Interview with pianist Alice Sara Ott

The soloist talks about Liszt, Beethoven, audiences, and her choice of footwear

German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott is sort of a dark-horse among the classical stars (At least here in the US), but she does have a few things going that allow for her to get a bit more exposure. For starters, she was tapped to step in and replace Lang Lang for a concert at London's Barbican with Daniel Harding and the LSO last year. The Guardian's Tim Ashley describes it so sweetly:

Liszt's Concerto plays fast and loose with form, jettisoning traditional movements in favour of evolving thematic development. The soloist, replacing Lang Lang at short notice, was Alice Sara Ott, who gave the kind of gawp-inducing bravura performance of which legends are made. The heft of her playing contrasts with the elegance of her platform manner. Harding's conducting was all monumentality and fire – it felt a bit superhuman, as Liszt always should--Tim Ashley, The Guardian

This plus the lady performs barefoot with symphony orchestras! Now that's a scoop!

CM: Alice, can you please talk about your musical upbringing? What age did you start and when and where did your musical identity begin to truly take hold?

ASO: When I was three years old my parents took me to a piano recital and the only thing I can remember is that I was so impressed by the expression of the music. At that age I couldn't express myself the way I wanted because of my poor vocabulary and I thought that music is a language which even a little girl like me could understand, and I thought with speaking this language I could make everybody understand my feelings. So I told my mother after the concert that I want to become a pianist. She didn't want that, so I had to fight for my dream until she finally gave in one year later and I got my first piano lesson at the age of four. I don't know when exactly my musical identity began to truly take hold, but from the first moment I felt that music was the only language which gave me the ability to express everything I want.

CM: Your interpretations of Liszt are quite remarkable. I noticed that in one particular interview you said you had been playing Liszt's music since you were 8 years old, and you explained that many people in Europe don't understand Liszt because they think he's all about virtuosity and no depth, but you believe his depth is "between the notes and behind the notes". I just want to say I'm really glad that you said this! Do you think that once people have heard something of his in its entirety that they somehow have a change of heart?

ASO: If the audience leaves the hall with the feeling that Liszt's music is only based on superficiality and virtuosity, in my eyes the performer has failed. I believe that if we artists understand the message of his music and are able to transmit it to the audience, [they] will also understand it.

CM: I love the Transcendental Studies and the Piano Concerto #1 as well. Any plans to record/perform the other Liszt Concertos?

ASO: I will play both piano concertos and the Totentanz next year, but so far there are no plans to record them.

CM: Is it true that playing the piano in the dark relieves stress?

ASO: This is actually funny, because I have said this once in an interview and since then everybody is always asking me about it! :) It sounds a bit cheesy, but yes, sometimes it is nice to play in the dark, because I only can concentrate on listening without getting visually distracted.

CM: Your current CD is Beethoven, and those interpretations are just as wonderful. Do you find that Beethoven continues to reveal something new to you to this day as an artist?

ASO: I think that every pianist comes to a point when he needs to deal with Beethoven's music. I have spent half of my (so far short) life with those two sonatas and I thought it would make sense to leave them as a "fingerprint". they just express my way through the past ten years. I am sure that already now I am playing many things different, but I am also sure that there will be things I will doing exactly the same way in twenty years.

CM: I haven't had the pleasure of seeing you perform live yet, but of course, I've been reading about the fact that you perform barefoot in concert--Something that is actually quite normal in the rock and roll world (I used to perform this way as a singer/songwriter quite a few times--It seemed to spur a more confident performance for me), but perhaps not so much for classical, (but I'm not complaining). In this country, the press seemed to get all excited about Yuja Wang's wardrobe for its shortness. What is your take on this? Would you say in the end it doesn't matter what people say about dresses or shoes (or the lack of them), and it's just people getting bent out of shape?

ASO: I respect and adore Yuja a lot as a musician. I think everybody needs to know what [one] does and what not, where your limits are, and to feel comfortable. I play barefoot because I am always barefoot at home and it just feels good on stage. Anyway in the end it only matters if you are able to express something in the music--otherwise you get replaceable, since nowadays millions of young good looking people can play an instrument.

CM: So, you are of both German and Japanese descent, and you speak both of those and the English language quite fluently! Are there any other languages you are interested in learning?

ASO: I was trying to teach myself Russian for a while, but after about half a year I unfortunately gave I am learning French. Let's see how far that goes :)

CM: Any dream projects you would like to share?

ASO: One day I want to have my own music festival in Kyoto…. :)


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