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STORY: Chopin and architecture meet in Alice Sara Ott’s multifaceted work

San Diego Union-Tribune

Beth Wood

April 23, 2023


The acclaimed German-Japanese pianist’s San Diego debut concert will mix Chopin preludes, pieces by contemporary composers and colorful visual images

The midnight hour was fast approaching in Munich, Germany, but acclaimed pianist Alice Sara Ott was wide awake throughout a recent late-night phone interview. She spoke animatedly about music, architecture, her upcoming multimedia concert in San Diego, living with multiple sclerosis and her quest to make classical music inviting to new audiences.

A child prodigy, Ott has made more than 10 albums and toured internationally. In March, Apple launched its new app, Apple Music Classical, with an ad featuring Ott, 34, and Karina Canellakis, 41.

The two women premiered a digital recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which is available only on the new Apple app. It teams them with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, which Canellakis leads as chief conductor.

This summer, Deutsche Grammophon will release Ott’s album with the orchestral Beethoven piece along with other works.

Ott’s solo piano concert on Friday at La Jolla Music Society’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall will focus on her 2021 album “Echoes of Life.” For this, her San Diego debut, she will play while architectural images are projected on a large screen.

“I’ve always had this fascination for shapes, spaces and how you feel within those spaces,” said Ott, whose concert tours have allowed her to see many architectural marvels.

During the pandemic — with all her performances canceled — Ott planned her “Echoes of Life” album and worked with Turkish architect Hakan Demirel, who is based in Istanbul and Zurich. They collaborated, mostly by Zoom, on the digital displays that will accompany Ott’s concert here.

“I think there’s a certain similarity between music and architecture because architecture also holds memories,” she said.

“When you visit a place and you experience something, whenever you revisit the place, you also revisit your memories. Music has a similar kind of power, that — when you listen to a certain song or piece of music, when you’re in a certain mood — it will always help you remember the exact feeling.”


Identity in music

In 2019, Ott shared on social media that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She announced it to protect herself and her family from speculation, and to shine a light on what she considers a misunderstood disease.

Ott describes the advances made in MS medical treatment over the past decade as “incredible.”

“Once I made it public, at least one or two musicians from every orchestra I played with came to me and said that they also had this condition,” Ott said. “They would tell me how they were living with it, what kind of treatments they were trying. I think that is so important.

“I’ve actually been episode and symptom free since 2019. MS is not dominating my life at all. And I’m very grateful for that,” she said.

Before her concert here, Ott will be in Washington, D.C., to perform an NPR “Tiny Desk Concert.” After La Jolla, she’ll tour Europe in the summer, with a trip to Seoul in July.

Known for her athletic-level energy and performing barefoot, Ott encourages audiences to come as they are. She has witnessed exclusive and elite attitudes in some concert halls. She dislikes the expectation that audiences must dress up or know in advance when to applaud and when to remain silent.

“I do not experience that in my own concerts,” Ott said. “It’s in my hands how to navigate through the evening. It’s my priority that the audience feels included and not excluded. I believe in inclusion.”

She is acutely aware of how exclusion feels. Ott was born in Munich to a German father and Japanese mother and raised in Germany.

One of the pieces on her “Echoes of Life” album is by Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu, who spent his early childhood in Manchuria.

“He said that his identity lies in music,” Ott said. “That is something I understand very well. I’ve never lived in Japan, but because of the way I look, I constantly get ‘othered.’ I will never be seen as a local wherever I go, but that’s OK because I don’t identify myself with a nationality.”


Living mechanism

For “Echoes of Life,” Ott fulfilled her longtime desire to record Chopin’s cycle of 24 preludes. Knowing the preludes would not fill a whole album, she took advantage of the pandemic lockdown to find appropriate music.

A lot of playlists and hours of research resulted in her pairing pieces by contemporary composers with different Chopin preludes.

For example, Takemitsu’s Litany I. Adagio precedes Chopin’s preludes 19-20, while Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina comes before preludes 21-24. Living composers showcased on the album include Luxembourg’s Francesco Tristano, Canada’s Chilly Gonzales and Ott herself.

“I started to combine them with the preludes,” she recalled. “‘How does it fit with the piece before it?’ ‘How does it fit with the piece afterwards?’

“I realized the contemporary pieces enhanced how modern and timeless Chopin’s music is …. It proved to me, again, that music is something with no timestamp.”

In her “Echoes of Life” concerts, that concept is reinforced by colorful projections of architecture photos.

“I got so many personal and intimate messages about how audiences relate to this experience,” Ott said. “They would find themselves again in the memories of their vacation, somewhere in Europe or back in their childhoods. It unlocks these memories within the listener, and I find that fascinating.

“Every time I play it — and with feedback I get — (the music) changes. Then, I report back to (architect) Hakan Demirel and when he has time, we work on (adjusting or changing) a certain image … So, it’s kind of a living mechanism.”

Wood is a freelance writer.