When the Takács Quartet announced that Richard O’Neill would replace Geraldine Walther as the famed ensemble’s fourth violist, it represented the latest achievement in a career defined by high demand as a performer, educator, and recording artist. In December, O’Neill is scheduled to play Beethoven’s quartets Opp. 74 and 131 for Camerata Pacifica at Colburn’s Zipper Hall, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with Chamber Music Lincoln Center, and “Christmas with Richard O’Neill” at the Seoul Arts Center. His ten Deutsche Grammophon recordings, which are available only digitally in the United States, have sold more than 200,000 copies internationally. In his 13 seasons as the founding artistic director of the DITTO initiative, created to bring classical music to wider audiences, he introduced tens of thousands to chamber music in South Korea.
Before catching up with O’Neill while he was navigating the streets of San Francisco, I was under the impression that he performed on two rare violas: the 1727 “ex-Trampler” Matteo Goffriller, and the “ex-Iglitzin, Count of Flanders” Gasparo da Salò. Turns out, he now has four instruments to ponder. But more on that later.
How did the Takács job happen?
For five or six years I’d been on the faculty at the Music Academy of the West, where the Takács have their own program and string-quartet seminar. It’s no secret that when I was still a student at Juilliard and Roger [Tapping] left the quartet for the Juilliard Quartet, I was heartbroken when they hired Gerry [Geraldine Walther]. I was young and wanted that life for myself.
So, two summers ago, I was having lunch with the Takács’ second violinist, Harumi Rhodes, an old friend from Marlboro and Lincoln Center, when she asked if I would be interested in auditioning for the Takács. “Gerry is going to retire. It’s top secret,” Harumi told me. It had been 13 or 14 years since I had auditioned for first violinist Edward Dusinberre and cellist András Fejér. I said I would be honored.
In October I flew to Boulder, Colorado, and auditioned with a healthy list of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók—typical Takács repertoire. It was a beautiful time, and within a few weeks I got a call from Ed saying they’d like me to join. There was one caveat: It would be necessary for me to leave James Ehnes’ quartet.
It was a hard decision because I value friendship and companionship, and we loved each other, loved playing quartets—we were like family. It was a very hard decision. But we decided that it would be the best thing for me to join one of the most well-respected, established quartets in the world. And so my last appearances with the Ehnes Quartet will be at James’ Seattle Chamber Music Society, and at cellist Edward Arron’s Musical Masterworks series in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
How did the audition proceed?
Unlike my first time with Takács, I had quite a lot of experience with the quartet repertoire. I had played Beethoven cycles before, and learned all the Bartók quartets, and with my time at Lincoln Center with the Chamber Music Society, I had a lot of experience putting things together. So, basically, we read through an entire piece and then rehearsed. They wanted to learn my style. It was an incredible time.
One thing I absolutely loved about the audition was that Ed was so willing to try anything
While they were learning about you, what were you learning about them?
One thing I absolutely loved about the audition was that Ed was so willing to try anything—whatever anyone suggested, he didn’t flinch. He said, “Let’s try it.” I also have a lot of Bartók memorized, and every time I’d look up to get a sense of where we were going, Ed was looking up too, which felt like we were making an amazing connection.
Harumi is a pure genius; she brings incredible life to the inner writing and to the music that I find inspirational. Andras is one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met. He’s a complete artist, a humorous, mysterious, magical person. The audition process was getting to know each other and playing a lot.
How long did it all take?
I flew in, we dove into playing, and went until dinner time, which was wonderful. In the morning we hiked one of the beautiful Flatiron trails in the foothills of the Rockies behind Boulder. We read through Brahms 51/1 and rehearsed, and then Mozart. An amazing time. I flew back to L.A. That was it.
When Roger Tapping joined the Takács they had a viola for him to play. Are you going to play your own viola?
I haven’t decided yet because I have two beautiful violas and a third choice, the beautiful Guadagnini that Gerry is playing at the moment. I’d love to try it. Ultimately, I guess we’ll have to decide what sounds best with the quartet.
How does it stack up against your current instruments?
I’ve had my old Goffriller, which belonged to Walter Trampler, for seven years. It’s only 41 cm, with a beautiful sound. It’s great for recordings, and easy to play. I also have this very interesting viola, marked and sold as a Gasparo da Salò. It was owned by Alan Iglitzin, founding violist of Philadelphia String Quartet and assistant principal under Ormandy, my chamber-music coach and one of the reasons I play the viola. The viola was in the Curtis collection—it even has a stamp on the bottom like a band instrument. The Gasparo is very powerful, concentrated (almost to the point of being too dry), and it projects like crazy. It’s great for solo work. I also have a beautiful viola by Robert Brewer Young. I love playing on it: it has amazing colors. But maybe the quartet would like me to play on their Guadagnini; it has a darker, more velvety sound. It’s also very powerful. I don’t think I’ve had this problem in my life ever!