Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Yahoo Genius

The MacArthur Foundation today acknowledges what many of us have known for a long time: that nut's a genius. Kudos to Alex Ross, who certainly deserves this honor for his erudition, his energy, his imagination and his knack for setting the bar right where the rest of us can see it but not quite reach it.

It's not often that these prizes go in such a self-evidently correct direction. To my great shame, I'm not familiar with the work of local genius Walter Kitundu, but if M. C- feels the award is well-merited then I believe him implicitly.

But the award to Leila Josefowicz perplexes me, and not merely — or not solely — because I haven't heard her give a really great performance since she was about nine years old. It's more that the criteria for giving an award like this to performing musicians seem to be even blurrier than most. I would think this was an award for someone who's actively changing the shape of the musical landscape — which, yeah, by definition is going to mostly mean composers, but can also make room for someone like Dawn Upshaw or Marin Alsop, who've both won the thing, or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who should've got one, or Yo-Yo Ma [pause, search MacArthur website. . . wow, no, never won it. What an astounding oversight.] Josefowicz is a decent violinist and all, but really?

Update: There's a general feeling in comments that I'm talking out of my ass on this last point, than which assertion nothing could be more likely. OK, point taken. I wouldn't paint myself as convinced, exactly, but I'm persuaded at least that my reservations may not have been as well-grounded in, y'know, fact as one would wish, and might have been better left unexpressed. Than which, again, &c.

12 Comments:

At 9/23/2008 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seems more than a little churlish. She's 30 and has premiered or is scheduled to premiere concertos by Adams, Knussen, Salonen, Mackey and Colin Matthews. Upcoming appearances include performances of other concertos by Adams and Ades. Yes, Yo-Yo Ma deserves recognition for the body of work he has commissioned, but isn't there also merit in supporting a young, talented promoter of contemporary music?

 
At 9/23/2008 3:02 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

You think so? Well, you may be right, and if so then mea culpa. But your short list doesn't really persuade me (the Adams VC is a rep staple, and the others aren't exactly ground-breakers either). And look, in my slightly pathetic defense, I don't claim she shouldn't have gotten the prize, or that it's a bad choice (you want a bad choice, try plowing through one of Richard Powers' clunky, subliterate novels some day); only that I find it mysterious and non-obvious. Still do.

 
At 9/23/2008 3:16 PM, Blogger Dan Johnson said...

She's actually learned John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur as well, for six-string electric violin. That one is not standard rep.

 
At 9/23/2008 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Salonen, Mackey and Matthews violin concertos haven't been performed yet. How could JK know whether they are "ground breakers" or not?

And (relying on my feeble memory) you'd have to leave the US to find a prominent soloist so consistently engaged in playing contemporary music with orchestras.

 
At 9/23/2008 9:44 PM, Blogger rchrd said...

Maybe now she can hire the orchestra to play and record whatever she wants.

 
At 9/24/2008 8:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly, I felt the same thing when I saw she won. Why not Janine Jansen? It's not every day you can record a work I've heard seemingly a billion times (Four seasons, mendelsson vio con) and make it sound fresh. Perhaps if she were given 500k, she might of spent it on something actually interesting.

 
At 9/24/2008 1:53 PM, Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Janine Jansen is wonderful! But as a citizen of the Netherlands (presumably), she's not eligible for a McArthur.

 
At 9/24/2008 11:02 PM, Anonymous jolene said...

"my reservations may not have been as well-grounded in, y'know, fact"

That's what blogs are for! Chances are there are others such as myself who thought exactly the same thing. I'm more surprised by the neuroscientists that they picked to award - these scientists are definitely not forefronts or even the most exciting researchers in their field and just as surprising if not more so than Josefowicz. Don't get me wrong; they're amazing scientists, but I could name off five more names that would have been better candidates.

 
At 9/25/2008 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josefowicz does commission new works, but does that make her a genius? Are her musical performances genius? I have no problem in supporting young musical performers that perform new works, but I find the Josefowicz choice surprising, especially in comparison with her colleagues.

 
At 9/30/2008 9:51 AM, Blogger Clark Douglas Brown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 9/30/2008 9:52 AM, Blogger Clark Douglas Brown said...

I agree almost completely with you. The MacArthur Foundation awards have become a true identifier of those excelling in their artistic field, unlike so many other awards strictly based on monetary success. My heart is filled with joy and reassurance when an individual such as Alex Ross is chosen. He is pulling from two of the most forgotten yet beautiful things; classic American literature and classical music, while respecting them both in the process. If someone could ever be a shoe-in for this award, it would unquestionably go to someone of this caliber. I must admit, and almost completely with you on your, shall I say, bewilderment of the Josefowicz nomination. Yes, she is a technically and musically gifted young person. And yes, as one of you commentators indicated, she is doing a service to classical music and to the art of the violin by using her "big name" to get these modern concertos heard by audiences that most likely would never see/hear them in a different setting. But come on, talented young, and if it was (though it shouldn't be) a determining factor, female classical musicians, how can you possibly not give it to Hilary Hahn? Her mastery of the instrument is stellar and concertgoers and critics alike are amazed by her musicality, I digress. Previously Edgar Meyer won this prestigious award, in my opinion, deservedly. Granted he has be highly influential in the crossover portion of classical music, bringing classical and bluegrass together in a way that seemed unimaginable (except maybe when Mark O'Connor did the same thing (again, no recognition)). Yet, I would have to say, in what I understand as disagreeing with your statement "It's more that the criteria for giving an award like this to performing musicians seem to be even blurrier than most," I would say that what Edgar Meyer has done for the double bass, in classical music alone, is entirely worthy of a MacArthur Fellowship. Never mind the fact that the double bass is at least functionally, one of (if not the most) important instruments in the orchestra, the bass has its own solo voice that, before Edgar Meyer, went almost silent. Yes, there were a few soloists before him, but never anyone nearly like this unique genius. I feel that when a instrumentalist, especially classical elevates not only the level of playing but also the interest of the general public to such a degree, an award as dignified and respected as that given by the MacArthur Foundation is one of the few remaining that is actually suitable.

 
At 7/02/2009 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Among scholars in the Bay Area who have received the MacArthur Foundation 'genius' grant whose work is more derivative than genius are UCB sociologist Loic Wacquant, the great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's alcolyte, and Shirley B. Heath, a linguist in the School of Education at Stanford. At UCLA, as well, the very non-visionary historical sociologist Rogers Brubaker won the grant. None of these social scientists is cutting edge. The work of each is a kind of formulaic journalism that is quite predictable. The interesting thing about Josefowicz, for me, is that Salonen chose her for his violin concerto. She is a sort of marquee idol, and has even been described to have a "sex kittenish" and "rock and roll" style appeal. Is the maestro really an anti-maestro in eschewing the cult of personality trappings of classical music in choosing such a performer for a collaborator? Or is he just an astute marketer who is taking advantage of the violonist's star quality to broaden the exposure of his concerto?

 

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