A phone call comes from out of the blue, and suddenly you're $500,000 richer, and people start calling you a genius. That's what happens every year about this time, when the MacArthur Foundation announces the newest recipients of what are routinely called "genius grants."
The 2011 MacArthur Fellows — as they are officially named — were announced today, and among them is 29-year-old cellist Alisa Weilerstein. The foundation described her as a musician who combines "technical precision with impassioned musicianship in performances of both traditional and contemporary music and expanding the cello repertoire through collaborations with leading composers."
Weilerstein's love for combining the old and the new was apparent last fall when she stopped by our NPR Music offices to give a Tiny Desk concert. She juxtaposed Bach with a recent piece by Osvaldo Golijov.
It wasn't easy convincing Weilerstein that she had actually won the grant. She was in Jerusalem playing chamber music when she received a couple of garbled messages on her cell phone. She thought someone simply dialed the wrong number. After a couple of follow-up emails saying, "please call me, I have very good news for you," Weilerstein was convinced it was all a prank.
"I wrote kind of a rude email back because I really thought it was spam," she says. Finally she contacted the MacArthur official, who had to explain to her exactly what the award was and told her that someone she knew "very well" has won the grant.
"Like a total idiot, I said, 'who?' And he said, 'Well, you.' I was in complete shock. I screamed and everything. I think they were highly amused."
Weilerstein was destined for music. Both her parents are successful musicians. Her father, Donald, was the first violinist in the acclaimed Cleveland Quartet, and her mother, Vivian, is a noted pianist. Today the three perform together as the Weilerstein Trio.
The often-told story of how Alisa took up the cello centers on her grandmother, who crafted a set of string instruments for her from cereal boxes. Little Alisa, not yet 3 years old, zeroed in on the makeshift cello. By the time she was 4, she convinced her parents to buy her a real instrument, and she gave her first public concert just six months later.
Weilerstein debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra at 13. She studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and later at Columbia University, where she graduated with a degree in Russian history.
Today, Weilerstein appears with the world's major orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic. One of her greatest achievements, she says, was playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with that orchestra and conductor Daniel Barenboim. The performance was televised live worldwide and released on DVD.
"Daniel Barenboim probably knows that piece better than anyone alive today," she says. "Of course, Jacqueline Du Pré was married to him for many years, and she was the one who brought the Elgar concerto to the forefront of the cello repertoire. Jacqueline Du Pré was always my favorite cellist. I grew up listening to her recordings. All of her videos and interviews I had watched by the time I was 10 years old."
Weilerstein signed a contract with the venerable Decca label last year and plans to record the Elgar concerto with Barenboim. Also ahead for her: a tour of Australia, a debut in Seoul and a tour of Europe with pianist Inon Barnatan.
More MacArthur Fellows
Twenty-two MacArthur Fellows were announced today from a broad range of disciplines — they include a radio host, an economist, a condensed matter physicist, an elder rights lawyer, a sports medicine researcher and two other musicians.
Francisco Núñez, 46, is a choral conductor and composer who directs the Young People's Chorus of New York City. The foundation praised him for "shaping the future of choral singing for children by expanding access from inner-city to elite schools and redefining the artistic and expressive boundaries of the youth choir."
Dafnis Prieto, 37, a jazz percussionist and composer from New York, was cited for his "dazzling technical abilities and rhythmically adventurous compositions."
Each MacArthur Fellow receives a no strings attached $500,000, paid out over five years in quarterly installments — not to mention the bragging rights to be called "genius."