Viola wasn’t the first instrument Richard O’Neill picked up, but it was the one that fit best.
An artist-in-residence at the University of Colorado Boulder and the newest member of the Takács Quartet, O’Neill was recently nominated for a Grammy Award — his third nomination since 2005.
O’Neill was nominated in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for his performance in “Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra,” by composer Christopher Theofanidis. If he wins, it will be his first Grammy Award and only the second time a violist has won that category.
O’Neill said he isn’t sure who nominated him for the award, and it came as a surprise.
“When they announced I’d been nominated in that category, which has some of the world’s greatest soloists, I was really shocked,” he said.
While this is O’Neill’s first year at CU Boulder, his music career includes playing with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City and philharmonics in London, Los Angeles and Seoul.
But his first instrument was the violin, which he started playing at age 5. When he was 15 and applying to a young artist program at the Olympic Music Festival, founder Alan Iglitzin told O’Neill there were already enough violinists, but had he thought about picking up viola?
O’Neill started playing and never put it down.
“About three years ago, Alan called me when I was playing a concert at the University of Washington and said, ‘I would like you to take my viola and play on it,’ and that’s the viola I play on still. He is a very important person to me,” O’Neill said.
It’s the same viola — a Gaspara de Salo — O’Neill played for “Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra.”
“(Violin) is a glorious instrument, but the viola is my instrument. I think it fits me,” he said.
It’s been a strange first year at CU Boulder, O’Neill said, with lockdowns and coronavirus concerns. But he is still thrilled to be in Boulder.
“Takács is tremendous and not only one of the best quartets, but an institution,” he said. “Auditioning and being accepted into this wonderful group is really a life dream for any musician.”
O’Neill also mentors the graduate student Ivalas Quartet and has worked with associate professor of viola Erika Eckert to teach viola student studios when he can.
“I am so thankful for the community for being so supportive of the quartet and my own personal bubble as a musician,” he said. “Moving to Boulder in this time of shutdowns, I’ve personally witnessed a lot of incredible effort on the part of music students and I want to give them a shoutout for working so hard.”