Young pianist ends China tour with mood and music

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Pianist Alice Sara Ott has developed her international career with a series of high-profile debuts.

Ahead of her debut recital in Beijing four years ago, Alice Sara Ott cut her long hair that she'd for years.

"I like closing chapters. I am not the person who looks in the past," says Ott, a 28-year-old German-Japanese pianist.

She applies the same philosophy to her music, she says.

"I don't want to hold on to anything that doesn't fit into a new environment."

During a recital she gave at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, which concluded her latest China tour in January, Ott took the audience both through "wonderland and hell" by playing pieces of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.

She fell in love with a Liszt sonata for piano from the time she started to learn it, she says.

"But it turned out to be a piece that is very difficult to couple with other pieces. It is too heavy and dark, like a trip to hell. For me, playing this sonata is one of the most emotional experiences I can have onstage," Ott says.

She describes Grieg's music as "light and dreamy" and a good balance for Liszt. She wore a yellow dress while performing Grieg's piece and changed into a black dress while playing Liszt.

"I did it for the first time in Japan last year," Ott says. "What I wanted is to make the audience understand more about the music. I cannot play such a dark piece (Liszt's sonata) in a bright color."

"We live in a time, where we complain about young people not coming to classical concerts," Ott says, adding that creating the right atmosphere is necessary.

The pianist also notes that classical concerts are often associated with expensive tickets and for the elite, which she says is wrong.

"Music is for anybody. If you want to enjoy classical music in jeans and T-shirt, that's fine."

In her latest album, Wonderland, released in September, Ott soaks in Grieg's music. The composer's life, lived in the woods, awoke Ott's own forgotten childhood memories.

"We live in a century where everyday life is dominated by time, money and materialism. Fantasies and dreams are things we have left behind," she says.

Born in Munich to a German engineer and his Japanese pianist wife, Ott grew up running around with boys rather than playing with her dolls.

Ott's love for the piano began at age 3, when her parents took her with them to a concert because they couldn't find a nanny. A year later, she was introduced to a piano teacher.

In 2002, at age 13, she became the youngest finalist in the history of the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition.

She also won top prizes at the Koethen Bach Competition the following year and the Val Tidone International Music Competition in 2004.

Her international career developed with a series of high-profile debuts in Europe, including a critically acclaimed performance of Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major with Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra and conductor David Zinman in 2006.

At age 19, Ott, who can speak Japanese, German and English, signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Her first album was a recording of Liszt's etudes that year. Then she recorded Frederic Chopin's complete waltzes in 2010.

But does early success mean high expectations of Ott?

"The worst pressure is something you put on yourself and you have to find a way to deal with it," she says.

She has two things to relieve pressure, which are also ways to warm her before concerts. One is milk chocolate: "Ten bars a day", she says. The other is Rubik's Cube (her best score is 55 seconds).

Based in Berlin now, the pianist says she likes whiskey.

When she returns from a tour, she usually goes to a bar with friends.

"That's the moment when I know I am home."

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