by Marc Shulgold
“I had auditioned back then (in 2005) when I learned there was an opening,” he said. Such vacancies are uncommon among world-class chamber groups. But here was his chance: Roger Tapping, the group’s violist of 10 years was departing. O’Neill understood that his youth would work against him. He was, after all, about half the age of two Takács veterans: cellist András Fejér and violinist Károly Schranz. “That was pretty intimidating,” he remembered. “I was only in my mid-20s.”
He might have been disappointed at being passed over, but there was consolation in losing out to his idol of the viola, Geraldine Walther, who’d left as principal viola with the San Francisco Symphony. It all came full-circle last year, after Walther’s retirement following 15 years with the Takács led O’Neill, now 41, to audition once again – and be named her successor.
It’s been a long journey for the violist, whose mother, a Korean War orphan, was adopted by Mildred and Michael O’Neill of Sequim, Washington. With Richard’s birth (he was given Yongjae as a middle name), they became his grandparents, helping his developmentally disabled mother mother raise him. He has recently connected with his father.
That journey would lead him to discover music, pursue it passionately and grow into an admired player, learning from some of the best pedagogues. He would gain invaluable experience, tackling every sort of music that he could grab, whether as soloist, orchestra player or, most of all, as a chamber musician. And it all led up to one glorious moment: “This wish that I had has come true,” he said of his Takács appointment.
He grew up in the small agricultural town of Sequim with a loving family that was not particularly immersed in classical music. And yet, for the young boy, a hunger emerged. “As a child, I loved listening to recordings, mostly chamber music, usually played by the Juilliard Quartet.” When he decided to learn an instrument, it’s no surprise that he began with the violin – what kid dreams of being a violist? “I got into a chamber music program in Seattle when I was 12, studying with Alan Iglitzin. I became pretty adept, playing Mendelssohn and others.”
Then fate stepped in. “I wanted to join a local youth orchestra, but there were no spots for another violin. They did need some violas, though.”
Let’s call it love at first sight – physical love: “My arms and upper body were sort of gangly,” O’Neill said. “I found it more comfortable playing (the slightly larger) viola.” Oh sure, he added, there was that wonderfully deep, rich sound he discovered in his new instrument. That said, he was not about to make a clean break with his first love. “I adored playing the violin, and for a while I tried to keep up both,” O’Neill said.
Soon he was following his growing fondness for chamber music. “I got together with friends, reading quartets. One of my teachers was encouraging, telling me not to focus only on orchestra auditions. He told me to just go for it, to develop my solo playing.”
In 2000, O’Neill was accepted into the summer music festival at Marlboro, Vermont. There, he met Harumi Rhodes, later to become second violinist with the Takács. Just to remind how small the world of chamber music is, she’s the daughter of Samuel Rhodes, longtime violist with O’Neill’s boyhood idols, the Juilliard Quartet. In fact, the elder Rhodes heard the young violist one-on-one at Marlboro, where O’Neill also sat in with members of the famed Quartet. “I was there to look and to experience,” he said.
More opportunities and more experiences came his way. He was accepted onto the ever-expanding roster of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, and joined the faculty at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, along with Harumi Rhodes. Want another Takács connection? “There was a viola convention back in 1997 at Austin, Texas,” the violist recalled. “I studied with the great Karen Tuttle there, and I also had lunch with Geri (Walther). She was so warm and maternal to everybody. And what a sense of humor!”
Knowing all this, it seems inevitable that O’Neill would one day join the Takács Quartet. All those connections had to play a role in his being selected, right? “After my audition, I had no idea,” he insisted. “You never assume anything. When I played, I was very nervous. How Quartets choose players is such a mystery. Of course, they already knew me and how I worked in chamber groups.” Still, when he received that long-awaited phone call from the Takács, the joy he felt was unmeasurable.
So how has it been, now that he’s a member of the Takács? “Actually, I haven’t begun working them yet,” O”Neill said (our conversation was in early April). “I was supposed to debut with them at a concert in Michigan in June – but that was canceled because of the coronavirus.”
No matter – living the dream is all that matters right now. “I have so enjoyed my career and the way it unfolded. I believe that everything I did has made me a better musician,” O’Neill said. “Years ago, one of my teachers, Paul Neubauer (former principal viola with the New York Philharmonic), asked me what my goal was. I told him I wanted to play music in all of its forms, to be as flexible as possible, to use every opportunity given me to grow as an artist.”
Every step seemed to lead to his appointment with the Takács. “For me, the String Quartet is the perfect genre,” he agreed. “And I’m so looking forward to pursuing that.”
The Takács Quartet will appear at the virtual season-opening concert on Thursday, June 25. Join the Virtual Festival (it’s free!) by visiting www.coloradomusicfestival.org/register.