Out to rekindle popular passion for the classics

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Out to rekindle popular passion for the classics


Richard Yongjae O’Neill. Provided by Credia

Violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill enjoys near pop-star status in Korea. The good-looking, sleek American artist born from a Korean mother has appeared in his own music videos and TV commercials. His first four solo albums have sold over a combined 100,000 copies in the past three years, a rarity for Korean classical music. Over 80 percent of buyers of tickets to his solo recitals at Seoul Arts Center last Friday and Sunday were women. The same is true for Ditto, the chamber ensemble he has led with three other young male musicians since 2007. O’Neill’s female fans are so enthusiastic they might be called groupies.

But these descriptions of his popularity isn’t the whole story of O’Neill as a musician. In fact, he is a serious artist, currently serving on the faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles - its youngest member - and is the first-ever violist to receive an Artist Diploma from the Juilliard School. He was recently appointed to the roster of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as an “artist of the society.”

When asked how he manages the two different roles in a recent interview, he said his main goal as a rarely-to-be-seen solo violist is “to educate, to bring chamber and classical music to a larger audience and to make it more appealing.”

“Part of this entitlement and division among the classical musicians, this is high art and that is low art, I find that very off-putting because it’s judging others, and it’s really drawing lines in the sand. When people start drawing those lines, that’s a very dangerous position,” he said. “In truth, it’s not about us. It’s about Mozart and Beethoven. We are re-creators of the best [music.] We bring their life off the page and they live once more. Whether we dress a little more casually, I don’t think they would even mind.”

To fulfill that mission, the 31-year-old artist flies around the world all year round. Next year, he will be in New York for three months, Los Angeles, his home, for four, then one-and-a-half months in Seattle, one in Europe and the rest in Asia. Some of his highlights for this season include performances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and at the National Concert Hall of Madrid, Tokyo International Forum and Osaka Symphony Hall.

Although O’Neill knows it is a privilege to be able to enjoy this jet-setter musician status, he recently grew obsessed with marathon running, which he started to relieve stress. “It’s very similar to music in a way, that it’s about the process [rather] than the product at the end. The process of growing and staying disciplined - it’s a good life lesson,” he said.

The JoongAng Daily sat down with O’Neill a few days after the release of his fifth solo album “Nore,” and a week before his first solo Korea tour of this season. That tour, accompanied by a budding Korean-German pianist Christopher Park, began March 3 in Yongin, followed by two concerts at Seoul Arts Center on March 5 and 6, and others around Ilsan, Yongin, Busan, Ulsan and Gunpo through May 2. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Q. What made you choose running marathons?

A. I ran my first marathon last March in Seoul. And I flew back to L.A. that week and registered for the L.A. marathon because I discovered the ability to run. I like the orderly preparation more than the day of the marathon - my weekend long runs, building up for eight to 10 miles and 22 miles I am running now. When you build up something like that, it increases your self-confidence. In a marathon, there’s these 20,000 people, except for the elite runners, and everybody’s there to prove something to themselves and to fight for their own personal goals. The crowd is to hold each other up. That to me is ideal. I’ve been fascinated with it and addicted to it.

Did you have any specific audience in mind when recording the album?

Not in particular. I truly believe that music is for everybody. Whether you are young or old, no matter what country I go to, music speaks to us on preverbal level. Music is sometimes gives a way not only to escape from but also to deal with some things that are hard to talk about. Sometimes I wonder if I chose the right profession because there’s so much in the world that tangibly needs to be fixed. One of the most meaningful things about doing music is people give me practical responses or claps at a concert. It feels like I am doing something.

Can you name your favorite composers?

The three B’s. Bach, I love his vitality and incredible gift. Beethoven, for destroying the box created by his predecessors. His music is superhuman and revolutionary. Brahms for his depth in construction and emotion, the melancholy and lonely feeling. Schubert. Mozart. Those five musicians.

What are your plans for Ditto?

I was surprised when I started Ditto. [Its explosive popularity] was a big shock to me: the screams, the fervor. I am very grateful for the success and feel like it’s a much bigger project than me. We are having our first international tour in June, in the middle of our season here in Korea. We’ll play at Tokyo Forum, a 5,000-seat hall, and then at Osaka Symphony Hall, one of the best concert halls in the world that I have played. We have presold 2,000 tickets without opening it to the public.

Did you meant to start Ditto as a long-term project?

It was long-term in the sense that my main goal, aside from audience perceptions, was to educate, to bring chamber and classical music to a larger audience and to make it more appealing. The project is supposed to be friendly, accessible but not compromising on the repertoire. We have been criticized for the clothes, the pictures and the marketing, and I can accept that criticism gladly. One thing I never compromise is the quality of the repertoire. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Mozart - the best stuff we have. But it’s presented in a more friendly atmosphere, and that I think has spoken to people. I come from a very small, humble background in the middle of the country, a small town. I listened to the Met broadcasts Saturday morning, and it was a gift to be able to hear that music and I wanted so badly to get part of it. Just open doors and make people enjoy. I’ll accept the criticism because I think it’s worth the trade-off.

Do you have any teaching plans in Korea?

Several Korean universities have given offers. But UCLA has been wonderful and I don’t think I can take any more. Teaching is a huge time commitment. I have thought about it, but I can still play well and am getting better and I enjoy doing rather than instructing. There’s no plan for teaching in Asia at the moment. But there’s always been conducting. Maybe in the long term, that’s something I’d like to explore. Ever since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed studying orchestra scores. My grandparents bought all the scores and I memorized [Wagner’s] entire Ring cycle.

By Seo Ji-eun [spring@joongang.co.kr]
Related Korean Article

음악을 즐길 줄 아는 마음이 중요해요!

이번 주 짤막 명사 인터뷰 주인공은 천재 비올리스트 리처드 용재 오닐. 5살 때부터 바이올린을 연주해 세계를 감동시켰던 그를 만나봤다.

Q 비올라라는 생소한 악기를 택한 이유는 무엇인가요?

저도 바이올린을 먼저 배웠어요. 우연한 계기로 음악 페스티벌에 갔다 비올라를 처음 접하게 됐죠. 생소했지만 묘한 매력의 음색이 저를 사로잡았어요. 비올라는 바이올린과 첼로의 중간 음역대의 소리를내요. 제겐 그 소리가 마치 어머니 음성과 흡사하게 느껴졌죠. 전 남들보다 손가락과 팔,다리가 긴 편이라 바이올린보다 큰 비올라를 다루는데 별어려움은 없었어요.

Q 최고의 비올리스트가 되기까지 어려움은 없었나요?

전 작은 시골 마을에서 태어나 성장했어요. 뉴욕 같은 대도시에 사는 아이들처럼 레슨을 받거나 주말에 음악회를 가는 건 상상도 못했죠. 결국 예술고등학교에 진학해 어린나이에 집을 떠나 홀로 생활하게 됐어요. 가족들과 떨어져 지내는 일이 처음엔 쉽지 않았어요. 저보다 잘하는 친구들을 보면 괜히 위축되기도 했고요. 외로움과 실망감이 몰려올 때마다 할아버지의 LP판을 만지작거리며 음악의 세계에 빠져들었던 어린 시절을 떠올리며 이를 악물었어요. ‘최고가 돼서 가족들을 기쁘게 해줘야지’하는 마음으로 연주와 공부에 매진하며 힘든 사춘기 시절을 이겨냈어요.

Q 음악, 비올라 그리고 클래식이 갖는 의미는?

저를 대변하는 3개의 단어라고 생각해요. ‘음악’은 저를 운명처럼 ‘비올라’라는 악기에게로 이끌어 주었고 지금전 그 비올라로 ‘클래식’을 연주하며 행복을 느끼고 있거든요. 요즘 학생들은 클래식에 흥미가 별로 없는 것 같아 안타까워요. 클래식은 정서를 순화시켜주고 감정을 풍부하게 해줘요. 클래식을 어렵게 생각하지 마세요. 음악을 존중하고 즐길 줄 아는 마음이 가장 중요하답니다.

Q 청소년들에게 하고 싶은 말은?

꿈을 품고 그것을 안고 열심히 달려가세요. 꿈을 이루기 위해서는 숱한 좌절과 고통,인내가 요구됩니다. 힘든 순간을 이겨내지 못하면 꿈은 절대 현실이 될 수 없어요. 어려움이 닥치면 그것은 꿈을 향해 나아가기 위해 꼭 이겨내야 할 순간임을 잊지 마세요. 끊임없이 노력하는 사람에게 세상은 어떤 형태로든 반드시 보답합니다. 제가 보증할게요.

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