Monday, October 3, 2011

New from the Front: Latest MacArthur Fellows

Today, this article appeared in The New York Times about the latest classical musicians to be made MacArthur fellows. The article briefly discusses the backgrounds of the two musicians, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and choral conductor Francisco J. Núñez, and includes some material from interviews of Weilerstein and Núñez. Weilerstein, who plays with her parents in the Boston-based Weilerstein Trio, has performed as a soloist with orchestras throughout the world, and will have her debut recording released next year on the Decca label. Núñez is the founding director of the outreach-based Young People's Chorus of New York City, which involves around 1,200 children every year in its program from various ethnic and economic backgrounds.

The article is worth reading for its information about two classical musicians whose cultural contributions have been recognized, but the material I will focus on stems from the editorial parts of the article. Anthony Tommasini, the author of the article, mentions the qualities the MacArthur Foundation recognizes with its awards: “originality, self-direction and capacity to contribute importantly to society.” He then notes trends found among the classical musicians who have been recipients of MacArthur grants in recent years:

There are the musicians who cross genres and styles and break down categories; the performers who champion contemporary music; and those artists who excel at communicating with audiences and bringing music to people who have been left out of the cultural loop, especially in poor neighborhoods.

After citing various MacArthur fellows as examples of the above-mentioned qualifications, he then continues with some questioning of the tendency to recognize as most significant those who push genre boundaries:

All these artists are highly skilled and deserving. Yet with its emphasis on pushing boundaries, transcending categories and contributing to society, the foundation is implicitly acknowledging that these valuable attributes are easier to discern than, say, who is the finest young cellist, based on technical skills, musical insights and interpretive dynamism, which are subjective calls.

Classical music has for too long (and I think, unfairly) been perceived as a specialized art form. Of course it is crucial for composers and performers to reach out, to connect with music and musicians from other genres. Virtuosity and excellence are not enough.

Still, there is a tendency in classical music to overvalue cross-stylistic and genre-blending work. Composers who draw from and mesh widely diverse styles receive immediate credit for doing something daring, as are performers who present their works. It can be much harder to recognize the boldness of a composer who adheres to a specific style and idiom. In the early years of the program, the MacArthur Foundation made a point of singling out some unapologetically modernist composers who had scant interest in stylistic crossbreeding, like Milton Babbitt, Ralph Shapey and Charles Wuorinen.

Anthony Tommasini, "Two Chosen 'Geniuses' Reflect on Label," The New York Times, October 3, 2011, accessed October 3, 2011,

Tommasini concludes that despite his criticism of the MacArthur foundation's past choices, the organization deserves praise for awarding Weilerstein and Núñez with grants. The recognition of Weilerstein and Núñez is encouraging for classical musicians, because while both of them make significant contributions to the spread of classical music's influence, neither of them necessarily focus on blending non-classical and classical traditions as a means of connecting with audiences (or choir members in Núñez's case), and neither do they primarily champion contemporary music while ignoring works from the standard repertoire in their performances.

Although Tommasini doesn't mention the term, the concept of "authenticity" seems to be related to what he says about the MacArthur Foundation's past choices of award recipients. Are those who do something new and daring more original and therefore more authentic than those who remain within a tradition? Tommasini states that the mere act of presenting something new and genre-crossing can instantly bring praise, but the work of musicians who work primarily within a certain idiom may go unrecognized because of their work's lack of a novelty. The reality is that a majority of classical musicians are not necessarily specialists in areas that would frequently defy categories or cross genres, but rather are trained and skilled in the performance or composition of music within certain idioms. Perhaps classical musicians do not need to be concerned primarily about crossing classical/non-classical genre boundaries in order to be relevant to modern audiences, but should instead focus on how and to whom to present music of the classical tradition with the "boldness" Tommasini mentions.

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