I have a question about this: “Why?”
In asking, I intend no disrespect to Weilerstein. Her talents and accomplishments are clearly outstanding. And when I interviewed her a few months ago for the Houston Chronicle, she struck me as an unusually articulate and intelligent person. (You can read the interview here.) I wish her well.
It’s a fine thing that this prestigious foundation acknowledges classical musicians, along with the various scientists, scholars, authors, and other notable figures who have been so honoured and enriched. But what’s the process here? How does the jury choose a winner from among so many outstanding people?
The criteria are presented on the foundation’s website. While there are some high-minded statements to be found about “exceptional creativity,” “self-direction” and “originality, insight and potential,” much is not revealed.
Who are the various nominators, evaluators and selectors who make decisions on behalf of the foundation? They “serve anonymously and their correspondence is kept confidential.” And there’s no mention at all of who selects these “experts.” As well, there’s no disclosure of the nominees – only the winners. We’ll never know which other musicians were in effect competing with Weilerstein, and how she was deemed the most worthy.
With most music competitions, the public has access to much more information. It’s usually revealed who the competitors are (often they can be heard in performance), and the composition of the jury is usually a matter of open record. Compared with the MacArthur Foundation awards, they’re models of accountability. Indeed, more transparency surrounds the election of a pope than attends the selection of a MacArthur Fellow.
Moreover, the crazy-big purse of $500,000 seems designed with star-minting in mind. It serves to single out one person from a roster of more-or-less equally distinguished people, elevating him or her to a position of apparent pre-eminence. There’s no room for nuance here: either you get half a million bucks, or you get nothing. And such a large sum of money makes an implied claim about who’s best (and who isn’t) that’s as loud and as it is simplistic.
Alisa Weilerstein is a fine candidate for a major award that recognizes exceptional talent, creativity and potential. But so are scores of other very impressive musicians. So why did she win out over them?
© Colin Eatock 2011