There’s an old saying in our business that contains a great deal of truth:
The only thing you need to know about competitions is that Mozart never won one.
I remembered it this morning when I read of the latest winners of the MacArthur Fellows (better known as recipients of “Genuis Grants”). It was an impressive group: scientists, economists, artists, poets – and a cellist:
Alisa Weilerstein is a young cellist whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition. As a soloist with some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and conductors, Weilerstein is a consummate performer, combining technical precision with impassioned musicianship. Raised in a family devoted to the arts, she began performing on the cello as a preschooler and made her public debut with a professional orchestra at the age of thirteen. Unlike many musical prodigies, Weilerstein chose to pursue a liberal arts degree while continuing to maintain a busy performance schedule as both a soloist and as a chamber musician, performing and recording with her parents as the Weilerstein Trio. While her repertoire includes the classics, Weilerstein is a tireless advocate for contemporary music, introducing audiences to works by major composers of our day and, in many cases, performing with them. In 2007, she worked with composer Osvaldo Golijov on a complete revision of Azul, his concerto inspired by a Pablo Neruda poem, incorporating orchestra, accordion, and percussion to support cello melodies. Performing in more than one hundred concerts a year, Weilerstein has successfully navigated the transition from child prodigy to accomplished, professional musician and is expanding the cello repertoire through her collaborations with leading contemporary composers.
I’ve not heard Weilerstein play; from the reports of people I trust, she’s a wonderful cellist. And no doubt she plays a lot of contemporary music.
But does that make her a genius? Does that put her in the company of people doing groundbreaking work in biology, physics, human rights, and economics?
Not for me. But MacArthur has made some other odd choices in our field of the years. A while back they made Marin Alsop a Fellow (perhaps coincidentally, just after the furor over her appointment in Baltimore had hit the papers). Alsop is a competent conductor, with a very distinguished record in performing contemporary music – but a genius? Come on.
What’s ironic is that our field really does have geniuses: people who have redefined either the core repertoire or the art of playing their instrument. Think of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, or Noah Greenberg (who founded the New York Pro Musica and ignited the early music movement in North America), or Leonard Bernstein (who brought Mahler to the masses, in addition to composing one of the great Broadway musicals of all time and conducting the best performance of the Sibelius fifth symphony that will ever be), or Pinchas Zukerman, who re-defined what the violin and viola should sound like. And speaking of cellists, what about Yo-Yo Ma, who is not only the premiere cellist of his generation but rediscovered an entire body of music with his Silk Road Project?
I think it’s debatable whether our field even belongs in the MacArthur purview. But, if they insist on making awards to classical performers, I wish they’d revise their criteria to make it less likely that they’d miss another Mozart in our midst.