Life is but a prelude…

Echoes of Life: Alice Sara Ott's Chopin Preludes

By John Shakespeare Dyson | June 25, 2022

Alice Sara Ott, a half-German, half-Japanese pianist, performed in an event entitled ‘Echoes of Life’ (Yaşamdan Yansımalar) at the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall on Thursday, June 16 (part of the Istanbul Music Festival). I describe it as an ‘event’ as it had a visual component as well as an auditory one, the piano-playing being accompanied by digital displays on a huge screen. The main item on the programme was Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28, but interspersed between each group of four Preludes was a more modern piece, composers varying from György Ligeti and Arvo Pärt to Ms Ott herself.

A native of Munich, Alice Sara Ott (I believe the equivalent of ‘Alice’ in Japanese is ‘Arisu’) studied the piano at the Salzburg Mozarteum. Equally important in my eyes is the fact that she is a Leo, and (as I am sure you know) Leo is the sign of drama. Drama was not, therefore, lacking in her performance. She definitely has Leonine self-assurance, and seemed perfectly comfortable sitting on the stage addressing the audience informally with the aid of a hand-held microphone both before and after the concert. Also, she has no qualms about playing in bare feet.

Her rendition of the first four Chopin Preludes I found rather hesitant, perhaps because – as she told us beforehand – she had only just recovered from an illness she did not name. (Ms Ott suffers from multiple sclerosis, and I very much hope it is well under control. Maybe that is why she so frequently brings up the subject of vulnerability.) In fact, it was only in the second set of four Preludes that I felt she had got into her stride.

Sound effects, by Fatih Yılmaz

Meanwhile, the visuals showed us the interiors of uninhabited buildings with Escher-like staircases, the virtual camera moving slowly and methodically through each corridor and courtyard. Then the scene changed, and we were viewing a remarkably well-stocked library on multiple floors. This part went on for a long time, and at length I realised that from my point of view, the visuals were no more than a distraction from the musical performance. I freely admit that I am an ear person rather than an eye one (‘I one’?), and that is very likely the reason why of all the digital displays that were presented to us, the only one I actually enjoyed was that of gradually-proliferating stars in a night sky; this was shown at the beginning of the concert, and repeated at the end.

To give the lady her due, Ms Ott gave a good reason for combining her performance with an unorthodox visual component: she rightly pointed out that Chopin was a great innovator, describing him as ‘modern and provocative’. The following article on the BlaBlaWriting website begins with a statement that I do not think anyone would question:

Frédéric Chopin’s personal approach to technique revolutionised the piano. He developed unparalleled fingering and pedalage that shocked the musical world. His clearly-established style set him apart from his peers.

The article (whose author I would name if I could, but unfortunately I can’t) goes on to say: ‘This consistent and unique style makes him the most notable composer of the Romantic period.’ Hmm. I find this rather less convincing. What about Brahms and Schumann? And what about Beethoven’s violin concerto, which is Romantic to the core? Anyway, there is much valuable information in those parts of the article that deal with Chopin’s ground-breaking piano technique:

As for Ms Ott’s playing, once she had overcome that initial hesitancy there was no doubt about her command of the instrument (I particularly admired her articulation in the fast-running passages, which were executed with commendable evenness), her emotional commitment to the music, or her ability to reflect the – sometimes extreme – fluctuations of mood: on occasions, Chopin demands a minute of marsh-mellowy sweetness followed, after a five-second break, by a minute and a half of tank warfare. Then it’s back to the buttercups.

The whole of ‘Echoes of Life’ has been released by Deutsche Grammophon, who have conveniently put a description of it on their website. The article (whose author is, once again, unnamed) also describes the modern pieces that were 'sandwished' in between each group of four Preludes. (‘Sandwished’ was a genuine typo, by the way; I am still trying to work out what it means.) Personally, I didn’t think the modern pieces – apart from the Arvo Pärt – were up to much, but I hesitate to disagree with such an august institution.

Alice Sara Ott’s recording of each individual piece within ‘Echoes of Life’ is available on YouTube thanks – yes, many thanks indeed – to Deutsche Grammophon:

Gratitude is also due to Mr Hakan Demirel for providing the digital art installation, to the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), and to the sponsors: Berrin Erengül, Elvan Tuğsuz Güven and Eva Barlas.

I will leave you with a video of Ms Ott describing her encounter with multiple sclerosis, and a (sand)wish: may she make a thorough, complete and speedy recovery!

Main photograph by Salih Üstündağ
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