She is revolutionizing classical music while facing illness | Trending Viral hub


Pianist Alice Sara Ott, barefoot and wearing a silver bracelet, smiled and sang to herself the other day while practicing a jazzy passage from Ravel at Steinway Hall in Midtown Manhattan. Next to her was a Nintendo Switch, which she uses to warm her hands (another favorite tool of hers is the Rubik’s cube). A shot of espresso remained untouched on the floor.

“I feel like I finally found my voice,” Ott said during a break. “I feel like I can finally be myself.”

Ott, 35 years old, who makes it New York Philharmonic debut This week, he has built a global career, recording more than a dozen albums and appearing with top ensembles. He has become a force for change in classical music, taking new approaches (playing Chopin on rickety pianos in Iceland) and criticizing stifling concert culture (he performs without shoesbeing more comfortable).

And Ott, who lives in Munich and has roots in Germany and Japan, has done so while battling an illness. In 2019, when he was 30 years old, he was diagnosed multiple sclerosis. She says she hasn’t shown any symptoms since she started treatment, but her disorder has made her reflect on the grueling work culture of the music industry.

“I learned to accept that there is a limit and not to go beyond it,” he said. “Everyone knows how to ignore their body and move on. But there is always a reward.”

Ott has used his platform to help dispel myths about multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disorder that can cause a wide range of symptoms, including muscle spasms, numbness and vision problems. She has taken to social media to detail his struggles and challenge those who have suggested the illness has affected his playing.

She said she felt she had no choice but to be transparent and that it was important to show that people with multiple sclerosis could lead full lives.

“I don’t consider it a weakness,” he said. “It’s a fact. I live with it. And I don’t want to turn this into a big drama.”

Ott’s colleagues describe her as an adventurous musician who has helped bring new audiences to classical music with experiments like “Echoes of Life,” a project that combines Chopin preludes with contemporary works, videos and Ott’s reflections on life and music.

Bryce Dessner, composer and guitarist who wrote a concerto for Ott, which premiered in Zurich this year, he said that “what she brings to the stage is so specific to her, it’s like she’s opening a kind of hidden door in every piece she faces or performs.”

Driver Elim Chanwho performed with Ott a few months after she began treatment, said that from the beginning, Ott had a “don’t baby me” attitude toward her illness.

“She can go to a very beautiful and fragile place, but she’s also very honest and has integrity,” Chan said. “And then she flies from there. And that is something I find very beautiful.”

Ott was born in Munich to a Japanese mother, a piano teacher, and a German father, an electrical engineer. She began taking piano lessons at age 4, drawn to the expressive power of music, she said, and when she was 12, she began traveling to Salzburg, Austria, to study with renowned teacher Karl-Heinz. Kämmerling.

After winning a series of awards, his career took off and at the age of 19 he signed with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. Still, she began to feel uncomfortable with classical music’s emphasis on tradition in programming, concert formats, and dress. She sometimes faced sexism; A colleague once told her to play a Beethoven passage like a “pretty little Japanese woman,” she said. And her busy touring schedule was taking its toll on her as a musician, she said.

“I felt like people expected something from me that I couldn’t offer them,” he said. “I was floating and had no stability in the sense of who I was as an artist.”

He began to forge his own path, working with artists such as experimental composer Ólafur Arnalds to record reimagined versions of Chopin. Craving a harsher sound, they went looking for out-of-tune pianos in bars in Reykjavik, Iceland.

In 2014, he released “Scandale,” a tribute to the Ballets Russes, with pianist and composer Francesco Tristano, with works by Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Tristano. During the tour, they decorated the stage with magenta duct tape and invited the audience to clap to the music.

“You can really hear the intelligence in the way he acts,” Tristano said. “Nothing is left to chance or pure virtuosity. She is beyond that. She really wants to make it clear that the music she is creating is relevant today.”

In 2018, on tour in Japan, Ott began experiencing health problems, feeling some numbness in his lips and subsequently having difficulty walking.

His doctors said his symptoms were likely caused by stress. But when she returned to her home in Munich after another tour a couple of months later, half of his body went numb. After undergoing tests, she received the diagnosis: relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, the most common form, in which symptoms can flare and dissipate.

At first, Ott said, she was “very scared” and panicked. But she was also worried about upsetting her family. “There were many times,” she said, “when I just locked myself away somewhere and cried.”

His only knowledge of the disease came from the story of Jacqueline du Pré, the British cellist who died in 1987, at age 42, due to complications from multiple sclerosis. The day Ott was diagnosed, he lost control of his left hand while playing a Chopin nocturne at a recital in Munich. He ran off the stage, sat on the floor, cried, and canceled the rest of the concert.

But as Ott read about modern treatments, he became more optimistic, especially since his disease was in the early stages. In February 2019, about a month after his diagnosis, published about it On Instagram.

“A recognition is not a weakness,” he wrote, “but a way to protect and strengthen oneself, both for oneself and for those around us.”

Ott was praised for her bravery. When she was on tour, musicians would approach her to share her experiences with multiple sclerosis. But her health problems also came under scrutiny.

When a critic reviewing one of Ott’s albums last fall suggested that the inclusion of some easier pieces was related to her multiple sclerosis, she responded. On Instagram, noted that he had explained his choice of repertoire and had plans for more albums. He said such reductionist labeling was “the exact reason why it is still so difficult for many to come out and talk about their own conditions.”

In New York, Ott will perform Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with conductor Karina Canellakis, who is also making her debut with the Philharmonic, in a program that includes works by Webern, Strauss and Scriabin. (Last year, both were presented playing Beethoven in advertisements Apple Classic Musicthe technology giant’s streaming service).

Canellakis said Ott had “a serenity that is contagious.”

“There is a feeling of pure concentration,” he said, “and she inspires everyone around her to take on that state of being.”

Ott has been perfecting his interpretation of Ravel’s concerto, which he first performed when he was 17, working to imitate the sound of jazz instruments in the piano part.

One recent night, he went to the Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan to hear the Japanese composer and pianist Hiromi. The concert was intimate and relaxed, he said: people cheered freely, laughed, talked and shared food and drinks.

Ott said he strives to create similar connections with the public.

“Music itself can only fully flourish when we unite with it,” he said. “We have to be vulnerable. That is one of the most beautiful sources of unity and strength.”

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