Rising violist starts two-city recital tour

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Rising violist starts two-city recital tour

For Richard Yongjae O’Neill, his life’s vocation came to him in a moment of serendipity.
Growing up in Washington state, he started playing the violin when he was 5 years old. But at 15, he was told by the organizers of a music venue they needed a violist, so he volunteered. Ever since he became a violist, though, he always gets asked in interviews why he decided to play the instrument, as if there are reasons he shouldn’t have chosen it.
“It’s great acoustic,” says Mr. O’Neill, 26, who starts a two-city tour tonight, playing some of his favorites from his first album.
But especially in Korea, the viola is the least known instrument in the string family. Its role is often that of a “filler” instrument for the harmony.
Ever heard a viola joke?
Why is a viola solo like a bomb? By the time you hear it, it’s too late to do anything about it.
Rare examples written before the 20th century feature significant solo viola parts by musicians like Hector Berlioz and Carl Stamitz. Mozart wrote his six-string quintets, which use two violas. Brahms wrote two greatly admired sonatas for viola and piano. In chamber music and string quartets, the viola has always played an important role, and Mr. O’Neill has played as a regular member of the Sejong Soloists.
During his last performance with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York where he lives, he played a complete Brandenburg Concerto, one of his all-time favorites since he started listening to classical music from his grandparents’ music shelf as a child.
Mr. O’Neill has taken a rather unique route to earn his fame in Korea.
Last year, the Korean Broadcasting System aired a TV documentary series about his musical career at the Julliard School of Music, New York, and his disabled mother, who was adopted by an American family during the Korean War as a baby. After the documentary ran, tickets sold out for his first solo recital at Hoam Art Hall last year. One girl in Korea sent him fan mail with his photo pasted next to her own image.
“People have been very kind in Korea,” he laughs, saying how strange it is for people to recognize him at the airport. “When I went to Japan I was startled by their politeness. In Taiwan I remember the motorcycles. But here I just like it.”
For his tour starting today, he has selected some of his favorites from his first album, which was recently released by Universal Music Korea. They include a solo suite by Bach and pieces from Claude Debussy, Gabriel Faure and Schubert. So far, the album, which was recorded at Friedrich Ebert Halle in Hamburg, has gotten positive reviews from local critics.
“I am really pleased with the results,” he said. “The tone of the hall was very warm. When you record, the sound sucked right in like a vacuum.”
He spent about a week at the hall recording 15 pieces, totaling 63 minutes.
“I tried to keep the feel of a live performance, and record in one large take,” he says. “It’s unfair for the listeners to break down the pieces even in recordings.”

by Park Soo-mee

Richard Yongjae O’Neill will perform in Daegu tonight and at Hoam Art Center in Seoul on Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost 30,000 ($30) and 40,000 won. For more information, call 02-751-9607.
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