When Alice Sara Ott was three years old, she begged her parents for piano lessons. Not wishing to push her daughter into music too soon, her mother attempted to hide the family piano behind a bookcase. That didn’t last. The next year Ott began studying with a Hungarian teacher in her hometown of Munich.

By age thirteen, she frequently shuttled between Europe and Japan, giving recitals and eventually landing a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon at nineteen. While she is a highly photogenic virtuoso on the label’s roster, she also sticks out from the pack.

The product of a multicultural family (her father is German, her mother Japanese), the twenty-three-year-old Ott both identifies with Japanese culture and believes that music helps transcend cultural identities. She describes Chopin — himself split between his native Poland and his adopted Paris — as a kindred spirit. Ott’s second album for Deutsche Grammophon was a well-received collection of Chopin waltzes.

 

‘I think the real challenge of Liszt’s music is not to master the technique, but to be able to transmit the musical depth....’

 

If there is a cornerstone of Ott’s precocious development, however, it is Franz Liszt. On her debut album she treaded fearlessly into the composer’s Transcendental Etudes, and another release, with the Munich Philharmonic, pairs the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Liszt’s Concerto No. 1. Is Ott concerned about the showboat reputation that sometimes clings to Liszt, even in this, his bicentennial year? 

“If the audience leaves the concert hall with that impression, the pianist must have done something wrong,” she writes in an email from Japan. “I think the real challenge of Liszt’s music is not to master the technique, but to be able to transmit the musical depth, which is partly hidden between and behind the notes, to the audience.”

Ott remains a relative unknown in the U.S., having just made her debuts last year with the Cincinnati Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. Nothing else is on the immediate calendar and she’ll only say, “I very much hope that in the future I will have more and more opportunities to come back to America.” Until she returns, watch for more recordings: Next up are the concertos of Grieg, Ravel and Bartók, as well as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. 

 

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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