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Brilliant young man who made classical music sexy

Violist O’Neill ready to pace himself after a decade of platinum albums, sold-out performances and meteoric rise to fame

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Published : 2014-03-21 19:59
Updated : 2014-03-21 19:59

Inside of the case that houses violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill’s 18th century Matteo Goffriller ex-Trampler wrapped up in an orange-and-white horse pattern Hermes scarf are several photographs placed in a row.

They are pictures of his father at various stages of his life and Toby Saks, a dear friend who passed away, O’Neill explains. “I did not mean it to be a memorial,” he says with a smile; yet, whenever he opens the lid, there they are ― his loved ones who are no longer here.

O’Neill, 35, who had never known his father, discovered in December 2012 that his father had passed away eight years earlier. O’Neill’s mother is a Korean War orphan with an intellectual disability who was adopted by a couple from Washington state.

In mid-July 2013, O’Neill met with his father’s family and visited the site where his ashes are buried. “A little of my life has been missed meetings,” he says wistfully at an interview with The Korea Herald on March 20.

A few weeks later, Saks, founder of Seattle Chamber Music Society, who had encouraged him to reconnect with his family, died of pancreatic cancer.

“She had been a catalyst in my life and her death marked a turning point in my life,” he says. “It was a reminder that life is very short. You need to do and say what need to be said right away.”

Since his debut in Korea in 2005, O’Neill has been living life in the fast lane. He has performed with numerous orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Seoul Philharmonic; released nine albums, including seven solo albums, two of which were nominated for a Grammy; served as the artistic director of Ditto, a highly popular chamber music project in Korea; and is a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Splitting time between Los Angeles, where he is on the faculty for the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, and New York, O’Neill is frequently on the road for concert tours around the world.

The lanky violist appears very driven, constantly performing, working on a project or recording ― he has even authored a bestseller on classical music appreciation. While people have told him how ambitious he is, O’Neill denies being ambitious. “That is not the truth,” he says emphatically.
Violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

“I do it because I have burning curiosity, passion, excitement,” he says. “I feel like a kid in some ways.”

With his intense gaze, fast yet articulate speech, and voice brimming with enthusiasm, O’Neill exudes a boyish charm, a charm that is not lost on the legion of fans who often wait in a long line to get his autograph after a performance. In fact, he could be credited with making classical music “sexy.” His albums, the covers of which often feature him in highly stylized poses, have sold over 150,000 copies and his performances sell out well in advance.

“It is important to do what you want to do,” he says, but admits that it is “tricky” to balance the demands of work and alone time.

“Taking care of my own needs somehow gets neglected,” he says. “Someone once asked what I like to do and I said, ‘sleep, eat.’ He said, ‘Richard, those are what humans do!’”

“I have a hard time saying ‘No,’” he admits, blaming this on his enthusiasm and work ethic. “I believe in ‘Make hay while the sun is shining,’” he says.

That enthusiasm and joy in making music shines through in his performances, especially his chamber ensemble performances. “I enjoy the communal, positive experience of making music,” he says, although admitting that he does get tired as he is constantly summoning up deep emotion. “But I do not treat concerts like a job,” he says.

A marathon enthusiast, he has completed 11 runs, including last Sunday’s Seoul International Marathon, where he ran as a pacemaker for his friend. He has also run the Chuncheon International Marathon. When he can’t sleep because of jet lag, he goes out for a midnight run. “Have you ever run along the Cheonggyecheon Stream in the early morning hours? It is misty and there is no one,” he says.

Last year, “Hello?! Orchestra,” an MBC documentary in which he starred as a mentor to a group of young musicians from multicultural families in Ansan, was the co-winner of the International Emmy Awards, along with a British documentary on the late rocker Freddie Mercury. 
O’Neill teaches a young boy during the filming of MBC documentary “Hello?! Orchestra.” (MBC)

When the title of the documentary was called out during the awards ceremony in New York, it was a surprise. On stage, he became emotional.

“I felt that at a lot of my life’s big events, milestones in life, people that I wanted to be there are not there physically,” he recalls.

O’Neill was approached for the documentary at a time when he was in physical therapy and seeing a psychiatrist. In early 2011, he suffered from a pinched nerve in his left elbow that affected his third and fourth fingers. Having to slow down career-wise, the condition brought on a depression.

“I had placed my self-worth on my work ethic and demanded of myself the highest level,” he explains.

When producer Lee Bo-young explained the concept for the documentary, O’Neill was hooked. “I was treated poorly growing up ― a handicapped mother, no father, living in a white community,” he says. “I grew up with the fringes.”

“I took on the project and through helping the children … and playing with the kids, I saw the children get better,” he says. “I talked to them. I said, ‘You’re who you are. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it,’ and the experience made me feel better,” he recalls.

Ten years ago, O’Neill had a “major life change,” as he calls it. After a KBS documentary on the musician’s life aired in May, his email in-box crashed, inundated with emails from people who had watched it. He found himself in great demand in Korea and his career took flight. “Korea has given me a chance to reconnect with my life, the greatest gift,” he says.

His fans may disagree, but O’Neill describes himself as a very private, provincial person who values moments alone.

“I am shy and it is more difficult now. Perhaps this is why I like marathons. Each person has to finish the race. It is moving to see an ocean of people, running, solitary together,” he says.

With a decade-long meteoric rise to international stardom behind him, O’Neill is now ready to slow down. His friends are starting families, having kids and while they sometimes look disheveled and their lives seem difficult to manage, O’Neill wants to start a family of his own soon.

“I am hyper-focused, not a multitasker,” he says in explaining why he is not in a relationship. “I still need to figure out where to live. L.A., New York or Korea,” he adds.

When I interviewed him back in 2005, he asked if W Hotel was the place to be, his friend having told him that that was the place to party. The hotel had just recently opened and was being promoted as the place to be seen. When I remind him about that question, he says, “Yes, that is a place to party. But that is not for me now.”

By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer (khooran@heraldcorp.com)

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