Power and grace – Glass meets German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott one of the youngest and most prodigious classical musicians of our time


 Power and grace – Glass meets German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott one of the youngest and most prodigious classical musicians of our time

Alice Sara Ott has become one of the youngest and most prodigious classical talents of our time. Glass caught up with the German-Japanese pianist ahead of her UK proms debut in 2011. Here she shared her thoughts with us on the power of music.

How did you start playing the piano? You were four, which is very very young. How did you first realise that’s what you wanted to do?
They took me to a concert, I was three years old and my vocabulary was very poor. There were so many misunderstandings between the adults and me, and I never had the feeling that they understood me and that I can express myself well enough with words. I was instinctively looking for something else or searching for another way of expressing myself.

I was in a concert and I had the feeling that music was the language that goes much beyond any words. And I thought if I were to master that language people would understand me. I went to my mother and said, “I want to become a pianist”, and she said, “No, forget it!” She also studied piano and she didn’t want her children to do the same.

Why is that? Did she think it was too hard?
First of all, for her it would be nicer if we were to do something totally different. Also, she knows my character, that once I do something I am really into it. So she thought maybe it was smarter to do something else. Because it is very complicated, people are complicated and it is so difficult to make it in that area. But that’s the same as everywhere, when you want to get to the top.

It was not really her wish for me to do the same as she did. I had one year to convince her and after one year she finally allowed me to start playing the piano and lessons. It was always very clear for me that I wanted to become a pianist, because I felt that this language brings people together and everybody understands that language. So when I was five years old, I was at the final stage of the youth competition in Munich and I played in a very famous Hercules hall. I think 1700 people came in, and it was full.

I was five years old, I was the youngest, and I played the piece, well 30 seconds and I missed the notes, I had a blackout, I didn’t really play well, but the only thing I really remember is after I played, and when I stood up and I was going to the audience, people were clapping and shouting “Bravo”, because I was the smallest one, and that was the moment when people really listened to me and I had the feeling that they fully understood what I wanted to say, and that gave me the feeling of satisfaction and I somehow felt that this is what I want to do for my whole life.

I grew up between two cultures, Japanese and German, and neither in Germany nor in Japan I am really native.
People, when they see me on the street in Germany they call me “chingchangchung”, and in Japan they don’t expect me to speak Japanese, so when I start speaking Japanese they are very surprised.

I felt that I am nowhere really, that I am not a part of either cultural language. This is where music helped me a lot, because in music it doesn’t matter where you are from and what nationality you have. There is no racism, it is just important who you are and what you have to say. So it was very clear for me that music is the most important thing.Alice Sara Ott in Bottega VenetaAlice Sara Ott in Bottega Veneta. Photograph: Anders Brogaard

Could you describe what it was that the music said to you at such a young age?
The piano for me was always like a big monster. It is not an instrument that you can hug with your arms, like a violin, or a cello. The piano is so huge. All the other instruments you can hug, but not the piano. We play every day on a different instrument and it is like meeting a new person. Each one of them has a different character, even if it’s made by the same company.

It is always a big challenge to get in touch with the piano. Sometimes it is sympathy from the beginning, and sometimes it would take a lot of time to get in touch with the piano. It was always a big monster that you first need to tame. It is like meeting a new person, talk to him and then find out how he reacts. It was always a big, big challenge for me. Actually every day is a challenge, because we never travel with our own instruments and every day we meet with a totally new character and personality.

Alice Sara Ott in Bottega Veneta. Photograph: Anders BrogaardAlice Sara Ott in Bottega Veneta. Photograph:  Anders Brogaard

The theme of this issue of Glass is power [issue seven], which I think relates very well to music, because people always talk about the power of music. How relevant is classical music these days? What would you say to someone that is saying that it is not so relevant to today’s society?
I think classical music is timeless. There are some projects in Germany, one of them is called Rhapsody in School, when artists go to the school and play for the students and talk to them. I have done that a couple of times and it is very interesting.

Their attitude at the beginning was that they are not really interested and that it’s not cool. Then, I started to talk about the composers, and actually they had the lives like rock stars nowadays. They were womanisers, there were drugs and alcohol, everything. If you tell those stories they start to get more interested in it and they change their behaviour and they suddenly listen to what you do. And when you play the music they have some connection to it and they identify themselves with the music.

It was always a very positive experience and after maybe ten or twelve students came to my concert just because they wanted to, not because their teacher forced them to. And there’s another project called Yellow Lounge which is organised by Universal Germany, where we go into clubs and do one classical evening, with classical VJ (a video artist), and one performing artist, with the audience who normally go to clubs, and has never been introduced to classical music.

And I was sitting in front of the piano, it was a very intimate atmosphere, not like in a concert hall where there’s a certain distance between the audience and the piano. I was talking them through all the pieces, so they could get the understanding of what I am doing.

I have never experienced such a calm audience, even the people were 18–30 years old and they normally don’t listen to classical music. And they were sitting around me, calm and they couldn’t stop clapping. It was a very positive experience.

It is not that classical music gets old – it’s just that you need to find the right approach to those people and bring it closer to them. People identify themselves with different kinds of music. Classical music has the same background and it has no difference to other music. People have the wrong impression. And also the problem is that the tickets are so expensive, so they think that classical music is for people with more money, who are snobbish.

So you are passionate about trying to introduce a young audience to classical music.
Absolutely, because young people are our future.

What do you think can be done on a larger scale to interest more young people in classical music?
There are different ways of it. I think we should absolutely use the media and what we can do nowadays. You can communicate things so fast and people should use it. There is certain type of technology that we should embrace. Everything that you can use to approach young people, you should use. If it is for a good reason it is worth.

What is the ultimate goal for you as a pianist?
Not to be like a shooting star and become famous and then fade too soon. For me it’s really important to somehow be able to pace myself. And I don’t want to be one of those artists who comes out of the trance of 30 years having a great career and seeing across the road the family with a father and a mother and a kid and feeling some loneliness and sadness. It is very important for everyone to understand what is happiness for them. And everyone needs to ask oneself if he is happy.

My Japanese grandmother, she died two years ago from lung cancer, and she always told me, before I go to sleep I should ask myself if I am happy. And if I am not happy I should change my life. It is very easy. It is just very difficult to make the first step. That’s why there are so many people out there who are not happy. It is very important to know what you want and to live according to it.

I want to still be able to play when I am 80 or 70 on stage and communicate with people through music and also be a very satisfied and happy person. And I think that is the biggest challenge in life to find that balance. Because if you are unhappy you cannot make other people happy. The goal is not to make a big career or to be successful in your job, but to really feel happy. That is the biggest challenge for everyone in life and for me as well.

What is the greatest source of power for you?

Love. Love is everywhere. It is in the music, in the nature. It is everywhere. Love should be the dominating power.

by Nicola Kavanagh

Alice Sara Ott wears Bottega Veneta. Photograph: Anders Brogaard

Alice Sara Ott is on twitter, facebook and instagram

From the Glass Archive – Issue Seven – Power. Don’t miss a copy of Glass, subscribe  here



About The Author

Glass Magazine editor in chief

Related Posts