Alice Sara Ott is a “no holds barred” pianist. I recall a fierce Boléro that opened her two-piano programme with Francesco Tristano in 2015 that had her wringing her hands. She once tweeted photos of blood on the keys following a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Yet her Liszt with the LSO was full of mercurial wit and a sensitive touch. Catching up with her for Bachtrack’s Piano Month, I wondered how she managed to look after herself.

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker

“In the end it’s a matter of technique rather than weight or strength or power,” she explains. “I really don’t like this when people say you can tell whether it’s a man or a woman playing just from listening to them. In the end, women have to use different techniques because of the different physical possibilities.”

Alice doesn’t believe in the school of practising for 12 hours a day. “You can play the piano for hours, but mentally you do get tired. Music lives through so many other things. One should have time to read and to listen to recordings, to do research and study the score. It’s a waste of time if you just sit there and move your fingers for the sake of practising.”

All the practice in the world, however, cannot always prepare you for the variety of instruments a concert pianist can face. “I’m a Steinway artist, but even if it’s the same brand or maker, instruments can vary widely. Meeting a new piano is like meeting a new person: it’s either sympathy at first sight or else you need time to find your way. You often only have two hours with the piano before the concert starts. As pianists we meet new instruments every day and it’s our job to make the piano sound the most appropriate and beautiful in that acoustic. It’s about constant adjustment and being flexible; those adjustments vary whether it’s a recital or if you’re playing with an orchestra. That’s the fun part about music,” she laughs. “Sometimes you don’t know where the journey is taking you!

“I’m not a fan of those super-loud brilliant instruments,” she continues. “It’s a bigger challenge to play as softly as I can and still project to the last corner of the hall. Playing loud is not an art. Playing softly and finding different nuances – that is technique, that is virtuosity, not playing loud and fast.

Alice Sara Ott © Marie Staggat
Alice Sara Ott
© Marie Staggat
Ott has also come to appreciate how important a piano technician is. “When I’m in Japan, for example, I have one technician I rely on and we’ve been working together now for ten years and I think we’ve found the same language. When he is tuning the piano, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Even if it’s a difficult instrument, I trust he will know how to get the best out of it.”

If Ott gets little time with each piano, time spent with the conductor for concerto performances can be even less. “Sometimes I have ten minutes with the conductor, sometimes half an hour, but it’s rare you look through the entire concerto together before going on stage for the first orchestral rehearsal. The conductor is very important but I also learn from the orchestras too. Concertos are not just soloists accompanied by an orchestra, but are a bigger form of chamber music so it’s very important to communicate directly with the orchestra.”

Repertoire-wise, I wonder whether Alice feels stuck in a hamster wheel of performing the same concertos over and over again. Is there, perhaps a particular “neglected masterpiece” which deserves to be championed? Her response is immediate: “Amy Beach’s Piano Concerto! It’s a good piece and it should be played more often. But I understand that when people buy tickets they’d rather buy tickets for Tchaikovsky than Amy Beach. I suppose it also depends what you couple it with and how you promote it to the public.

“There are times when I’m frustrated that it’s the Tchaikovsky concerto again but as long as I still manage to have fun on stage, then I’m fine with playing it. I can understand why people love it so much.” She explains that trying to keep a warhorse concerto like the Tchaikovsky fresh is “a little like finding new spices for a dish you’ve cooked too often. What I’d really like to avoid – as much as out of respect to the composer than anything – is playing it as a routine. Music doesn’t deserve that, so I study the score again and discover things I’ve maybe missed before. I don’t want to fall into old patterns or clichés.”

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker

Ott’s performance with Vladimir Ashkenazy last autumn was astonishing… and eventful. She had been unwell during the tour, sweating out a fever during the Birmingham performance. Then in London, someone forgot to fix the brakes on the piano’s castors! “At the very beginning Maestro Ashkenazy leant back and the piano starting moving towards the cellos so I had a split second to pull the stool closer and start playing those loud opening chords… and the piano kept moving! I was trying to work out when the next tutti was when I could dive down and fix the brakes! These are things which make concerts human. Music can’t be perfection. For me, it’s imperfection.”

Away from the concerto hamster wheel, Ott can be braver when building recital programmes. “This current recital programme was a challenge. The Liszt sonata is well known, but Grieg’s solo music, such as the G minor Ballade, is less familiar. It was a real discovery for me. When I recorded the piano concerto I got to know his Lyric Pieces. It’s not extravagant music like Liszt’s but there is incredible beauty in their simplicity and I really fell in love with them.”

Ott has clear views about challenging the norms of concert practice. “I experimented with using different lighting on stage for Liszt’s B minor sonata. In most of the halls, I would have the entire hall in darkness and just a spotlight on the keyboard.” We note how Sviatoslav Richter used to just play with a little lamp on the piano, plunging the hall into darkness. “Audiences were shocked because they were in darkness. You don’t need to read the programme notes or the score – you can read those beforehand. When the music starts, there shouldn’t be anything else. In other performance genres everyone uses the visual effects of light… so why not in concerts? I also change clothes. For my tour, it was Grieg in the first half and Liszt in the second – so I changed into a long-sleeved black dress in the interval where you could only see my fingers. I wanted to visualize this mood change.”

Famously, Alice performs barefoot. “I started doing this over ten years ago. I was playing on an historic instrument in Germany on which Liszt had performed. I always wore very high heels and I couldn’t put my knees under the keyboard because it was so low – people were much shorter at that time. I had no extra pair of shoes so I just had to take these ones off. Anyway, I wore a long dress so I thought nobody would see it. And it felt so comfortable!

“At home, I’m always barefoot. When I practise, I always sit cross-legged on the piano stool – I don’t like using lots of pedal when I practise, you should be able to do everything with your fingers then you can add pedal later for colour – but I practise cross-legged so I never wear shoes. I suppose it comes from Japan where you have to take off your shoes when you enter somebody’s apartment or house. It’s also hot on stage so it’s nice to feel the cool pedals against your feet! It certainly makes my luggage much lighter as I don’t have to pack as many pairs of shoes!”

While we’re on the subject of clothing, Alice expounds on her thoughts about concert dress and drawing younger audiences. “Music should be relaxed. Everybody has different postures and if you start telling people you have to wear this kind of clothing, then of course the young generation won’t want to come. So I’m against dress code and rules in classical concerts. I don’t think the orchestra all has to wear penguin suits. When we want younger audiences in the hall we shouldn’t dress like something from the last century. Ticket prices are also prohibitive, but it’s the rules, the etiquette that puts young people off.”

Ott is active on social media, seeing it as a way to persuade young people into the concert hall. “We don’t live in a time any more where an artist is a diva. People want to feel close to the artist and to know a little bit about their background and to see that this is just a normal human being and not some magical genius. Once they’re in the concert hall, then 70% of the work is done.”

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker
But social media is a menace too. “It’s also important to switch off. Even reading a book is difficult these days. It was so easy to get lost in a book for hours but nowadays we get distracted by so many things; even when you’re reading something on the internet, it’s so easy to get distracted by adverts, or even clicking on a link.

“Twenty years ago there was the weekend when people were offline. Now people are never offline and if you don’t answer within two hours people start to get worried. There’s a children’s novel called Momo by Michael Ende about a world dominated by the grey men who steal time from people and this girl, Momo, and her tortoise, Cassiopeia, go to fight against these grey men and restore time to mankind. This was one of my favourite novels as a child. We are all slaves of these grey men. We think we save time by writing ten emails now but what do we do with the time we saved? We write another ten emails!”

Alice finds ways to switch off from her busy schedule though, including origami and drawing cartoons. “I like whisky very much and I have a whisky bar 200m away from my apartment where I go regularly where I meet up with two of my best friends. We have a rule that when we go out for dinner, phones are not allowed on the table! It’s all about good conversation.”

Alice Sara Ott performs her Grieg/Liszt programme at St John's Smith Square, London, on 17th October.