National Arts Centre: The thoughtful celebrity of pianist Alice Sara Ott

Alice Sara Ott Photo: Jonas Becker

She is the barefoot countess of the keyboard and she’s returning to Ottawa to play with the National Arts Centre Orchestra for the first time.

But Alice Sara Ott is more than a brand name attached to a line of high-end handbags. She is a genuine talent on the piano who wants to open up the concert hall to anyone and everyone regardless of social standing and quality of clothing. She spoke in advance of her performance in Southam Hall on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.

In Ottawa, she will play Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, a piece she recorded for her CD Wonderland.

“I played it for the first time when I was 16. It’s somehow considered an easy concerto, a concerto for beginners. I find it actually really difficult,” she said over the phone from her home in Berlin, Germany. She believes that if a player is not careful the piece can fall apart in performance.

Grieg was not an extrovert and his music is not too fancy or complicated. When I was young (she’s still young at 29) I always tried to do something unique and special. But after three or four years, I realized that trying too hard doesn’t lead anywhere.

“I realized it was time to step back and try to see the whole picture … to really listen to the music. That helped me a lot.”

Today Ott believes the beauty in a piece of music lies in the simple approach. “That also helps when playing with the orchestra.”

It’s so important to listen when you are having a conversation with Grieg on the piano.

“It can be hard to admit sometimes that the beauty of a piece is in simplicity.”

When Ott’s name pops up, she is often also linked to the music of Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin as well.

All three composers, including Grieg, are very different.

“My first recording with Deutsche Grammophon was a Liszt recording. My first piano teacher was Hungarian and so I grew up with Hungarian music. I have always thought Liszt was, especially here in Germany, misunderstood. People always think  his music is about showing off without depth.”

She begs to differ.

“If this is impression of the audience then the interpreter has done something wrong. He was an extrovert but if you take, for example his B minor sonata, it’s great music, it’s deep music. You have to be able to read between the lines and not give the audience the impression this is all physicality. … Everything is written in a very natural way.

“The artist has to … bring out what is hidden behind all the trills and flourishes. That was my personal challenge and why I wanted to record 12 Liszt etudes and play them in concert. I wanted to convince the audience this is music” worth listening to.

When she was studying Grieg’s concerto she discovered in her research that the Norwegian visited Liszt in Rome and showed him the score of his piano concerto.

“Liszt was one of the first to sight read this concerto. … He was very supportive of young Grieg. It’s interesting to imagine these two personalities. Grieg was an introvert who loved being alone, daydreaming.

“Liszt was not like this. He was a rock star at that time. Thanks to him we have the pianos we have today. He changed the instrument and piano technique.”

Chopin is altogether different, she says.

“When I think about Chopin’s music I always imagine a mask, showing no emotion, except with one teardrop rolling down.  He has written all those ornaments but sometimes his music feels very lonely.”

Ott, like Liszt, is a bit of a rock star in her own right.

She has talked about a concern with burn-out in the past, so these days she maintains a strict schedule.

“I have different periods within the year. For example I don’t play more than 70 concerts (in a year) and I take three months off every year, two in the summer and one month in winter. That’s enough time to switch off and do other things,” including practice and that’s important right now as she is preparing to record a CD of Ravel, Debussy and Satie in March. In June she’ll play Debussy’s Fantasy for piano and orchestra for the first time in performance followed by Beethoven’s Triple Concerto another debut.

She says she loves to play contemporary music when she has the opportunity and the program is well-prepared.

“My generation in Berlin is very open to people like George Benjamin and Thomas Adès; you see lots of young people at those kinds of concerts. But it depends on how you present the music. It needs the right publicity.”

Ott is often asked about her heritage. Her father is German and her mother Japanese.

“I’m asked this question many times. I don’t want to give my character a nationality. I have this wonderful tool called music and wherever I go with this wonderful tool, people don’t ask where I come from. Music is the only language where it doesn’t matter where you come from.

“Of course, I love Germany and I love Japan. Whenever I’m in Japan I try to find opportunities to get close to the fundament of the culture. But at same time, if you start sticking too much to tradition and narrow-minded views … that’s where all problems come in the world. You become intolerant.

“I’m a product of tolerance. Both my parents come from different cultures, and they are still happily married. It’s more important who we are and how we treat people. I love self-made traditions.”

Ott is definitely making her own traditions. She loves to draw and has been influenced by Japanese anime. Her drawings caught the attention of Jost, a maker of leather handbags and she was invited to talk about designing her own line of totes.

“I never do collaborations in which I cannot identify myself or be able to tell a story.

“I met the creative director (at Jost) and told them how I found it difficult to find travel items that embody functionality and aesthetics how I imagine these characteristics. We talked. I said I need this and this and this, combined with this and that. I was drawing what I wanted and they made it. I have one and I’ve given some to my friends.”

Now there is an entire line of handbags and other items with her name on it.

Her love of functionality also is present in her views on concert decorum.

“To be able to enjoy music you have to be relaxed. Think about the coughing problem in the concert hall: in a bar when you listen to jazz or in a movie theatre nobody is really coughing. I think that’s because everybody feels relaxed and they are not thinking about the rules.

“In a classical concert, you are not allowed to clap between movements. You have to be silent. There are so many rules it makes audience stiff. And in the break between movements they start coughing, everybody does.

“I also think everybody should dress the way they want. Some people like to dress up, others like to come in jeans and T-shirts. That’s the reason I play barefoot. Everybody should be themselves. Music is about sharing not excluding.”

She does admit, however, that her feet can get cold in concert.

Alice Sara Ott plays Grieg
NAC Orchestra conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen
Where: Southam Hall
When: Jan. 31, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.