Richard O’Neill, who learned to play viola as a boy in Sequim and went on to three Grammy nominations, at last won the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences award on March 14.
The music that won him what he called the “honor of a lifetime” is Christopher Theofanidis’ Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra — a piece O’Neill excerpted in a concert for North Olympic Peninsula audiences three months ago.
It was the Dec. 19 “Alone Together for the Holidays” event presented by the Music on the Strait festival, which O’Neill cofounded.
His recording of the concerto with the Albany, N.Y., Symphony and conductor David Alan Miller, released on Albany Records, brought him the Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo Performance.
At home in Boulder, Colo., O’Neill connected via the internet to the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles to give his acceptance speech.
“My love to you all,” he said to his fellow musicians, his hand on his chest.
“During this most challenging time for all musicians, my eternal thanks goes to my family,” he added.
O’Neill also thanked the Takacs Quartet, the Boulder-based ensemble he joined in late 2019, “for keeping me alive.”
“Stay safe and healthy, everyone, OK? Thank you.”
After the brief speech, O’Neill was transferred, virtually, into a green room where he met Gayle Moran, the widow of Chick Corea. She had virtually accepted two posthumous Grammys for her husband, who died of cancer in February.
Corea’s trophies, for best improvised jazz solo and best jazz solo album, made it 25 Grammys for the pianist.
In Boulder, a late-winter blizzard brought more than 2 feet of snow to the sidewalks around O’Neill’s home, “so I celebrated by going outside and shoveling,” along with his neighbors.
O’Neill was first acquainted with such weather growing up in Sequim, studying viola with Phil and Deborah Morgan-Ellis and performing with the Port Angeles Symphony. He later graduated from the Juilliard School in New York City, where he attended classes after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Theofanidis composed his Concerto for Viola in response to those events — and “the piece is incredibly poignant and touching,” O’Neill said.
“I really am beyond thrilled to receive the Grammy, as it will help to give more attention both to Chris’ masterpiece and the viola as a solo instrument,” one he calls an unsung hero of the orchestra.
O’Neill, still the co-artistic director of the Music on the Strait festival, will appear briefly during a virtual concert to be presented by the festival the weekend of March 27. The event will feature music of Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms by pianist Orion Weiss and cellist Saeunn Thorsteindottir, who appeared in Port Angeles during the festival in 2019. Information will be posted soon at musiconthestrait.com.
Peninsula lovers of classical music have seen O’Neill and his longtime friend, violinist James Garlick of Port Angeles, appear as guest soloists with the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Garlick is also O’Neill’s partner in founding and directing Music on the Strait.
And last September, the duo gave a live-streamed performance during the topping-off ceremony at the Field Arts & Events Hall in downtown Port Angeles.
On Monday, O’Neill, 42, marveled at his new prize. Competition in his Grammy category was fierce, he said: “three of the world’s most famous pianists, one of the world’s greatest violinists, and three of the world’s top orchestras.
“I was definitely the dark horse,” he said. “But I think I was incredibly lucky that the decision is made by the members of NARAS, the Recording Academy, some of the greatest professionals in the business.
“So an audience of my peers made the final decision, which means so much to me.”