“This is a great day for the viola,” O’Neill said in his acceptance speech. He's only the second musician to be honored with the award for a viola performance in the history of the category. O’Neill thanked composer Theofanidis, conductor David Alan Miller, producer Silas Brown, the Albany Symphony, the Recording Academy, his family, the Takács Quartet and CU Boulder.
Theofanidis’s composition, which O’Neill recorded alongside conductor David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony, was inspired by Navajo poetry and the composer’s psychological response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. When the planes struck the Twin Towers, Theofanidis was in Manhattan. And O’Neill had only been in New York for two weeks, having just begun his studies at the Juilliard School.
“It’s an intense, emotional piece,” O’Neill explains.
He first heard the composition in 2006 and says he was “incredibly impressed.” But O’Neill didn’t return to the piece until over a decade later. During that time, the piece underwent intense revision by the composer. Eventually, O’Neill premiered it with a pair of performances at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York, in January 2018, receiving standing ovations for both. O’Neill says he enjoys playing the piece because it is technically demanding, rigorous and exciting.
The first three-note phrase of the work resembles the “open-ended, very short phrases and colorful words” of Navajo poetry, O’Neill says. “It’s very minimal, yet so powerful." The poetic aspect evokes “great landscapes and Earth. Nature is addressed a lot; lightning is coming down in four colors.
“In moments of great tragedy, a lot of times people look to the ancients. They look to the classics,” O’Neill notes in explaining why the composer drew on Navajo poetry. “It predates airplanes and terrorism and skyscrapers and city life. It goes back to something much more primal.”
O’Neill is a member of the internationally acclaimed Takács Quartet, which was founded in 1975 in Budapest and has been based at the University of Colorado Boulder since 1983. “The quartet is a magical combination in classical music. It is a democracy of equals. And it’s really, for violists, a dream job,” he says. The Takács Quartet has been able to rehearse together for the past year as a “sealed bubble.”
Over the past year, O’Neill has continued to teach. He approaches that work not as a master who directs his students to copy him, but rather as one who guides them to forge their own path. “There are so many people coming from different life experiences, and you can learn so much from everyone," he says.
O’Neill grew up in Washington state, on the North Olympic Peninsula. Although his family was not a musical one, he was encouraged to play the violin as a way to get into college. But he realized that he possessed a more abiding love for music when he was twelve and playing in a local community orchestra.
The concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony was scheduled to visit the community orchestra and play Beethoven’s "Violin Concerto No. 61" with the group. After listening to a recording of the concerto, O’Neill purchased a copy of the score and learned the soloist’s part cover to cover. He asked the conductor if he could play the solo part during rehearsal, and the conductor laughed, as the soloist’s part in that concerto is one of the most difficult in the repertoire. However, he granted the request, and was very impressed with the boy's playing.
O'Neill's come a long way since then, becoming a force on the classical-music circuit.
“Concerts are what we live for — that supernatural bond between audience and musician that transcends words,” he says. “It will be funny to get back on a plane and live the jet-setting life of doing eighty concerts a year again after being basically grounded for twelve months.”
Sunday was an eventful day for O’Neill — ”the most activity I’ve had since the pandemic hit," he reports. He tuned in to the ceremony at around 2 p.m. and did interviews in Korean and English until 1 a.m.
“It was life-changing and wonderful," he says. "I’m so grateful to get such a nod from my peers, some of the most important peers in all of music.”
Hear more at Richard O’Neill's website.