MacArthur 'genius' grants go to cellist, architect, jazz musician

Alisa Weilerstein
Los Angeles Times

By David Ng

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Tuesday announced new MacArthur fellows for 2011. The arts honorees include architect Jeanne Gang of Chicago, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, jazz musician Dafnis Prieto and choral conductor and composer Francisco Nunez, all of New York.

Each of the so-called "genius" fellows receives $500,000 in "no-strings-attached support over the next five years," according to the foundation. The money comes "without stipulations or reporting requirements," and is intended to give the fellows a wide berth for creative freedom.

Weilerstein, 29, is a cello virtuoso was performing in Jerusalem when she received the news about being made a MacArthur Fellow:  “This is an incredible and unexpected honor and completely overwhelming.  My first response was an expression of total shock and amazement and I still cannot believe it.”

Weilerstein manages her heavy touring schedule while being a diabetic. The foundation noted that she combines "technical precision with impassioned musicianship in performances of both traditional and contemporary music and expanding the cello repertoire through collaborations with leading composers."

When she played Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto at Disney Hall earlier this year with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Times music critic Mark Swed wrote: "[I]n the intense Weilerstein, the players met their match. She tore into the concerto with a ferocity that all but left the orchestra stunned."

Gang, 47, is an architect whose most notable work is the Aqua skyscraper in Chicago. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote in 2010 that "the building, with its undulating concrete-and-glass skin, does suggest a fresh direction for skyscraper design."

The foundation described Gang's work as "integrating conventional materials, bold yet functional designs, and ecologically friendly technology in a wide range of striking structures."

Prieto, 37, is a Latin jazz percussionist with a number of compositions and recordings to his credit, including "Taking the Soul for a Walk" and "Absolute Quintet." The foundation wrote that Prieto infuses "Latin jazz with bold new energy and sound, dazzling technical abilities, and rhythmically adventurous compositions."

Nunez, 46, is involved with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and was cited for "shaping the future of choral singing for children by expanding access from inner-city to elite schools, redefining the artistic and expressive boundaries of the youth choir."

Past genius fellows in artistic fields include visual artist Jorge Pardo, violinist Leila Josefowicz, playwright Lynn Nottage and theatrical lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.

The full list of 2011 fellows is on the MacArthur website. This year's recipients in health-related fields include specialists in viruses, parasites and stem cells.