#205: Twenty-Four Hours in DC
A whirlwind trip to DC to hear Richard O'Neill play a 1690 Stradivari viola in concert at The Library of Congress.
This is a long post with many photos for you. Click "View entire message" and you'll be able to view all of them in your email app.
“Can you come?” That’s what my friend Richard asked me late in the summer of 2021. “I’ve been invited to play a Stradivari viola in concert by The Library of Congress,” he said with a big smile. An opportunity like this is so very special…a peak moment among the many that he has already achieved that I knew I had to go.
Who is Richard O’Neill?
“An Emmy Award winner, Grammy winner and three-time nominee, and an Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient,” Richard O’Neill “has achieved recognition and critical acclaim not only as a champion of his instrument but as a social and musical ambassador.”1
Born to a Korean War orphan whose malnourishment led to permanent brain damage, Richard and his mother were taken in by his adopted grandparents Perry and Mildred O’Neill of Sequim, WA.2 The O’Neill’s adopted 36 other children as well. Though his biological roots are both Korean and Caucasian, appearance-wise he takes after his mother’s side and in predominantly white Sequim he didn’t have the easiest time growing up. There was bullying on the bus, racial slurs, and attacks on his mother for being handicapped. He shared with me once that he had no desire to ever return. That changed when he and his good friend and violinist James Garlick (also from the Olympic Peninsula) founded Music on the Strait, a world-class chamber music festival that brings top rated Internationally acclaimed musicians to Port Angeles, Washington.
The concert was first scheduled for the Spring of 2022 but a flood in The Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium put that on hold. It was rescheduled for November 20 of this year. I reserved tickets, got my plane ticket, and made arrangements to stay with Duncan’s father-in-law, Steve, who lives in the DC area. Then it got dicey as there was a real possibility that the government would shut down the Friday before the concert and, if it did, the concert wouldn’t be happening. A week before the performance, I called the concert office at Library of Congress for some guidance. They commiserated with me but said that the doors would be locked if the shutdown happened…meaning no museums would be open, no concerts, no events of any sort would take place. A few days before I was to travel, funding was passed to keep the government open, so the night before I was to leave I packed a change of clothes and began the journey early the next morning.
The Journey Begins
Traveling to SeaTac was the first order of business. Using public transportation it takes a bus, a ferry boat, and a train before getting on the plane. This takes about the same amount of time as it does to fly 3000 miles across the country. Sunday morning was rainy and windy and I was very happy to accept a ride from a neighbor to catch the bus down the hill for the 2-hour ride to the Bainbridge Island ferry.
I always enjoy chatting with folks as I travel and this trip was no exception. When I told Damyn, the gentleman sitting next to me on the ferry, that I was off to DC to hear a concert, he shared that when he was in 4th grade he sorely wanted to take the music classes only available to those in 5th grade or higher. He talked his way into them and, as a dancer, music has continued to be an important part of his life.
In DC and Concert Day
Once I arrived at National Airport in DC, Steve was right there to pick me up. The next day we began a whirlwind of activity starting with a brisk walk around Reston, Virginia.
First up in DC was lunch at Jaleo, one of Chef José Andrés restaurants. I spied a really good looking flan at the table next to ours which started a conversation with Margaret who was originally from Washington State. She moved to DC to work on Senator Patty Murray’s first campaign thirty years ago and has been there since. She guided me through what to order, including the flan which capped off a delicious meal. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who now lives in my town gave me some old metro tickets that I might use but since Steve had driven us they weren’t needed. I pulled them out of my wallet and offered them to Margaret who told me that although the system didn’t use them any more she would take them to the Metro office and see if they could be redeemed for the value left on them. Hopefully they’ll be good for a ride or two.
Next we went to the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery so I could see Michelle and Barack and a few others like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, E.E. Cummings, Orson Welles, Edward R Murrow, Walt Disney, and Katherine Hepburn and her Oscars which you’ll see in the little video I made for you.
The last full tour of the U.S. Capitol had already departed for the day.
But we were able to take the brief tour of The Rotunda led by this charming docent. I visited the statue of suffragists Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr. of course. Then it was on to The Library of Congress for the concert.
The Concert at Library Of Congress
There was still quite a bit of time before the pre-concert talk and the building was closed to the public, but, when I explained that I had traveled across the country for the concert and knew Richard, the Capitol Police made an exception and we were allowed inside. I found my way to the Coolidge Auditorium, opened the door quietly and saw that there were just three people inside—Richard, The Library of Congress musical instrument curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, and a women who I later learned is the daughter of Cameron Baird whose family has loaned the 1690 ‘Tuscan-Medici’ Stradivari viola, made by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, to The Library of Congress.3
Richard saw me and came up the aisle with Carol, gave me a big hug. He asked if I had brought a pie like I do for Music on the Strait rehearsals in Port Angeles and I told them both that I truly had wanted to but the logistics just didn’t work out. I’m not sure who was more disappointed, me or them. Nonetheless, he invited me to sit in while he warmed up, even suggesting the seats he thought best for us to see him and pianist Jeremy Denk perform.
After tuning the Stradivari viola, he played through some of the Rebecca Clarke Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919) and the J.S. Bach Suite no 3 for cello in C major, BWV 1009, presented on solo viola, in its entirety. When Jeremy arrived, he too warmed up on stage and I can’t tell you how special it was to be present for this warmup which was more like a private concert.
The pre-concert talk was next and while waiting for it to begin, I enjoyed a conversation with, Betsy, the lovely woman sitting next to me. She had traveled from Connecticut for the performance and knew the family who had loaned the viola. I asked her what she was reading and she passed her book over to me so I could check out the jacket synopsis. As you may recall, my half-brother lives on an island in Maine and this story takes place on one there, too, but when I read that the main characters’ last name is McDermott I was gobsmacked! What are the chances? This Other Eden by Paul Harding, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is now next up on my reading list.
The pre-concert was wonderful, full of stories and humor. I could have listened to these exceptional artists for hours.
When we headed back into the auditorium to ready ourselves for the concert, I met a couple who had traveled from Berkeley, California for the performance.
I commented on her lovely shawl and asked if she had knit herself. It turned out it was knit by her son who had studied viola with Richard at UCLA if I remember correctly. He was there as well to see his former teacher in concert and they called him over to introduce us. He was so kind to get me connected to the shawl’s designer and pattern and now his parents and I are staying in touch as they are seriously considering coming to Port Angeles this summer for the Music on the Strait Music Festival. I hope they do and I’ll be sure to have them over for pie.
The Journey Home
The next morning before the sun came up Steve took me back to National and I boarded my flight.
One more unexpected meeting was with Carolyn who was on the flight to Seattle for Thanksgiving with her son’s family. As seatmates we talked about books, music, and pie. The next day she sent me a text to share that every pie at their family’s Thanksgiving table was being made from one of the recipes in my books and that her son and I had both been judges at the final Olympia Pie Fest.
As I retraced the journey by train, ferry, and bus, I thought of the many magical connections made in just 24 hours and a concert that I will always remember.
I will leave you with this short video from that pre-concert warm up and that three-hundred and thirty-three year-old viola.
“For a large part of my life, I could compare my success to stepping right up to the edge of the cliff. You have to take the biggest chance. And you have to take a look at why you're taking that big chance ... for me, I want to be a musician more than anything.”
What I’m Reading
This Other Eden by Paul Harding
This Pulitzer Prize winning book has moved to the top of my list.
What I’m Listening To…and Watching
This is a lovely glimpse in to Richard.
BAKE WITH KATE CLASSES
Registration is open for 2024 Bake with Kate, a year of virtual baking. More information here.
20% OFF OFFER + A FREE CLASS
Sign up for a new annual subscription at the link below to get 20% discount and the January Bake with Kate virtual class as a gift from me. Offer good through Dec 31, 2023 only at the link below.
If you like this newsletter, please do let me know by leaving a comment or clicking on the little heart below. It means a lot to me to know you were here.