Ukrainian pianist plays for his country

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (WSAV) — The Hilton Head International Piano Competition brings the world’s best players to the Lowcountry.

For Ukrainian pianist Illia Ovcharenko, the music is an escape from watching and wondering what is going on with a war happening at home.

“Crazy. You don’t believe it and you know those places,” says Illia. “I was going there every day. And now I see they are all destroyed. It’s unbelievable. I cannot imagine that.”

The Ukrainian native, just 20 years old, lives in and trains in Israel now, but his family is still there in Chernihiv. At home, just 110 miles from the Russian border.

“The first days I could not sleep or eat,” said Illa. “It was so difficult for me. I was always on the news. Just not sleeping at night, always calling my father and mother.”

“They spend whole nights in shelters and a lot a lot of buildings next door, houses, got blown up, destroyed,” Illia said. “For me, it’s just even more scary to sit here and be safe and realize your family might be hurt one day. It’s unbelievable.”

“They usually say we are fine, everything is good, we are going to win. Everyone knows about that and all of the neighbors, everyone is in a good mood. So they are trying to be very positive.”

“They will not let anything happen to their house,” Illia said. “As my Grandmother says we built this house with your grandfather on our own, I will not let anyone inside here. I will not let any bomb fall in here, and if there is I will destroy anyone who is part of it.’

“Talking to them is very important for me right now and every time we spend a lot of time on the phone. Not like before when we spent a lot less. This is the time when you start to realize all the importance of the family.”

And the importance in Illia’s mind of being Ukrainian.

“People have started to live their normal lives Since the eight years since revolution of 2014 happened. That completely changed our minds that we are Ukrainians and proud to be Ukrainians and a completely independent nation,” Illia said. “And that’s what we are fighting for now and that’s what they want to take from us. They don’t want us to be happy and their people can see that we are happy.”

“We are fighting for freedom and being an independent state.”

While he cannot fight himself.

“In the beginning, I really wanted to be with them but then my family said you know how much we are grateful that you are not here. At least one of us and we know that if something happens our … family will still … (chokes up)… you know…”

Q: “Are you afraid something is going to happen?”
A: “You never know. But I pray and I’m almost sure they will be ok.”
Q: “Because you have faith. Your family is that strong?’
A: “Because our nation is that strong. I believe in our army and our people. What I see of our people is just proudness. Every second.”

So he shows his support through the songs he chooses. An ode to his people.

“The first song of my performance, it was a real prayer and to me, it was a prayer for those already gone and I prayed for them,” Illia said. “Then I played Rachmaninoff 2nd Sonata. He was a Russian composer who fled to the United States because the Soviet Union and Russian Empire. They didn’t accept him and his way of thinking. “

“That piece is basically a piece about the destruction of his. He loved his country. he always wanted to live there. he felt very mad that he was supposed to flee. That’s basically what is happening to me now that I don’t know when I am going to come home.”

“I just have to play for my people, for Ukraine. that gives me confidence. And I don’t think about winning now. It’s not important for me,” Illia said.

A: “I am extremely proud to be Ukrainian right now and I’m so happy I was born Ukrainian.”
Q: “Why are you so proud?”
A: “Their strength. and they don’t have fear. All of our people they go on tanks. They aren’t afraid of death. They will give everything for freedom. they are really ready to die all of them. and that’s what they don’t understand, the Russian Army. They are all really ready to die, all of them.”

“In the beginning of the war, it was 88% of people who believe we will win the war. Now it’s 98% of the population of Ukraine. I don’t even know one person who doesn’t believe. We know it will happen we just don’t know how many lives it will take and how much time it will take,” Illia said.

That confidence, that strength only went away once during our talk. When I asked him what message he would want to send to his family.

“First of all I love you all and I am sure we will sit again at the table in our house. All of our family with our new friends which I know many of them,” Illia said. “I think it’s a dream of my family when I talk to them we have a peaceful Ukraine. We will sit in joy and we will be drinking for our win.”

Q: “What would it mean to see your family again?”
A: “Happiness, happiness. I didn’t even know that kind of happiness was real. What I am imagining now.”

Illia will turn 21 in just a few months. he said there will be no celebrating this milestone. It wouldn’t feel right with his people struggling so much.

Illia made it to the semifinals of the Hilton Head International Piano Competition and will play again Saturday night.

The performances are Saturday, March 12 from 1:00 p.m. – 4:40 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. – 9:15 p.m.
at the First Presbyterian Church at 540 William Hilton Parkway.

Tickets are $35 for both sessions or $25 for one. Children get in free.

For more information about the competition, Semi-finals and Finals, go to: