Violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill’s Art of Giving
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with the next generation of classical musicians. ― Ed.
By Lee Hyo-won
Violist Richard Yongjae O'Neill reminds you of the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going and going. For the 29-year-old violist, it would be typical to go on a cross-country tour with Schubert across Korea, and then fly to Los Angeles to teach for eight hours before heading to New York. After a few days of playing chamber music at the Lincoln Center and fiddling contemporary pieces at the Guggenheim, he's on the move again. Following a quick stop to lecture at UCLA, he's in Milan with John Zorn, making modern music history. This is how 2007 zipped past for the musician.
One of the few violists to ever receive the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant as well as a Grammy Award nomination (Best Soloist with Orchestra), Richard Yongjae O'Neill is rising to prominence as one of the leading artists of his generation. But it seems to be more than a deep passion for music that keeps him going. It is the power of sharing through music.
``An artist should give of oneself. It's important to give, to share, to reflect on the human condition, our finite existence, life, pain, death, all of these things,'' O'Neill told The Korea Times in January when he visited Seoul. He was celebrating New Year's with his New York-based chamber group Sejong Soloists at one of their sellout performances.
It was 7 p.m., and he looked like he was ready to drop after a full day of rehearsing, but he kept a smile on his face. O'Neill is someone who, both on and offstage, is very willing to open up and reach out to others.
He cannot walk past a homeless person without lending a helping hand ― though such eagerness has gotten him into trouble, like when one person attacked him in New York.
``It's sort of the same way when you're onstage. Of course you don't know everyone in the auditorium, but you have to have that same feeling of selflessness. You're on the stage for them; you have to open yourself up. Although they don't need help like the homeless, it's about sharing.
``We share the same conditions. Art is our way of being together in a society that is becoming increasingly fragmented and selfish. Music is a great way to relate with each other and it's just there to share,'' he said.
Perhaps this is what earns him rave reviews from the international press, who call him a ``ravishing,'' (London Times) and ``technically immaculate'' (Los Angeles Times) performer whose ``electric performance (holds) the audience in rapt attention'' (New York Times).
It was O'Neill's warm and sharing spirit that shot him to stardom in Korea. An up close and personal TV documentary featured O'Neill's special family bond. A native of a small town in Washington, the violist grew up listening to classical music and eating homemade kimchi by his Irish-American grandmother. His mother, a Korean War orphan, was adopted overseas. An illness left her with a disability and she has since been in the loving care of her parents and son.
``It's wonderful how people open up their hearts and families no matter what country they're adopting from. Of course there are problems like culture shocks and such, but families give of themselves for others, which is a very important thing in humanity.
``One of my ultimate fears is my mom getting lost in a crowd. She's a very smart, capable woman, but I would be afraid that something bad would happen. I see people in need or in a bad situation, and I think `What if that's my mom?' I try to be charitable, because that's how humanity keeps on going, and coming to concerts is all related,'' he said. In 2005, He took part in a campaign to raise awareness of overseas adoption with the Euroasian Philharmonic.
His life story made him a star here, but of course it was his skill that gave way to a string of performances and three hit albums with Universal/Deutsche Grammophon.
Last fall, Korea's celebrated director Park Chan-wook made headlines by offering to sponsor O'Neill. ``Park Chan-wook has almost a cult following in the U.S. among the people who know him… I was really excited that he decided to help me out and to support me, and that's a wonderful point in my career so far,'' said the violist.
O'Neill said he is drawn to Park's ``Vengeance'' trilogy because `` his use of classical music or classically orchestrated music is very interesting in that he integrates them so well, it completely augments the climactic moments.''
The violist also established special ties with Korea when he was met Koreans in New York. He studied at the Juilliard School as the one and only violist to receive the prestigious Artist Diploma. The wife of good friend and professor Hyo Kang of Juilliard gave him his Korean name Yongjae, which means courage and talent.
Courage has enabled the talented artist to fight ill judgments.
``I have the genetic makeup of a Korean, but at the same time my grandparents raised to me to be as American as possible, in the good sense of the word… It hurts when people flash judgments, like when people say `that Chinese guy,' `he doesn't't look liken an O'Neill.' It's very sad.
``But I know who I am. It's also liberating. While I am very American, my time in Korea has been very well spent and I understand more about the culture here, and going to Europe keeps my mind challenged. You see basic human values but also see different cultures and point of views.
Now O'Neill is sharing his knowledge and love of music as a faculty member at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). ``I love it and learn so much more than my students, I think,'' he laughed.
With three points of departure ― Seoul, New York and Los Angeles ― and playing in places in between, he covers as much musical territory, from age-old Schubert and Brahms to contemporaries like John Zorn and Jo Kondo.
``I don't want to limit myself and say I'm a New Music violist, Baroque specialist, Schubert leader violist or concerto violist. I don't view myself as a violist but as kind of learning things about music, from as many angles, to augment my knowledge about music.
``To me it's all creative music. Pieces of Bach, like the Goldberg Variations for example, I just feel alive and respect it so much. It's like hundreds of years old, but still has an effect,'' he said.
He loves contemporary music because not only can he ask questions to the composer, but also challenge conventions, such as being part of a concert that includes an appearance by a rock band. ``A concert is basically people coming together to listen to music, and with classical concerts there are all these rules like you need to dress up in tuxedos and dresses and sit down and be quiet, but a lot of these conventions are fairly modern inventions. I like challenging conventions,'' he said. This is the very subject he tackles in his book, ``Enjoy the Classic, DITTO.''
``It's not so much a biography but anecdotal,'' he said about his collection of essays. ``It's a little bit of a mix of my personal opinions about music and why I love it; a cㅣassical music introductory for people who don't know (the genre).
``It's kind of scary. The book is like a CD, it lasts longer than a concert,'' said the artist, who is back in Seoul to promote his newly published book (Joongang Books, 12,000 won) and make his solo debut with the London Philharmonic Tuesday. He will be playing one of his childhood favorites, the Walton Concerto at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. Call 1577-5266.
``I always think of music as being conversational, among other things. Chamber music is very conversational,'' said the only violist in the Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society. ``There's a lot of discussion going on. There has to be something said; it doesn't necessarily have to be emotional or have tangible meaning but it's an honor and a privilege to have in our busy society. People sit down and listen to me play and I always try to think what am I playing for them, what am I creating.
``Art is the best of humanity, our essence. It doesn't have anything to do with politics or money, and captures the best of the human condition, or more than the human condition. It transcends it because it doesn't die, it lives on,'' he said.
``A creative profession is an honor and a privilege. Adding something to the universe that's creating beauty is an amazing thing. I get the luxury of spending my days discussing details about phrase shapes, tempos, ideas and colors.
``It's funny how people see color when they hear music… If I were to describe myself in terms of a color, it'd be something dark. Maybe a darker, faded red… I gravitate toward that type of music, something darker, but live with energy,'' he said.
O'Neill said he couldn't imagine life without music. But "I could imagine going into social work helping people; I respect people that make it their life to help people. It's not only very noble but we need that. So much about our society is about money and making personal gain. We need people to be helping people," he said.
He also shared his hopes to devote more time to teaching, and even conducting one day. It seems like 2008 will be another busy year for the violist.