When the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs works by Schubert, Boccherini and Barriere at Meany Hall on Tuesday, it will mark the group’s fifth appearance at the UW World Series.
But for violist Richard O’Neill, who’s also a regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer and winter festivals, the gig will mean a return to his boyhood turf. And in musical terms, he’ll be coming full circle with Schubert’s glorious String Quintet in C Major, D. 956.
O’Neill, 34, was born in Bellevue and moved to Sequim with his mother and grandparents in 1979 (the day his family first planned their move, the Hood Canal Bridge sank in a storm, temporarily scotching their plans). On the Peninsula, he studied violin from age 5 and was soon playing with the North Olympic Youth Symphony and Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra. By the time he was 12, he was coming into Seattle for weekly violin lessons. About the same time, he was introduced to chamber music at the Olympic Music Festival in Quilcene.
He took part in chamber-music studies there for three “life-changing” summers, he said in a phone interview. The third summer, he was late in applying, and they’d run out of violin positions.
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“But they said if I would learn the viola part in the Schubert Quintet, I could come and I’d get a scholarship,” he recalls. “It was the first piece I had to learn on viola, and while maybe it’s not the most technically challenging viola part, it’s probably one of the greatest works of, not just chamber music, but all music.”
The viola, it turned out, was a better physical fit for him than the smaller violin (“When I hit puberty, I became really gangly”). It also tapped into his developing interest in “inner harmonies and middle voices” in both orchestral and chamber music.
“I think I liked being in the inner workings,” he says, “kind of buried in the middle.”
Not long out of Juilliard, where he earned a master’s degree, he was invited to join the main CMS roster at Lincoln Center — a boyhood dream of his. Now shuttling between New York, California and South Korea, he’s a member of Los Angeles chamber group, Camerata Pacifica and director of South Korea’s Ensemble DITTO.
In South Korea, in fact, O’Neill is quite the celebrity, thanks to news coverage of his efforts to locate his blood relations (his mother was a Korean War orphan who never knew her family). He has used that media attention to champion chamber music in a country that didn’t have much audience for it when he first visited there in 2001. Able to draw 2,500 people to his solo viola recitals, he figured he could get some of those fans to attend chamber concerts if he steered them that way.
“I love solo viola repertoire,” he says, “but chamber music for me is where the great viola repertoire lies.”
The Schubert Quintet is his prime example: “What Schubert did in the last couple of years of his life is probably one of the great testaments in human creativity … The harmonic reaches he goes to — it’s like going to Mars and back, sometimes, and not really even knowing it.”
Boccherini’s work is lighter in character, O’Neill says, yet also daring in its harmonic twists and turns, which sound most unusual for its late-18th-century time of composition. Rounding out the program is Barriere’s Sonata for Two Cellos in G Major from the 1730s.
“Really, in a way, it’s a cello show,” O’Neill says, noting that the Schubert and Boccherini pieces both feature two cellos.
O’Neill played the Schubert only last month with Camerata Pacifica. How much will he have to shift gears when it comes to revisiting the quintet with his Lincoln Center colleagues Ani Kavafian, Yura Lee, Nicholas Canellakis
and Jakob Koranyi?
“Every group is so different,” he explains. “One player can really change everything. But there’s something about that piece. … No matter what configuration or what sort of people and strong personalities you have,” he says with a smile in his voice, “Schubert ends up winning.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com