Richard O’Neill, the newest member of the College of Music’s string faculty, has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category, his third nomination since 2005.
O’Neill is one of five artists nominated in the category for his performance of Christopher Theofanidis’ Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra.
If O’Neill wins, he’ll be the second person to receive an award for a viola performance in the history of the category.
Prior to joining CU Boulder’s internationally renowned Takács Quartet earlier this year, O’Neill played viola for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City and performed as a soloist with the world’s top orchestras, including the London, Los Angeles and Seoul philharmonics.
After hop-scotching the globe, O’Neill found what is likely to be his permanent home at CU Boulder.
“I can't imagine a more collaborative environment,” O’Neill said. “The musicians I get to work with are such talented and exemplary human beings. I never want to leave.”
The early years
O’Neill was raised by his grandparents in a small town outside of Seattle, Washington.
“They started me on the violin when I was 5 years old, and they could tell right away that I had perfect pitch,” he said.
Perfect pitch is a rare ability by a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone—a modern day superpower, if you will.
His mother was adopted from Korea and moved to the U.S. at a young age. Although she suffers from epilepsy and developmental disabilities, she also has perfect pitch and natural musical ability.
“She used to sit down at the piano and play beautifully without any formal training,” O’Neill said.
Growing up, O’Neill said he often felt isolated and turned to music to cope.
“My mom was disabled, and I didn't have a dad around, so I spent a lot of time alone playing and listening to music,” he said.
O’Neill recalled practicing his violin and listening to the work of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven before getting on the school bus, when he returned home and into the night.
“‘Hearing music brought me to a different place. It transported me,” O’Neill said. “It’s like when you look up at the Flatirons and it takes your breath away. That’s how I feel when I hear music.”
Although O’Neill’s musical education began with the violin, he switched to viola when he was 15 after missing the application deadline for a summer violin program. The program director allowed him to attend for free if he played the viola instead.
O’Neill still plays the program director’s viola to this day: a reminder of the decision that changed his life.
Art born from tragedy
O’Neill, a first-generation college student, completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California and moved to New York City in 2001 to attend The Juilliard School for his postgraduate studies.
On his first day of lessons in Manhattan, the World Trade Center twin towers collapsed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I’d go to the subway station and every wall would be covered with posters with photos of people’s wives, husbands, daughters, asking if anyone has seen them,” he said. “It was heartbreaking.”
O’Neill recalled the bond that formed among New Yorkers after the tragedy, specifically at a vigil at Yankee Stadium. Theofanidis, the composer of O’Neill’s Grammy-nominated concerto, was also living in Manhattan and watched the vigil on television.
“A man went on stage and sang this beautiful tune by himself in the cold northeastern air,” O’Neill said. “It was such a powerful moment for both Chris and myself.”
One year later, Theofanidis drew inspiration from the performance at Yankee Stadium to compose the centerpiece of the concerto.
“The sad thing is, art is often born out of cataclysm, pain and tragedy,” O’Neill said. “There’s a lot of darkness in the piece but it travels toward light at the end. I’m so honored to have been chosen to perform it."
Icing on the cake
O’Neill has walked the red carpet for his two previous Grammy nominations but with the coronavirus pandemic, the in-person ceremony is still up-in-the-air. Even if it is virtual this year, O’Neill isn’t sure he’ll attend.
“Every time I’ve walked the red carpet, I’ve lost,” O’Neill said.
If O’Neill does win, he plans to dedicate his award to the musicians across the country who have faced hardship amid the pandemic.
“So many amazing musicians nationwide are out of work right now, struggling to provide for their families,” he said. “This nomination is for them—it’s for us.”
It’s been a tough year for O’Neill personally as well. His mother finished cancer treatments in February. During her battle, O’Neill promised himself he would focus on what’s really important going forward.
“An award is one thing, acknowledgement from peers is another. But at the end of the day, waking up with your health and your family is all that matters,” he said. “Everything else is icing.”
Tune into the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 31, 2021 to find out if O’Neill will win his first Grammy.