Alice Sara Ott interview

The young pianist chats to Time Out about playing Mussorsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’

Normally an outbreak of coughing during a recital is greeted by general disgruntlement. But not by the pianist Alice Sara Ott. She blames the culture. ‘People are coughing because there are too many rules in the classical concert hall,’ she declares. ‘When you go to the cinema, nobody is coughing, because they are relaxed.’ She is quite passionate about the subject. ‘In Japanese kanji, for example,’ she continues, ‘the first character for the word “Music” is Sound, and the second one is Joy. So that means you have to enjoy the sound. And how can you enjoy music if people are telling you how you should listen to it.’

Daughter of a Japanese pianist mother and German engineer father, Ott grew up in Munich, but now makes her home in Berlin, where she lives with her boyfriend, the conductor Benjamin Shwartz. Interestingly, despite learning her instrument since the age of four, she wasn’t encouraged to enter her precarious profession. ‘My mother is a professional musician,’ explains Ott, ‘but she didn’t want me to play the piano. So it was definitely not her influence; I think she wished that her children would become normal people and not crazy musicians.’ It clearly didn’t work, because Ott’s younger sister, Mona Asuka, is now a professional pianist, too. ‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘my mother had bad luck.’

'You have to look good onstage – you can’t go out in jeans and unwashed hair'

At just 24 years old, Ott has already won prestigious competitions, played with leading orchestras in impressive venues, recorded five albums on the Deutsche Grammophon label and is a Steinway piano artist. She even stepped in to replace Chinese superstar Lang Lang at a Barbican concert two years ago. Yet, despite all this acclaim, she knows she can’t be complacent. ‘Nowadays there are so many good-looking young musicians who play their instruments very well,’ she explains. ‘So it is important to develop your personality and to find you own place in the music, or in three or four years you will be replaced by others.’

So looking good is also important for a serious artist? ‘Of course,’ she exclaims. ‘Especially for a woman. It is more difficult than for a man. You have to look good onstage – you can’t go out in jeans and unwashed hair. That is the positive side of being a man. If you go to a concert by a male artist, you don’t expect him to look really good – you just go there to enjoy the music. With women you also expect something visual.’

There are some advantages to being a female pianist, though...

There are some advantages to being a female pianist, though. Playing in one’s bare feet, for instance, as Ott does. ‘I once played a recital on a historical instrument that the old Liszt played; but when I arrived in my high heels and realised I couldn’t fit my feet under the keyboard, I had to play barefoot; I had a long dress so I thought people wouldn’t notice. It was very comfortable and I just continued.’ And what about male pianists in bare feet? ‘For a man it is more difficult,’ she laughs, ‘because if you wear a tuxedo and bare feet it looks a bit strange – but why not!’

Next week, she will be applying her naked feet to the pedals of a Steinway grand at the Royal Festival Hall when she steps up to perform Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. The 1874 piece is a suite for piano, illustrating an imaginary display of paintings. Mussorgsky wrote it as a tribute to Viktor Hartmann, his artist friend who died young. Many of Hartmann’s art works were sketches yet to be finished. Mussorgsky imagines them completed and adorning the walls of an art gallery. The ten quirky movements are linked by promenades depicting the Russian composer strolling around to admire them. It all ends with one of Hartmann’s unrealised architectural projects: ‘The Great Gates of Kiev’.

Ott’s favourite artists include Chagall, Gauguin, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Hartmann, though, isn’t one. ‘I am not a big fan of his sketches,’ she admits. ‘It is like a movie. When you have read the book, your fantasies have no limit and you create a world that cannot be captured in pictures. It is the same for me with this music.’

Alice Sara Ott’s new album, ‘Pictures’, is available now on Deutsche Grammophon. Buy the album here.

See Alice Sara Ott live in London

London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts Rachmaninov's Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini and Respighi's Roman Trilogy, with Alice Sara Ott, piano.

  1. Barbican Centre Silk St, EC2Y 8DS
  2. Sun Jan 31
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Listen to Alice Sara Ott's 'Pictures'