MacArthur whiffs again

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.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • Robert, I respectfully disagree. The “next Mozart” will be silent without skilled, interested performers being a voice for this music. Too often, soloists rely on the “same 5 concertos” and play it safe. This young lady is actively seeking out new music and reaching large audiences with it. Without people like her, “another Mozart” will never be. History is full of great pieces with rotten premieres, the Finzi violin concerto comes to mind. It was withdrawn after a poor premiere and only recently recorded for the first time. If the premiere had been better, we might be enjoying violin concertos #2 and #3.

    Perhaps we need to define or re-define the term “genius”. It doesn’t take a genius for human rights: it takes compassion, caring, hard work and sacrifice. I don’t know how well Mother Teresa et al would do on the SAT, but they got the job done. Edison’s old “Inspiration/Perspiration” adage holds true.

    It does take a village. Inspiring that molecular scientist with music can be as important as anything else. We’ve all assumedly met Doctors who are amateur players. Many have told me “I’d give it all up to be a pro”. They value what we do, there is some genius involved in being a Muse. Good compositions and bad performances make for bad music, no matter how one slices it. Good string players are a dime a dozen these days. Rising to the top indeed takes a certain amount of genius IMO.

    A genius often stands on the shoulders of others. There have been very few Teslas yet plenty of Marconis. More importantly, “genius by association” has brought us some of the finest art in civilization. Look at Paul Sacher and what his contributions to music have left us. That kind of dedication and foresight has left the world a better place for the scientists, so in my book there’s a certain “genius” to that.

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