PORT ANGELES — Violist Richard O’Neill has had six COVID-19 tests, all negative.
For that, and for many other things in this life, he is grateful.
O’Neill is a Korean American, a New Yorker, a Californian — and a musician who spent much of his youth in Sequim. That’s where he met violinist James Garlick of Port Angeles, who, like him, studied at the Juilliard School in New York City. Since graduation, the two have brought their music to several continents.
Tonight, O’Neill and Garlick will be part of the Field Arts & Events Hall’s topping-off ceremony, a milestone in which the final beam will be placed atop the building’s steel structure.
In the 8 p.m. event, violinist and violist will add a short program of Mozart and Schubert plus a surprise piece, which viewers can watch free at FieldHallEvents.org or at Facebook.com/FieldHallEvents. The audio will also air on KONP-AM 1450 and KSQM-FM 91.5.
That final beam will be on Pebble Beach, north of the building site, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today for people to come and sign it. Donations to the nonprofit project will be accepted.
While Garlick is living in Port Angeles, O’Neill recently moved from his home in Southern California to Boulder, Colo., where he’s a new member of the Takács Quartet, an ensemble known for its concerts all over the world.
O’Neill drove to Boulder in late August, and he drove to Port Angeles a few days ago. He hasn’t flown since June, when he returned from playing concerts in Seoul, South Korea.
He is a beloved figure there, the artistic director for 13 years of the Ditto Festival, the country’s celebration of chamber music.
As a soloist, O’Neill has 10 albums to his credit.
O’Neill “is at the very top of his profession,” said Jonathan Pasternack, the Port Angeles Symphony conductor and music director who will introduce the two performers tonight.
“His expression on the viola is nothing short of extraordinary. He is devoted to bringing joy,” Pasternack added, “through his musical gifts.”
When he traveled to Seoul, COVID-19 infection numbers were relatively low. Daily case counts have since risen.
Then as now, screening was stringent for people coming in. Everyone is tested on arrival.
“They have testing facilities at the airport when you land,” O’Neill said. “So the first night, you get a test. Then they put you in a government facility. You can’t leave. You get a message the next morning” about your results.
“It was OK,” he said, adding that he was thankful to be cleared for his performances: two with in-person audiences and two live-streamed concerts.
Flying back and forth between Asia and the United States has also meant weeks of quarantine — “so a lot of time to practice,” he said. When he at last plays for listeners, it feels “overwhelmingly good.”
Since O’Neill was a boy, music has been the place where he can be himself, where his essence can be seen by the audience.
In 2018, O’Neill and Garlick debuted a chamber music festival of their own making: Music on the Strait, at first a Labor Day weekend event. The festival drew artists from Seattle and New York City to perform beside the Clallam County-bred musicians on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and last year expanded to two weekends.
This would have been Music on the Strait’s third year, if not for the pandemic and the statewide ban on large gatherings and concerts.
O’Neill and Garlick, though, are focused on their single performance inside the roofless Field Hall at Front and Oak streets — on the Strait, as it turns out.
“I’m excited, and also honored to do this with James,” O’Neill said.
When he first heard Port Angeles was to be the site of the $34 million waterfront performing arts center, he was astonished. For this town to have a world-class venue like those in major cities around the globe — “it’s an amazing opportunity.”
O’Neill marveled, too, at how the Field Hall construction site is a block away from the Black Ball ferry terminal where he and Garlick, as teenagers, boarded the MV Coho to Victoria, B.C. On the way to take music lessons in Canada, they would play chamber music on the deck.
O’Neill has another reason to come to the Pacific Northwest this week: He’ll visit his mother, who lives in Astoria, Ore.
“In order for me to see my mom, I have to be very careful,” he said.
“I’m not flying anywhere. I’m not going out to restaurants,” and certainly not playing live concerts or attending big Labor Day get-togethers.
He admits that, like many people, he’s feeling pandemic fatigue.
But for O’Neill, the long drive to play music and to see his mother is “worth it.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.