The MacArthur Foundation doesn’t understand us

The MacArthur Foundation has annointed its 2008 Class of Geniuses. Among them are one person from our business, Leila Josefowicz, and a critic, Alex Ross of the New Yorker. There have only been two other pure performers from this industry in previous classes; Marin Alsop in 2005 and pianist Stephen Hough in 2001.

I wonder if performers can really qualify, either as geniuses under any reasonable definition or under the criteria set forth by the MacArthur Foundation itself:

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.

This is not, after all, fundamentally a creative endeavor. That’s not to say that performers can’t be creative; often they are and shouldn’t be. What we do, first and foremost, is try to be faithful to the composer’s intentions, by playing accurately and by making pleasing sounds. Sometimes that lets us connect with what’s underneath the notes and pass that on to the listener. But that’s not creative. Creativity is about creating something new.

Having said that, I have seen a bare handful of people over the years in this business who I consider geniuses (although not creative geniuses). Zukerman and Hilary Hahn qualify, I think; they can do things on the violin that no one else on the planet can; maybe even that no one else ever could. As good a violinist as is Leila Josefowicz, she’s not at that level, technically or musically. And Marin Alsop is not there either. Both Alsop and Josefowicz are interesting and attractive public figures, and both are doing worthwhile things (although the degree to which either is really innovative can easily be overstated).

But geniuses? Especially compared with those MacArthur Fellows who actually do creative work, or important and innovative science?

It almost seems as if the MacArthur Foundation is using its selections to advance some kind of change agenda for us (the Alsop selection, which occurred not long after the near-revolt of the Baltimore Symphony musicians over her appointment as Music Director in 2005, seemed more of a raised middle finger). Obviously it’s their money; they can spend it how they want. But even $500,000 can’t make the word “creativity” mean what they seem to want it to mean.

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