? He certainly could be. With a good performance tonight and an excellent one yesterday, he has a fine chance to win.
Rachel Breen does so much in the details that I was curious what kind of power she’d bring to an early romantic concerto. Beethoven’s 4th doesn’t hit you over the head like the Tchaikovsky; it swallows you slowly, but it swallows you whole. There were fewer fireworks than in either the Tchaikovsky or the Rachmaninov that followed, but it was the best performance of the night. The first movement begins as a whispered seduction and builds to suspenseful majesty, and she danced through it with astonishing detail. Even the air felt electric and alive. The slow movement became a vivid story, the inconsolable piano quietly singing against the malevolent orchestra theme that’s prowling closer and closer—then a sudden turn and now it’s the orchestra who’s being seduced, pacified to a hush by the piano’s lyrical magic. The tension was released in a third-movement romp with blazing detail and personality. She’s got huge potential as an original interpreter. If only her first final had been better…
Sasha Kasman Laude played the Rachmaninov Third Concerto, the concerto to rule them all, at least in competitions; few pianists can resist the allure of the opportunities it offers to fling different kinds of fire. At its best, her performance was a balletic grapple with the orchestra, full of bloodcurdling suspense and exquisite manipulation, but its dynamic demands pushed her to the limit. The Third was the riskiest choice of the three finalists, it’s a work that requires full-body athleticism if the pianist hopes to pierce the orchestral mass. She almost flew off the bench, but it wasn’t quite enough. She either gained confidence or — incredibly — saved energy for the finale, which had a remarkable shapeliness where many young pianists simply strut and bang, but the intensity of its physical demands sapped the clarity that was so wonderful in the Adagio and in her solo performances earlier in the competition.
Ovcharenko was announced as the 2022 Honens Laureate around 1am. In addition to Breen’s and Kasman’s Finalist prizes, Ádám Balogh won for the Best Performance of a Commissioned Work, and Angie Zhang for the Best Performance of a Beethoven Violin Sonata and the Audience Choice Award. It’s interesting that Zhang was not one of the semifinalists announced in May. We only got to hear her because Dmytro Choni withdrew.
I spoke with Ovcharenko the following morning. He praised the intensity and variety of the competition. “I’ve never participated in something that takes three years… it’s the only competition in the world that has everything pianists can expect in the future.” How would he improve it, then? A little more rest, he half-jokes. “I wouldn’t have this 2 am going to bed and then 9 am dress rehearsals, though it was also amazing—was it made on purpose to exercise us? I would really rather have some sleep.”
He spoke of camaraderie between the semifinalists — “You don’t feel that much pressure, you’re already one of the ten”—and suggested embracing it and having them play short duos in random pairs. “That would be really fun.” A collaborative phase in a competition is a terrific idea. Honens, are you listening? If not you, then who?
Finally, I asked him if there was a moment when he began to think he could win. “After the Mozart,” he replied immediately. He’d learned his lesson from a competition in March where he’d left himself only a few days to rehearse a concerto that he hadn’t played for a year. “I didn’t want this to happen again.” Despite all the words about musicians’ character, the mysteries of inspiration and expression, and that misdirection of calling it “playing,” we can’t forget that what they do is fundamentally work.
Honens is a treasure, I’ll see you in 2025.
There is a full archive of the 2022 Honens International Piano Competition available here.