She’s Shaking Up Classical Music While Confronting Illness

She’s Shaking Up Classical Music While Confronting Illness

The pianist Alice Sara Ott, barefoot and carrying a silver bracelet, was smiling and singing to herself the opposite day as she practiced a jazzy passage of Ravel at Steinway Hall in Midtown Manhattan. A Nintendo Switch, which she makes use of to heat up her arms, was by her facet (one other favored software is a Rubik’s Cube). A shot of espresso sat untouched on the ground.

“I really feel I’ve lastly discovered my voice,” Ott mentioned throughout a break. “I really feel I can lastly be myself.”

Ott, 35, who makes her New York Philharmonic debut this week, has constructed a world profession, recording greater than a dozen albums and showing with high ensembles. She has turn out to be a drive for change in classical music, embracing new approaches (taking part in Chopin on beat-up pianos in Iceland) and railing in opposition to stuffy live performance tradition (she performs with out footwear, discovering it extra comfy).

And Ott, who lives in Munich and has roots in Germany and Japan, has finished so whereas grappling with sickness. In 2019, when she was 30, she was identified with a number of sclerosis. She says she has not proven any signs since beginning therapy, however the dysfunction has made her mirror on the music trade’s grueling work tradition.

“I realized to simply accept that there’s a restrict and to not transcend that,” she mentioned. “Everybody is aware of how you can ignore their physique and simply go on. But there’s all the time a payback.”

Ott has used her platform to assist dispel myths about a number of sclerosis, a dysfunction of the central nervous system that may trigger a variety of signs, together with muscle spasms, numbness and imaginative and prescient issues. She has taken to social media to element her struggles and to problem those that have prompt that the sickness has affected her taking part in.

She mentioned she felt she had no alternative however to be clear, saying it was necessary to point out that individuals with a number of sclerosis could lead on full lives.

“I don’t contemplate it as a weak point,” she mentioned. “It’s a truth. I reside with it. And I don’t need to make an enormous drama out of it.”

Ott’s colleagues describe her as an adventurous musician who has helped convey new audiences to classical music with experiments like “Echoes of Life,” a venture that blends Chopin preludes with up to date works, video and Ott’s reflections on life and music.

Bryce Dessner, a composer and a guitarist who wrote a concerto for Ott that she premiered in Zurich this 12 months, mentioned that “what she brings onstage is so particular to her — it’s like she’s unlocking some type of hidden doorway in every bit that she confronts or interprets.”

The conductor Elim Chan, who carried out with Ott a number of months after she started therapy, mentioned that from the beginning, Ott had a “don’t child me” perspective about her sickness.

“She is ready to go to a really stunning and fragile place, but it surely’s additionally very trustworthy and it has integrity inside it,” Chan mentioned. “And then she flies from there. And that’s one thing I discover very stunning.”

Ott was born in Munich to a Japanese mom, a piano teacher, and a German father, {an electrical} engineer. She started piano classes at 4, drawn to the expressive energy of music, she mentioned, and when she was 12, she began commuting to Salzburg, Austria, to check with the famend teacher Karl-Heinz Kämmerling.

After profitable a sequence of prizes, her profession took off, and at 19, she signed with the celebrated label Deutsche Grammophon. Still, she started to really feel uneasy about classical music’s emphasis on custom in programming, live performance codecs and gown. She typically confronted sexism; a colleague as soon as instructed her to play a passage of Beethoven like a “cute little Japanese lady,” she mentioned. And her packed touring schedule was taking a toll on her as a musician, she mentioned.

“I felt like folks had been anticipating one thing from me that I couldn’t present,” she mentioned. “I used to be floating round, and I didn’t have stability within the sense of who I used to be as an artist.”

She started to forge her personal path, working with artists just like the experimental composer Ólafur Arnalds to report reimagined variations of Chopin. Eager for a extra rugged sound, they went looking for out-of-tune pianos in bars in Reykjavik, Iceland.

In 2014, she launched “Scandale,” an homage to the Ballets Russes, with the pianist and composer Francesco Tristano, that includes works by Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Tristano. On tour, they embellished the stage with magenta duct tape and invited the viewers to clap together with the music.

“You can actually hear the intelligence in the best way she performs,” Tristano mentioned. “Nothing is left to randomness or sheer virtuosity. She’s past that. She actually desires to make a degree in regards to the music she’s creating — that it’s related in the present day.”

In 2018, on tour in Japan, Ott started to expertise well being issues, feeling some numbness in her lips and later having problem strolling.

Her medical doctors mentioned her signs had been in all probability brought on by stress. But when she returned dwelling to Munich after one other tour a pair months later, half of her physique went numb. After present process exams, she obtained her prognosis: relapsing-remitting a number of sclerosis, the commonest kind, during which signs can flare up and dissipate.

At first, Ott mentioned, she was “scared as hell” and panicked. But she additionally apprehensive about upsetting her household. “There had been plenty of occasions,” she mentioned, “once I simply locked myself someplace and cried.”

Her solely information of the sickness got here from the story of Jacqueline du Pré, the British cellist who died in 1987, at 42, of problems from a number of sclerosis. On the day Ott obtained her prognosis, she misplaced management of her left hand whereas taking part in a Chopin nocturne at a recital in Munich. She ran offstage, sat on the ground and cried, and canceled the remainder of the live performance.

But as Ott examine trendy therapies, she grew extra optimistic, particularly since her sickness was within the early levels. In February 2019, a few month after her prognosis, she posted about it on Instagram.

“An acknowledgment isn’t a weak point,” she wrote, “however a solution to defend and acquire energy, each for oneself and for these round us.”

Ott was praised for her braveness. When she toured, musicians approached her to share their experiences with a number of sclerosis. But her well being challenges additionally drew scrutiny.

When a critic reviewing one among Ott’s albums final fall prompt that its inclusion of some simpler items was associated to her a number of sclerosis, she shot again. On Instagram, she famous that she had defined her alternative of repertoire and that she had plans for extra albums. She mentioned that such reductive labeling was “the precise purpose why it’s nonetheless so onerous for a lot of to return out and speak about their very own situations.”

In New York, Ott will carry out Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with the conductor Karina Canellakis, who can be making her Philharmonic debut, in a program that features works by Webern, Strauss and Scriabin. (Last 12 months, the 2 had been featured performing Beethoven in commercials for Apple Music Classical, the expertise big’s streaming service.)

Canellakis mentioned Ott had a “a serenity about her that’s infectious.”

“There’s a way of pure focus,” she mentioned, “and he or she evokes everybody else round her to imagine that state of being.”

Ott has been refining her interpretation of the Ravel concerto, which she first carried out when she was 17, working to imitate the sound of jazz devices within the piano half.

On a current night, she went to the Blue Note jazz membership in Manhattan to listen to the Japanese composer and pianist Hiromi. The live performance felt intimate and laid-back, she mentioned: People cheered freely, laughed, talked and shared meals and drinks.

Ott mentioned she strives to create related connections with audiences.

“Music itself can solely absolutely blossom after we unite in it,” she mentioned. “We must be weak. That is without doubt one of the most stunning sources of togetherness and energy.”



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