Paul Chihara (right), Richard Yongjae O’Neill (middle) and Osmo Vanska (left) greet the audience after O’Neill performed Chihara’s “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hero” with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday. (SPO)
On Thursday and Friday, beloved violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill performed with his usual gusto for Korean audiences.
Under the baton of music director and conductor Osmo Vanska, O’Neill and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra performed Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63.
What made these concerts particularly significant was his rendition of Paul Chihara’s “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hero.”
The piece was unique as it features the vibrations of Korean and Japanese traditional folk music. This composition is also special as the renowned Japanese American composer dedicated it to the American violist.
“It was such an honor. I think it is a brilliant new addition to the viola repertory,” O‘Neill told The Korea Herald in an email.
“I have always admired his playing: his artistry and virtuosity,” Chihara said also in an email interview. “When I was asked to compose a concerto for him, I was thrilled and inspired. I am a violist myself, and so is my wife Carol. I love the instrument, and truly love the lower register of the instrument, which is so noble and romantic!” he added.
The two musicians have a special friendship despite their 40-year age gap. They are both violists, concert musicians of Asian descent, born and raised near Seattle, and both have served as faculty at the University of California in Los Angeles. They recorded Chihara’s composition “Amatsu Kaze” (“Seven Haiku”) together with members of the Lincoln Center Players in New York in 2002.
Chihara, in his second trip to South Korea since 2018, said even though Arirang is a special song for Korean, people from the other side of the world can also enjoy the melody in his viola concerto.
“Arirang is the soul of Korea: its warmth for human suffering, passion and loyalty. You don’t have to be Korean to love this melody: which is both joyous, and melancholy, Asian and Western in key and mode. And it feels to me like the soul of Richard O’Neill himself, both universally loving in his music making, and embracing the spirit of Korea and of all peoples of the world!” the composer said.