Out to rekindle popular passion for the classics
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 [email@example.com]