Review: Barefoot and supremely talented, Alice Sara Ott shines in NAC debut

Alice Sara Ott. Photo: Jonas Becker

Bad weather can often spell empty seats at Ottawa’s concert venues, but Wednesday’s snowstorm didn’t deter a healthy crowd from attending Alice Sara Ott’s much-touted NACO debut.

The German-Japanese pianist is among Deutsche Grammophon’s latest crop of piano stars, a cohort of young, bold, photogenic keyboard lions and lionesses that includes Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang.

Ott has gained a following, as much for her quirky personality, varied interests and edgy style, as for her musicianship. True to form, she walked out in a striking, daffodil-yellow frock and her trademark bare feet (how she could stand it in the dead of a Canadian winter is a mystery; the mere thought of those icy brass piano pedals touching my skin makes me shudder).

But make no mistake: Ott has more than enough chops to justify the hype. Her playing in the Grieg Piano Concerto was driven, assertive, full of sinew and fire. Ott has said that as she has matured she has abandoned overly clever, fussy interpretations of this concerto in favour of Grieg’s own honest, humble spirit.

Although she sometimes lifted right off the bench with the vigour of her attack, you always felt she was caught up in the athletic spirit of digging deep, not putting on an ostentatious display. Her keen attention to the orchestra was exemplary; the dreamy, tender second movement felt like chamber music. Ott’s technique was secure and consistent. Her pianissimo playing was particularly delicate and clear, but I found that at fortissimo her sound became a little shouty, bleached of colour and warmth.

Norwegian conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen was making his Canadian debut. His conducting blends poise with enthusiasm and spontaneous expression. The Grieg was his natural home, and he supported Ott while bringing out the work’s folk-song rhythms, reverent lyricism and sense of communion with a mythical Nordic landscape. There were wonderful solos from guest principal bassoon Darren Hicks, associate principal horn Julie Fauteux, and especially principal flute Joanna G’froerer, who found herself with Ott’s bouquet at the pianist’s insistence.

Gullberg Jensen led a decisive, descriptive Beethoven Egmont Overture to open the evening, its tense brooding exploding into triumph. He conducted from memory, as he did for the second half’s ravishingly pretty, chivalrous, atmospheric Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony — a work NACO hasn’t performed in more than a decade. String colour was bright and translucent, all the better to evoke swirling mists and ghostly moorland apparitions. The tuneful Adagio charmed with its pliant bel canto phrasing, and the finale — with that miraculous, sunny shift to major — was so irresistibly buoyant, not even a piercing squawk from a clarinet (a vanishingly rare occurrence, it must be said) could spoil the mood.

The concert repeats Thursday evening.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.