The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Violist with a big heart

Platinum-selling Richard Yongjae O’Neill talks about working with multicultural youths, performing contemporary works

By Kim Hoo-ran

Published : June 15, 2018 - 17:11

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Receiving an email a few weeks ago that violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill’s press conference for this year’s Ditto Festival would take place in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, my immediate reaction was “Why?”

For most Koreans, the industrial city southwest of Seoul is a place of great sorrow -- most of the more than the 300 passengers who died in the Sewol ferry sinking on April 16, 2014 were second year students from a high school in Ansan, on their way to what should have been a fun-filled school trip to Jeju Island. No parents should have a child precede them in death. I still remember the eerily somber silence that enveloped the city in the aftermath of the tragedy as shops and cafes all stopped playing music in a sign of mourning.

Violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill poses before an interview with The Korea Herald on June 5. (Photo by Park Hyun-koo/ The Korea Herald) Violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill poses before an interview with The Korea Herald on June 5. (Photo by Park Hyun-koo/ The Korea Herald)

But then I quickly remembered that a few years ago O’Neill had conducted a multicultural youth orchestra in Ansan. In fact, the MBC television documentary on the orchestra, “Hello?! Orchestra” won an International Emmy.

“They were all in elementary school when we started,” said O’Neill in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on June 5, as he recalled leading the orchestra in 2012-2013. “Kids in elementary school, those are magical years,” he said. Now all of them are in high school, but the world hasn’t changed much, O’Neill pointed out. In fact, multiculturalism is more of a hot button issue than it was in 2012, he said.

O’Neill, whose mother, a war orphan from the Korean War adopted by an Irish-American couple, was perhaps uniquely qualified to lead the young children from multicultural families. Growing up in rural Washington State with a developmentally challenged mother and raised by his grandparents, the violist knows first-hand the challenges of being different.

When the MBC project was over, it seemed like the multicultural youth orchestra was about to be disbanded. Desperate to keep the orchestra going, O’Neill asked for the orchestra to be saved during a visit to the Blue House. Eventually, the Ansan Arts Center stepped in and saved the orchestra.”

“Part of the gift of that project is that I got to talk to each of the parents, to talk about their lives, their struggles,” O’Neill said. “They are hard-working, loving parents,” he said. “Some say that I have a naive view of people, world. People are basically the same human race.”

Seeing these parents, some single moms, working moms, O’Neill said, “I fell way in over my head.”

“I don’t have a child psychology degree, I am just a music teacher. People use all sorts of arguments to say things about a group of people. You have to be vigilant about such stereotypes,” he said. His observations are personal and heart-felt. “Me, growing up, not knowing why, but I had a feeling of being demonized,” he said.

Kids at playground taunted him. “Son of a handicapped,” they would say, O’Neill recalled as he winced. “To this date, I will not stand the word ‘retard,’” he said, his pain and anger clear.

O’Neill has come a long way from his childhood days in Sequim, Washington. The multiple-award winning musician travels the world -- although he tells me that since our last interview he has set up domicile in Santa Barbara -- bringing music to all those who will listen, including the people of Ansan.

This year’s Ditto Festival, running from June 7 to June 23, includes four concerts in Ansan, featuring the same programs as those performed in Seoul. Celebrating its 10th year, the chamber music festival is taking a leap of faith in taking its concerts outside of Seoul, where the classical music fanbase is thought to be thin. 

Richard Yongjae O’Neill's violin (Photo by Park Hyun-koo/ The Korea Herald) Richard Yongjae O’Neill's violin (Photo by Park Hyun-koo/ The Korea Herald)

Contemporary music

O’Neill would like to perform more contemporary pieces in Korea. “There is a reticence against taking a chance on contemporary works,” he said. In Germany, by contrast, people don’t bat an eye when varied, challenging programs are performed, according to O’Neill

One of the perks of performing contemporary pieces is that he can actually discuss how the composers intended for the pieces to be performed. “I can ask them ‘what do you mean?’” he said.

So far this year, O’Neill has premiered three works: 45-minute “24 Preludes for Viola and Piano” composed by Russian composer-pianist Lera Auerbach in Santa Barbara in April; “Piano Quintet” by British composer Huw Watkins in London, also in April; and “Viola Concerto” by American composer Christopher Theofanidis in New York in January.

“As a student, I rarely played anything new. At Juilliard, my first job was all new music concerts and I was told I had the ability to play the music,” he said, explaining it is not just about playing with a beautiful tone, but that involves a lot of “brain work.”

“As a recreative artist, you don’t know your composer in person. A lot of my life is spent digging about what did he mean,” O’Neill said of performing old classical works. “I wanted to be their servant and make myself disappear,” he said, torturing himself in the process. “A lot of things I get wrong, I think, and I think it was a good try,“ he said, warning, “Practice can be a deadly thing, a trap.”

“What I am trying to communicate is a balance of the cerebral and the emotional,” O’Neill said. “It is a matter of how much you let go and how much you punish yourself.”

Describing himself as a moody person, he credited his mother for giving him the “happy gene.” “Music is not an achievement, it is a journey, for me,” he said. “It is not about notes, it’s about being vulnerable, being expressive.”

Being an artist and a director of a long-running music festival has its own joys and challenges. “It takes a certain type of person to have the vision and the generosity of spirit to organize a festival,” O’Neill said. He admitted that it has been a challenge. “I like to make everyone happy and have a hard time saying no,” he said. “At the end of the day, it has to be the music speaking.

What would be his “dream program”?

“I would direct my own ‘Ring Cycle’ and do it in one day,” he said, laughing at the idea of performing Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” composed of four epic music dramas, typically performed over a few days, in one sitting.

By Kim Hoo-ran (