CU Faculty Member wins “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” Grammy

Violist Richard O’Neill, newest member of the Takacs Quartet, wins first Grammy award

By Peter Alexander March 22 at 3:51 p.m.

Violist Richard O’Neill, member of the CU College of Music faculty and the Takacs Quartet, has won the Grammy award for “Best Classical Instrumental Solo.”

His recording of Christopher Theofanidis’ Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra with David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony (Albany Records TROY1816, released August 2020) was nominated along with these recordings: 
• pianist Kirill Gerstein playing the Thomas Adès Piano Concerto, with Adès and the Boston Symphony; 
• pianist Igor Levit playing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas; 
• violinist Augustin Hadelich playing “Bohemian Tales,” a collection of music by Dvořák, Janáček and Josef Suk, with Jakub Hrůša and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; and
• pianist Daniil Trifonov playing the Second and Fourth piano concertos of Rachmaninov with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

O’Neill was caught by surprise last year when the nominees were announced. This time, of course he knew that he was in the running for the award and when the awards would be announced, but he nearly got caught by surprise again. For one thing, he looked at the distinguished list of other nominees, and thought, ‘OK, we’re going to lose’.”

For another, the streamed Grammy ceremony was held Sunday, March 14, the same day that Boulder was under a heavy blanket of snow. O’Neill had arranged to attend the ceremony online, but Sunday morning his internet kept going out. “I was like, ‘How am I going to be able to Zoom if I don’t have internet?’” he says. He even planned to walk to his studio in the CU Imig Music Building if he had to—since he couldn’t get out of his driveway.

Finally, the internet came back on just in time, but the ceremony was running ahead of schedule. “There was supposed to be 30 minutes buffer, and then you’re on,” he says. “I tuned in and it was basically five minutes to go! So I was like, ‘Holy, bleep!’ 

“And when they said ‘the Grammy goes to,’ I almost burst into tears. I just wasn’t expecting it.”

Richard O’Neill

To keep the ceremony on schedule, each recipient is allowed just 30 seconds to thank everyone. “There’s a very conspicuous clock, and it started right as they announced my name. Basically, they’ll just cut you off! It’s very, very short, but I tried my best to get everybody thanked. It was a really great, great moment, and then my phone was going crazy with all my friends who were watching.”

After than, O’Neill was asked to enter the virtual press room to take questions, and later he had several interviews with press from South Korea, where he is very well known. He took a quick break to step outside and gather his thoughts and chat with his neighbors, who were all out clearing their driveways and had no idea that he had just won a Grammy.

This was O’Neill’s third nomination for a Grammy and his first win. He also has won an Emmy Award and an Avery Fisher Career Grant. He has an extensive record of working with living composers, including the premieres of works written for him. Theofanidis’s Concerto was written for the distinguished violist Kim Kashkashian in 2002 and revised for O’Neill in preparation of his performances and recording.

O’Neill joined the Takacs Quartet in June of 2020, replacing Geraldine Walther as the group’s violist. He has appeared in streamed performances by the quartet, and in a handful of concerts before small, distanced audiences, but has not yet appeared onstage before a live Boulder audience.

Reflecting on the past year, O’Neill says it has been tough. He moved to Boulder, he joined the Takacs Quartet and the CU faculty, planned tours as solo artist and with the Takacs were interrupted by the pandemic, and his mother has had breast cancer—“This has been a long haul,” he says. 

“It feels good to have something nice happen.”