Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Alice Sara Ott - why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover

'No one's perfect', now a phrase thrown out of my books.

After finally seeing Alice perform live at the Royal Festival Hall today after an almost 2 year wait, I believe I, in all 19 earnest years of my life, have seen perfection in the face. She absolutely STUNNED in a bright red floor length gown, a perfect bob haircut and perfect figure, with her mischievous personality on full display.

If you think this is gonna be another rant about some other amazing piano prodigy, then you're right, but this one's special, because it's Alice Sara Ott.

I discovered Alice randomly on an article I read way back, when I was a newfound fangirl of Chopin and someone had rated her as 'one of the best interpreters of Chopin alive'. What made her instantly stand out to me as was that at first glance, she seems like a naive, graceful young pianist with an extraordinary talent. Her photoshoots do no justice to her actual playing as they all portray her as this dainty creature shrouded in grace and as the Pianist magazine put it, 'an air of remarkable serenity'. Which is why I was incredibly shocked when I actually heard her playing. It also sparked my interest as to why she always plays the piano barefooted, and why as pretty much a newbie, she chose to replace Lang Lang at such short notice when she knew there would be handfuls of critics sitting in the concert hall waiting to judge her.

In real life, Alice has in fact got a sassy punch of attitude to her generally determined personality. In her interviews, it's quite obvious but it's even more obvious when she's delivering a piece of music on the piano. I think the Times critic gave a good summary:
"There's a beauty, and mischief too, in her playing, which rings out with a freedom, fluidity and lack of contrivance which is entirely refreshing."
Today at the concert, even though I had rubbish seats and could only see her back, I was still entirely taken away by her interpretations of Schumann and Schubert. In a classical sense, her playing is almost 'wild' and uncontrolled, as if she hadn't taken notice of rhythmic structures and was playing completely based on her gut instincts, but when you close your eyes Schumann was still there looking at you in the face. It's an elevating sense of freedom and liberation which is just so damn refreshing to hear in a formal concert hall. There was something very impetuous about her dynamics which I thought really worked with the pieces she picked today. Especially in Mussorgsky's Pictures at An Exhibition - I thought that piece could be written for her.

There was one thing she keeps reiterating in her interviews which gave me a deep impression. She said that music to her is a form of communication. When she was younger, she felt that no one could really understand her, and when she heard a piano concert for the first time, she felt if she mastered the art, she would be able to make people understand her better. I believe that this type of communication is what makes classical music still so well loved today. People sit down in concert halls nowadays not to only hear that famous piece of music that's been around for centuries, but to hear the musical personality of the musician that is playing the piece, and how it is communicated to them. Why does Ott's interpretation sound different to Horowitz's? Why was this phrase played at such dynamics/tempo in this rendition? People who pay to hear live music should all be (or at least I hope so) looking for answers to such questions.

I think what the musicians do to deliver a piece is just as important as how the composer wanted the piece to be delivered. It's the same for fashion. A designer wouldn't create a top so that a certain type of person could wear it. It would be more meaningful to see how people of all sorts would wear this top, how people can make this one top unique to them. With music it's often a heart wrenching decision to decide whether to play a piece how the composer wanted you to play it, or play how you feel like playing it. Being the young, stubborn pianist Alice is, she obviously chose the latter, and I give her full credit for it. Why should a person living in the 21st century play based on the instructions of a dead man? Alice has the right to perform the piece the way she likes. If something from the piece speaks out to her, she has all the right and ability to tell the audience 'listen to THIS bit'.

I often get livid about this, but honestly I think this sort of respect for musicians is just so entirely lacking in the current classical world. Music is all about technique and interpretation, but at the end of the day 'interpretation' just becomes another technique. We are all so worked up by technique that we lose sight of more important things in music. Beethoven didn't write a piece because he wanted all pianists who played it to be technically perfect. It's often more accurate to guess that inspiration for that piece came to Beethoven in the form of a memory, feeling or dream that was entirely spontaneous. With such foundations, I fail to understand why some people get so angry that a piece was delivered 'too emotionally' or 'glosses over important musical technicalities'. Take a look at this frustrating critic of Ott on The Guardian:

"No on expects a pianist in her early 20s, however prodigiously talented, to be the finished article. Yet Alice Sara Ott's recital was still a bit of a disappointment, not because of any weaknesses in the German-Japanese pianist's playing - her technique is as buoyantly brilliant as her recordings suggest - but because too often, even in a programme that had clearly been chosen to showcase the extrovert side of her pianism, it allowed her to skate over the surface of the music without hinting at what lay beneath."
If a concert is CHOSEN to showcase something you expect, and in the end you see what you expect to see, what is the point of going at all? We don't live to hear the same pieces delivered in the same ways it had been done for hundreds of years, or even what we EXPECT should be delivered. We go to concerts with a blank mind and let the musician fill it up with THEIR ideas. Hence why we go and listen to THEIR playing in the first place.

He then continues to criticise her on how her rendition of Mozart's Duport Variations K573 "hardly seem like late Mozart at all", and how her Beethoven Sonata Op 2 No 3 "didn't give the slow movement the space it needed [...] there was something perfunctory about the way everything was presented, with no sense of music threatening to redefine the boundaries of classical sonata form as Beethoven did in these early works." It's as if he came to the concert expecting her to be Mozart or Beethoven or something. How did he know Ott deliberately didn't want to play as if she's redefining boundaries of sonata form? Why should she anyway? Maybe playing 'like' Mozart was not what she wanted to convey to her audience. I don't even think it's a rebellious move from her trying to be different. I just think her being honest to herself through music.

The fact that Alice has lived through these harsh criticism and is still flourishing in her own intrepid musical style makes me support her all the more. The fact that she is still touring increasingly more continents and is welcomed by an expanding fanbase gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, other people out there also see the importance of a musician's personality rather than technique and ability to mimic the composers. Through her interviews, I could tell she's a very brave girl, knows her direction in life and is very honest to herself. All these qualities I wish I could perfect on.

Music wise I'm nowhere near as talented as her, but I do think we think in similar ways in many aspects. For example we both think that music is played and listened to best in the dark with no 'visual distractions'. We both believe that practising comes down to self motivation, and not whether your family is rich enough to buy you a Steinway or whether or not your family members are musicians. Personally for me, music is a haven where I escape to from my crazy life, and she seems to think similarly. In her interview with The Telegraph she talked about the dangers of the modern culture - women at airports with their heads buried in their BlackBerries, 'who don't breathe, who don't take time to think'. I'm pretty thankful that I realised these dangers too, especially since my future is going to be 100% in the financial sector, so that in the future I will not be making the same mistakes.

She sees music as a universal thing with no boundaries and no segregation - I remember my music illiterate mother looking at my violin music and telling me 'it doesn't matter what language you speak. This sheet music is something musicians from across the globe will understand'. On this topic Alice says:
"If you hear music in a concert hall, you can forget time, you can forget your own language, your culture, and your own skin colour... it makes no difference which country I'm in." 
This cut from the Telegraph interview also stood out to me:
"Growing up in two cultures, she also found a refuge. 'In Germany people sometimes call me "ching-chang-chong", their expression for Chinese, which I have got used to now, but which used to freak me out. They think Asian people are all the same. And in Japan people are shocked that I speak Japanese. In music it doesn't matter what nationality you have. It is more important what you want to say and who you are. With music I was welcomed everywhere. We were talking in a language above all this hate and racism."
It's quite remarkable how she uses music to distance herself from racism. I live in London and am pursuing a career in the finance, so it's pretty much on a daily basis that I get racist remarks from everyone at every place imaginable (even today when I was at M&S the man who served me said 'happy new year!' followed by some incoherent blubbering which he presumed was Chinese). As a result I feel extremely privileged to know so many music lovers at my uni who I can talk about and play music with without having to touch on our cultural differences, and so happy that I have Alice as an idol who thinks in the same way as I do about music.

About her playing barefoot, she says it's because she wants to treat each piano as a person, and it helps her to feel closer to the instrument. Which I kinda understand even as a violinist, because for example I've never played the violin with gloves on.

I sincerely wish Alice all the best in the future and I hope she shines bright in this industry, and at the end of this journey get all the happiness and freedom she deserves. I hope she never changes her impulsive, gut-instinctive way of playing because it's what makes her so perfect in her own way!

Some clips of Alice playing:



Liszt with interview:

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