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MacArthur Foundation strikes out again

0 Robert Levine

Those who’ve followed my various blogs over the years (at least I’m hoping it’s “those” and not “him or her”) know that the MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program (aka the “Genius Awards”) is a hot button for me.

They recently pushed it again with the selection of pianist Jeremy Denk. To quote from the MacArthur Foundation website:

Jeremy Denk is a concert pianist enlivening the musical experience for amateurs and aficionados alike through his eloquence with notes and words. As a soloist and in concerti and chamber ensembles, Denk masterfully performs some of the most technically demanding works of iconic masters—Bach, Beethoven, Chopin—as well as compositions of storied twentieth-century artists—Ives and Ligeti—with virtuosic dexterity and imagination. Noted for his unexpected pairings of pieces in recital programs and recordings, he often draws out surprising themes and continuities between historically and stylistically disparate works. His live and recorded duets with violinist Joshua Bell, a longstanding tradition, are critically acclaimed and lauded for their extraordinary balance and original interpretation.

As a complement to his performance career, Denk is a gifted expositor. In the liner notes on his recordings, his blog, Think Denk—a spirited “life log” of technical analysis, informative repartee, and witty memoir—and articles in publications such as the New Yorker and the New Republic, he couples analytical thinking about the sound and structure of a piece with lyrical descriptions of the affect produced as one plays or listens to it.

Denk’s writings not only offer poignant and humorous meditations on such subjects as the complex relationship between protégé and mentor, they also demonstrate the connection between the process of writing and the practicing musician’s ceaseless efforts to find the most vivid and meaningful way to bring a particular phrase to life. An extraordinary pianist and essayist of keen musical intellect, Denk is engaging listeners and readers in a deeper appreciation of classical music.

To translate into language that is not completely out of breath, Denk is a pianist who’s having a successful career playing the stuff that concert pianists are asked to play, some of which was written since 1900. He puts together interesting programs. He also writes really well, and has been published in a couple of prestigious magazines.

All of which is true. Oddly enough, Denk was doing the first Lizst concerto with my orchestra the week he won, and did a really nice job of what is a problematic piece (although one with one of the most fun-to-play viola solos in the literature). I liked it a lot better than his performance of a Mozart concerto with us a few years ago. And he writes really well; I loved his article in the New Yorker on piano lessons, in particular those he had with György Sebők.

So I hope my carping about Denk getting a MacArthur fellowship is not seen as a comment on Denk. My real issue is the notion that any but the barest handful of performers - whether contemporary or historical - meet the Macarthur Foundation’s own criteria:

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Anyone who makes a living in this business has demonstrated over and over again “a marked capacity for self-direction.” There are few activities in our society requiring more “self-direction” than spending thousands of hours over most of a lifetime practicing an instrument by oneself. Likewise with the needed “dedication” to spend that time, cope emotionally with the fact that there hundreds of people striving to fill any given position (or career niche, in the case of soloists) in this business, and then actually being good enough to make a living at performing. I could give the folks at the MacArthur Foundation a list of a few thousand names easily meeting both those criteria in not much more time than it would take to type them.

So how about “extraordinary originality”? Denk (and past Fellows Leili Josefowicz, Alisa Weilterstein, and Dawn Upshaw) are all very accomplished musicians who fully deserve the careers they’ve had (and not all the performers the Foundation has selected in the past have risen to that level). But have any of them really demonstrated “extraordinary originality”? Do any performers demonstrate that?

I’d pick a handful over the course of my lifetime. Leonard Bernstein is one; anyone who can introduce an entire continent to the music of Mahler, conduct the Sibelius Fifth in as revelatory a way as he did in his last recording of the piece with the Vienna Philharmonic, and compose West Side Story is a true genius. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau essentially re-imagined the art of singing lieder, as Pablo Casals re-imagined cello playing. Pinchas Zukerman is the greatest violinist in the history of the violin. Albert Schweitzer was not only a great organist and Bach scholar, but he led a major reform in organ building - in addition, of course, to his work as a theologian and saving countless lives in Africa as a medical missionary.

Those performers were geniuses.  But I suspect their accomplishments would have been too deep for the MacArthur Fellows selection process to grasp. Their lives and careers remind me of a line I read once:

The only thing you need to know about competitions is that Mozart never won one.

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