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Alice Sara Ott - An Interview with the Pianist that is to Give a Recital on the Anniversary of Radio Romania Music

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 , ora 9.28

Alice Sara Ott, who is already a favourite of audiences and critics all over the world, allowed me to interview her in Moritzburg in August 2011, when the idea of inviting her to Bucharest on 24 March, the day Radio Romania Music turns 15, was nothing but a distant thought. I discovered a wonderful artist, both on stage and off it...

The audio version of this interview is available for listening as part of the following programmes: Infobuletin muzical, Musica viva and Drivetime.

On attending one of your recitals I noticed something unusual - you perform barefoot.

I always perform barefoot. I started doing it a year and a half ago for a very simple reason: I was trying to rehearse on an antique piano on which Liszt himself had played at some point in his life when I realised that because of the high heels I was wearing my knees did not fit under the keyboard which was in a much lower position than that of modern pianos. So I took off my shoes and I found it very comfortable. Moreover, I always practise barefoot at the piano and I hoped that, since I wear long dresses at concerts, no one would notice my feet.

The Romanian audience has already had the chance to listen to two of your albums, the one with waltzes by Chopin and the one with concerts by Tchaikovsky and Liszt. However, since you have never given any live performances in Bucharest, the audience know few details about you. Like how you started to play the piano, for instance.

The first time I came into contact with music was when I was three years old - my parents took me to a concert. I remember that at that age I had difficulties in communicating with others because I did not have a vast vocabulary and I could not say all that I wanted to. Thus, nobody took me seriously.

What languages did you speak at that time?

I spoke German and Japanese at the same time. I was therefore very sad that I could not express my thoughts the way I wanted to, but I suppose every child has this problem and they instinctively look for alternative means which might enable them to express their feelings however they wish to. So there I was, watching the concert, fascinated by the means of expression provided by piano music; it was a language I could understand even at that age, a language that everyone understood, all those people sitting there and listening to the music. And I thought that that was the solution for me: I had to learn the language of the piano and then people would understand me. So I went to my mother and told her I wanted to become a pianist.

Did you have a piano at home?

My mother had one, she studied piano.

As a professional musician?

Yes, she studied it and even gave piano lessons before meeting my father.

Which one of your parents is Japanese and which is German?

My mother is Japanese and my father is German. So we had a piano at home, but my mother would not let me play it. I remember she build a wall out of picture books to keep me from getting near it. But a year later she gave up and allowed me to study piano. I started taking lessons and it was very clear to me that I was going to become a pianist. Then, at the age of five I had my first major stage appearance, in the finals of a children's contest. It was a fairly significant contest, since the finals took place at the Herkulessaal in Munich. Of course, I did not know what was happening or what type of competition it was, all I knew was that I was going to play in front of more than one thousand spectators. And I played a piece by Kabalevsky, I do not remember how. I do, however, remember that when I finished I stood up and took a bow and the audience was applauding and shouting 'bravo' - then I knew that the audience could finally understand me; they listened to me from beginning to end, which gave me great satisfaction and I knew that that was what I wanted to do in the future.

Do you feel the same now that you speak several languages?

Yes, absolutely, because music can go beyond words and there are so many things in music that cannot be described. Music gives you the freedom and space to be different. Without music I would feel incomplete, handicapped.

Which are, in your opinion, the key moments which made you who you are today?

That concert, the first that I performed in was, of course, very important, because it made me want to become a pianist, then there was the experience I had when I was five, playing in front of all those people and then, of course, a series of contests that I participated in. But contests were not important to me, because preparing for the competition, practicing those musical pieces was my purpose, not winning. And if people liked my performance, then it made no difference whether or not I got the first prize. There was also the fact that I changed teachers, I moved to the Mozarteum in Salzburg and became a student there at the age of 12. Then I began performing regularly in concerts at the age of 16 and I signed a contract with Deutsche Grammophon when I was 19 years old.

One might point out that it was an unusual circumstance...

I do not think that this is a profession which requires you to have obtained all the degrees and passes all the exams in order to practise it. One can start practising this profession very early in life. It is difficult to say how I started. I gave concerts as a bonus for winning contests, where people heard me and recommended me to others. I had my first agent in Germany at the age of 18 and now it is a British agency that represents me, an agency I have been working with since I was 20. Things just happen.

Has luck got anything to do with it?

Of course, luck is always very important! One needs a great amount of luck to succeed. One has to be in the right place, with the right person and at the right time.

What was the most important thing that you learned from your teachers?

I think the most important life lesson that I learned did not come from my teachers, but from my Japanese grandmother, who died of cancer two years ago. She was the one to tell me that every time I wake up in the morning, I should ask myself if I am happy, because if I am, then everything is all right, but if I am not, I ought to see what changes I can make in order to be happy. This was the most important thing that she taught me. Of course, I learned many great things from my teachers as well, but they are details and we do not have the time to talk about them.

When you were a student, did your teachers choose your repertoire? I am asking you this question because, for instance, when you were 17 years old you started performing Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky on a regular basis.

Yes, it was a concert organizer who asked me to perform Tchaikovsky, so I did what he asked me. Obviously, I always asked for my teachers' advice, but they shared their opinion with me rather than impose it on me. For instance, if I wanted to perform a certain work which they would not recommend, I would talk to them and offer them arguments until they said yes. I trust the instinct of every performer. If you feel that you have to perform a certain work, then do it.

People talk a lot about artists coming from Asia, such as Lang Lang and many others. You come from a dual heritage background. How does it feel living at the crossroadsof two cultures?

I am aware that I will never be considered a native of any of the two countries, in Germany they call me 'ching-chang-chong' and in Japan people talk to me in English.

I think it might be an advantage…

Yes, eventually. The more cultures you have in your blood, the wider your horizons will be. On the other hand, there are some drawbacks and you have to know how to handle them. I am very grateful for the two cultures to which I belong.

How would you describe yourself? Until I actually met you face to face, I pictured you in my mind like a more masculine spirit, by only listening to your recordings. Even the works you perform are usually played by male pianists. But here I am, talking to a very feminine young woman, with some very big hands indeed.

Musically, I do not feel either a man or a woman. It is true that I grew up mostly among boys, and yes, there is a masculine side of me. But it is very hard to describe oneself…

How many hours a day do you practise?

It depends on how much time I have got. Sometimes, I have all day long. Other times, I practise only in my head and I do not have to actually touch the piano keyboard. When I have to hold a concert, I rehearse about two hours before the show. I never force myself to practise for a certain number of hours; I practise as much as I feel that I should. I do not think it is important how much you practise, but rather the way you practise. If you only sit in front of the piano and move your fingers, it does not mean anything. Moreover, you do not grow as a person and the music does not grow inside of you. It is very important to live your life.

Which mix of factors contributes to a successful career: talent, work, promotion?

Of course, talent is important, but talent alone does not guarantee success. Work is certainly very important. But there are some other factors, such as luck. So yes, the mix includes talent, work and luck.

What about promotion?

Yes, it is important, because we live in a time when everybody has access to the media. I am not against it, whether it is traditional media or social networks. However, I believe that the media should be of second importance. The most important thing is music itself and this should not change.

How does a normal day in your life look like?

Every day is different, I wake up around 8, I practise or I rehearse with the orchestra if we have a concert in the evening, and then around 4 pm I go to sleep. Usually, I am not home most of the time: I wake up in a foreign hotel room, I practise and afterwards I fly by plane. And when I am home, every day is different because I am not that type of person who gets up at 8 in the morning and studies from 10 to 5 pm every day.

You are very young, but you already have a very brilliant career. What are the most important things that you wish to accomplish in the future?

You can never say that you have accomplished too much. There is always room for developing, for growing. Like I have already told you, my main goal is to be a happy person. Of course, I have my dreams to perform with a certain orchestra or in a certain hall, but I do not want to rush things because I do not want to become a falling star, I want to have a long life as a musician. I want to have time to enjoy life and find the hidden meanings of music.

Cristina Comandașu
Translated by Roxana-Andreea Dragu and Raluca Mizdrea
MTTLC, Bucharest University