Richard O'Neill: the phenomenon Ditto and the importance of education


July 2014


Richard O’Neill is a marvelous violist and the creator of an amazing project in Korea: the Ensemble Ditto. The name of the ensemble comes from the contraction of  “divertimento” – their first concert in 2007 included Mozart’s K.563 Divertimento. The musical form of the divertimento – the entertaining quality of a great piece of music – suited what O’Neill and his managers had in mind for the ensemble. There is also this clock wheel meaning of the word “ditto”; this sort of agreement that captures the feeling of chamber music. Here is how everything started.


Even though Richard O’Neill is half Korean, he didn’t grow up speaking Korean and had never been to Korea before his trip with the International Sejong Soloists in 2001. That visit changed his life. With it began his quest to find his mother’s family, a journey that lasted several years. The adventure ended with a long documentary series for a big broadcasting company. The series introduced Richard O’Neill to the Korean public. It introduced him not only as violist but also as a human being. It introduced him to people who were not into classical music at all. “It started off this very interesting phenomenon of being able to have an open pallet of whatever I want to do”, comments O’Neill. It started off as viola recitals attended by no less than 2500 people. “A lot of the people that support me now were the people that were there at my debut recital in 2004”, says the violist who celebrated his 10th anniversary tour this year.


In 2006, O’Neill’s managers asked him to start a project – any kind of project. “I really believe that the greatest repertoire for the viola is chamber music”, says the musician. “All of the great composers are represented in the genre. They wrote some of their most intimate and meaningful works for it.” O’Neill wanted to start something similar to the Lincoln Center Chamber Society where the musicians are not fixed, not bound to a specific formation. He wanted to be able to program freely. The deal was that the violist would choose the performers and design the programs and his managers would help make it a success. At the time, what they did was a little shocking for the concert scene. It was a bit more commercial than what people were used to. Korea is known throughout the world for its K-pop. Korean marketing is great. What was about to become the Ditto Ensemble used some of those tactics for chamber music. “It was difficult for me at first”, comments O’Neill. “I am a very serious musician. I am a violist; I am more introspective and a little conservative. But I could basically invite any of my friends to hangout and make good music. And if marketing help us sell 10 000 tickets, why not?”


In the beginning the ensemble had typical growing pains. O’Neill says he really learned a lot being in the director’s chair. He admits taking a little bit of a non-conventional route with his career. Sometimes marketing can be very scary; it’s a double edged sword. Publicity is there to make people famous. But for O’Neill, at the end of the day, the music has to be part of it. Musicians shouldn’t use music as a vehicle for self-promotion. “We work our whole lives to play a phrase beautifully. It might sound silly but at the end of the day it can change lives if it’s done well. It talks to you in a way that not much other things do.”


As an artist, Richard O’Neill likes to assume that he has a willing audience that is open-minded towards what he has to present. There is something in our common DNA or collective knowledge that speaks to us. O’Neill believes it’s a luxury for him to be able to program his concerts and have people attend them. He came to know and build trust with his audience without pampering them. The Ditto Ensemble started off with programs that were very conservative and accessible. Over the years the ensemble has ventured into much more adventurous programing and has performed several premieres.


Classical music is something very sophisticated in nature; it is elitist. How do you connect with people? Again, Richard O’Neill thinks that his success is a question of understanding his audience. “From my perspective I like to get to know people, I like to talk to them. I think when you make the artist the human being that you can relate to it’s much more likely that you want to go see what they have to give”, says the violist.


It’s all a question of education. We teach Shakespeare in schools. Many people know who Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet are, but what about Sarastro or the Queen of the Night? Education depends on what our society feels needs to be passed on as being important. “I think it’s very good to promote the classics of literature and sciences but what about the art? Why is the art not important?, comments O’Neill. “Maybe some people think that the arts are superfluous. But I see our society becomes more full and busy. People don’t have the ability to express themselves in a creative way. The gift of being able to be a musician is such a wonderful one. It’s pity that on the educational level it’s not much encouraged.” In Korea young people are exposed to music in school. That’s a fundamental shift that must be taken: opening the young to music.


One of the great gifts of music is to be able to explore things other than the playing of an instrument, such as constructively dealing with children, humanitarian issues or racism. It’s a tricky line for the artist to follow. How should we use this opportunity to help and speak out? Are we above it all in music? “Some people have that argument that they hide behind the music. I do believe the music is powerful but at what point do you speak up about what you think is right as a human being? I would just say that from my experience it has been amazing to see the power of music education to the young.” It’s good to teach the young generation something that is not instant gratification and requires discipline. There are so many positive aspects to music.


We need to look at our education; we need to look at the foundation of what we teach. “If I had a wish for humanity in general I wish we would seek out more of those opportunities. I wish I could show people that experience because it’s so powerful. It gives you so many things that are intangible but that in a way make life so special. I made this sound and I get to hang out with my friends and have a team. I get to learn about this guy named Mozart and I get to play his music. It gives you to be able to create beauty together and to feel you are part of something greater than yourself. That’s the beauty of life: giving back what you received. We have these people – the composers – that lived years and years ago but they came up with something that has such a universal truth that it still lasts for hundreds of years. They created things with such truth and power and beauty, things to treasure and to pass on. We have to get that going again.”