[Herald Interview] Composer Paul Chihara on a new viola concerto inspired by Arirang and Richard Yongjae O’Neill

Paul Chihara (right), Richard Yongjae O’Neill (middle) and Osmo Vanska (left) greet the audience after O’Neill performed “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hero by Chihara with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday. (OPS)

On Thursday and Friday, beloved violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill performed with his usual enthusiasm for Korean audiences.

Under the direction of Music Director and Conductor Osmo Vanska, O’Neill and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra performed Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63.

What made these concerts particularly significant was his interpretation of Paul Chihara’s “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hero”.

The piece was unique as it featured the vibes of traditional Korean and Japanese folk music. This composition is also special because the famous Japanese-American composer dedicated it to the American violist.

“It was such an honor. I think it’s a shiny new addition to the viola repertoire,” O’Neill told The Korea Herald in an email.

“I’ve always admired his playing: his artistry and virtuosity,” Chihara also said in an email interview. “When I was asked to compose a concerto for him, I was thrilled and inspired. I am a violist myself, as is my wife Carol. I love the instrument and I really like the low register of the instrument, which is so noble and romantic! he added.

The two musicians maintain a special friendship despite their 40-year age difference. They are both violists, concert musicians of Asian descent, born and raised near Seattle, and both were professors at the University of California, Los Angeles. They recorded Chihara’s composition “Amatsu Kaze” (“Seven Haiku”) with members of the Lincoln Center Players in New York in 2002.

Chihara, on her second trip to South Korea since 2018, said that although Arirang is a special song for Korean people, people on the other side of the world can also enjoy her viola concerto melody.

“Arirang is the soul of Korea: its warmth for human suffering, its passion and its loyalty. You don’t have to be Korean to love this melody that is both joyful and melancholy, Asian and Western in key and mode. And it reminds me of the soul of Richard O’Neill himself, both universally loving in his music and embracing the spirit of Korea and all the peoples of the world! says the composer.

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