Alice Sara Ott (Foto: Pascal Albandopulos)
Portrait Alice Sara Ott

"Just as if I were stepping on new snow"

Alice Sara Ott eagerly awaits the score that Bryce Dessner is writing for her. It is the first piano concerto that she will premiere.

Melanie Kollbrunner

Alice Sara Ott calls from her flat in Munich, but doesn't really have much time: she has concerts coming up in France, England, Germany and Spain. And yet no clock seems to be ticking, she talks calmly and at length about things that are on her mind, thinks out loud and says: "We're all busy optimising. But what really and why?" Then the line goes quiet. "There's a lot of pressure on us."

Born on 1 August 1988, Alice Sara Ott grew up in Munich as the child of a Japanese mother and a German father. Her mother lovingly tried to prevent her two daughters from becoming pianists like her in order to spare them the hardships of being a musician. Her parents emphasised the teachings of Buddhism and security in her upbringing. Alice, like her sister Mona Asuka, who is two years younger, nevertheless chose a life at the piano.

The two women have long since ceased to be praised as child prodigies and have become successful pianists. At the age of 12, Alice Sara Ott joined Karl-Heinz Kämmerling's renowned piano class at the Salzburg Mozarteum and has been winning prize after prize and album after album ever since - she has been under contract as an exclusive artist with Deutsche Grammophon since 2008.

Butterfly with a Rubik's Cube

She is now returning to Switzerland in January. Alice Sara Ott, the summer child with side projects in all areas of design. She loves to play barefoot, but gets cold hands just thinking about winter. So she will keep her Rubik's Cube, one of those colourful magic cubes, close at hand backstage to warm up her hands, or her games console, throwing the titles of a few video games into the conversation. "Move your fingers, find your focus", she says, which works reliably with these two aids.

Then she sits down at the grand piano in the Tonhalle Zurich, for the first time since the hall was renovated. It's been a long time - almost twenty years - since she played Ravel with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich under David Zinman. If you ask people who met her backstage and on stage back then, you hear that she is modest, warm and present and yet from another world, "a butterfly in the air", as the technical director from back then recounts.

Courage to be more vulnerable

A lot has happened in Alice Sara Ott's life since then: in 2019, at the age of 30, the star pianist announced that she had multiple sclerosis (MS) in the middle of her fast-paced career. Two so-called relapses, which were accompanied by feelings of paralysis, triggered great fear and a series of investigations. There was no third relapse. "I'm fine today," she says, grateful that she doesn't have to accept any restrictions on the piano, doesn't feel any loss of technical skill and can continue on her path with an open mind towards any repertoire.

Alice Sara Ott (Foto: Pascal Albandopulos)

She is asked about her condition by members of the orchestra and enjoys talking to people with a similar fate. "I was stylised in the media as an MS pianist, which changed the way people looked at me from the outside." However, she neither wanted nor wants pity or attention about her illness. "My own knowledge was more than incomplete at the time of diagnosis and research was already twenty years ahead." She therefore wants to encourage people and show that MS doesn't have to hang over life plans like a sword of Damocles, that it's still okay to be afraid, that medicine is making great progress and that openness towards human vulnerability helps everyone.

A good night's sleep despite the piano

Alice Sara Ott's illness was diagnosed at a very early stage, which, thanks to good medication and medical care, allows her to lead her life as before, albeit with breaks: "I have learnt to listen when my body sends me signals." In our society, there is no provision for pausing and demanding rest. It is seen as a weakness if you take a moment out of the hustle and bustle. "But life pays us back if we brush stress away and pretend it's not there. That applies to healthy and sick people," she says, "it applies to all of us." She stands up for this, which is why she talks about her illness: to demand more space for retreat.

She also wants to give her neighbours peace and quiet and has opted for a well-insulated new-build flat, especially as she likes to practise at all times, even at night, when she uses her little grand piano electronically and puts on headphones.

In her early 20s, she enjoyed playing virtuoso Romantics. Today she prefers Mozart or Beethoven - "in doses". Because: "Isn't it like that with all favourites? Sometimes you curse them, even though you wouldn't want to be without them." More than before, she is now concerned with filling the space, creating intimacy, reaching the audience. She rarely listens to music herself. When she does, it is Bach, who has accompanied her throughout her life. Or reference recordings as preparation, if they are available.

Piano concerto in all its grandeur

When she spends a little more time at home again after her tour in December, she will start preparing for a big project close to her heart, one for which there is no reference recording yet. One with Bryce Dessner. He is the guitarist of The National, the indie band that has been nominated for three Grammys, has actually won one and can be reliably found on the lists of the most influential rock bands. However, Bryce Dessner's name also pops up surrounded by praise in connection with his work as a composer: in 2023/24, he holds the Creative Chair of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich in this role and is currently in the process of writing a piano concerto for Alice Sara Ott, which will be premiered in January under the direction of Kent Nagano.

"A full-scale piano concerto for me, that has never been done before, it's a really great, completely new world," says Alice Sara Ott. There are first notes on paper, ideas in her head, phone calls and emails, but the two have never met. And yet she knows that she will be able to ask Bryce Dessner anything, that the collaboration will be great fun because he is just that type of person: "I can hardly wait, I'm a really big fan." The fact that he is writing a work that she will be able to première is wonderful.

She will orientate her interpretation very closely to his vision, especially as it is not the case that she chooses a work to make it her own, as is usually the case; on the contrary, she will try to take herself back, live, in dialogue with the audience. "Just as if I were treading on new snow", attentive and in the now, as Alice Sara Ott has internalised it, "drawing delicate, initial traces so as not to destroy any of the magic."

Translated with

January 2024
Fri 19. Jan

Alice Sara Ott plays Dessner

Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Kent Nagano Conductor, Alice Sara Ott Klavier, Mari Eriksmoen Sopran Ives, Dessner, Mahler
Thu 18. Jan

Alice Sara Ott plays Dessner

Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Kent Nagano Conductor, Alice Sara Ott Klavier, Mari Eriksmoen Sopran Ives, Dessner, Mahler
published: 03.01.2024