MacArthur Genius Grants Awarded To Cellist, Conductor, WNYC Host

Alisa Weilerstein

By Brian Wise

The cellist Alisa Weilerstein, the choral music conductor Francisco Núñez and the WNYC Radio host Jad Abumrad are among the 22 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants," to be announced today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The 10 women and 12 men, known as fellows, were selected for their creativity, originality and potential. They range in age from 29 to 67. Each will receive $500,000 over the next five years, no strings attached.

Most of this year’s fellows are known primarily in their own fields, and also include an architect, an evolutionary geneticist, a poet and a sports medicine researcher. The jazz percussionist and composer Dafnis Prieto was the other musician recipient.

Weilerstein, 29, has been a soloist on the world’s concert stages since making her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 13. The cellist said she felt “shock and disbelief” since getting the call while in Jerusalem last week. “The biggest thing for me is it’s not a classical music award,” she said. “It’s an award for artists and scientists and it really rewards creativity. It’s a very noble thing. And of course, the monetary value is ridiculous. It’s just incredible. It gives a lot of freedom to anyone who gets it.”

Cited by the MacArthur Foundation for her "impassioned musicianship" as well as her "collaborations with leading composers,” Weilerstein follows such past grant recipients as the violinist Leila Josefowicz and the conductor Marin Alsop.

The daughter of two respected musicians and teachers – violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein – Weilerstein received a B.A. in Russian history from Columbia University in 2004. She earned the degree while both enrolled at the Juilliard School and already pursuing a busy concert career.

More recently, Weilerstein has had a string of high-profile achievements including a performance at the White House in 2009; a debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2010; and a recording contract with Decca. Earlier this year, she premiered a new song cycle for cello and piano by Gabriel Kahane, the pop singer-songwriter and composer, which she subsequently toured around North America.

Núñez, 46, is the enterprising director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, a choral program that draws some 1,300 children from ages seven to 18 from across economic groups and ethnic cultures of the city. The group has had an active commissioning program that has produced dozens of new works by composers as diverse as Steve Reich, Ned Rorem, George Crumb, Nico Muhly, Paquito D'Rivera and Meredith Monk. The YPC consists of six core ensembles, all of which are in residence at the 92nd Street Y.

Núñez said this is the first MacArthur fellowship given to a choral music conductor. "It really validates and puts [choral music] on the map and says that young people are serious business," he said. "I've always said that we love young people in sports, in pageants, in movies, in Shakespeare, but artistically -- in the choral or orchestral world -- we were waiting for young people to grow up. But to recognize a youth choir, that makes a lot of difference."

The conductor was commended by the MacArthur Foundation for "shaping the future of choral singing for children" by expanding access and redefining the expressive boundaries of the youth choir.

The 38-year-old Abumrad is the host of WNYC’s Radiolab, a national show that explores the boundaries between science, philosophy and human experience. His work has also appeared on On the Media, Studio 360, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. In the past Radiolab has occasionally explored the meaning of the term "genius."

“We have done some stories about talent and what it means to be gifted, and can hard work pay off and all this stuff,” he said. “And the idea of a genius, it’s a very old idea and I hate it. But, I don’t know, I’ll take it now!”

Abumrad was acknowledged for "engaging a new generation of listeners with audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions that evoke a sense of adventure and recreate the thrill of discovery."

While Weilerstein said she had “no concrete thoughts” about her plans for the money at the moment, Prieto, 39, the jazz drummer and composer, said he already dreamed up a set of plans in place in case such an award came his way. “I have my own production company and label,” he said. “I’m thinking I’ll record a new album with at trio that I have in January. I will also finish my book. I’m writing a book on drums. Definitely it will give me the opportunity to focus more on my creative process.”

A Cuban immigrant, Prieto is known for his wide-ranging tastes and facility in post-bop, Latin jazz and the occasional avant-garde gig. “It’s a big compliment to me,” he said of the award’s multidisciplinary reach. “I also am very interested in science. I like mathematics and physics and other things. It feels great. To me it’s about expression. What else are we here for?”