Three Musicians Awarded MacArthur 'Genius' Grants

Dafnis Prieto, pumped. Photographed on September 14, 2011 in New York City. i i

Dafnis Prieto, pumped. Photographed on September 14, 2011 in New York City. Thos Robinson/Getty Images/Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Thos Robinson/Getty Images/Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Dafnis Prieto, pumped. Photographed on September 14, 2011 in New York City.

Dafnis Prieto, pumped. Photographed on September 14, 2011 in New York City.

Thos Robinson/Getty Images/Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Of the 22 people awarded the unfettered $500,000 grant that comes with a MacArthur Fellowship, three are musicians. This means they are, according to the foundation, "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction."

Fransisco Núñez is a choral conductor and composer, Dafnis Prieto a jazz drummer and composer, and Alisa Weilerstein a cellist. Each will receive their grant in installments over five years, with, again according to the foundation, "no strings attached." It's pretty sweet.

NPR Jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon spoke with Prieto on Monday. "I feel a lot of dreams getting closer to com[ing] true, to really materialize a lot of those dreams," he says about being awarded the fellowship.

We've been blown away by Prieto's work for some time — our partner WBGO wrote that he "scare[s] the pants off most drummers in jazz and Afro-Cuban music," in an interview and in-studio performance he gave them two years ago.

Jarenwattananon wrote this about a show he played about the same time in New York City:

Prieto's compositions tend toward harmonically simple but rhythmically intricate and metrically irregular affairs. ... Prieto holds it together with colorful, gonzo, frantic-yet-failsafe drumming, both in taking solos and timekeeping. On a two-part tune ("Bla Bla Bla" and "Bla Bla") he called a musical dialogue between New Orleans and his native Cuba, he introduced a fractured second-line beat to an Afro-Cuban odd-meter groove; he never skipped a beat.

NPR Classical producer Tom Huizenga interviewed Weilerstein this week. The good news phone calls she received from the foundation caught her off guard — so much so that she thought she was victim to a prank. "I wrote kind of a rude email back because I really thought it was spam," she says. "I was in complete shock. I screamed and everything. I think they were highly amused."

Weilerstein graced NPR Music's offices with a Tiny Desk Concert last fall — you can watch and download it here. Huizenga writes that the cellist started young:

Alisa Weilerstein's cello career began with chicken pox. At about age three, frustrated and itchy, little Alisa became mesmerized by a new toy. It was a miniature cello, crafted by hand by her grandmother. The body of the instrument was made from Rice Krispies boxes, and the endpin was an old toothbrush.

Something major must have clicked that day. Because now, some 25 years later, Weilerstein is one of today's top cellists, enjoying a globe-spanning career of performances with orchestras, chamber music concerts and recitals.

She's also spoken to NPR's Weekend Edition and performed in our partner WGBH's studios two years ago.

Fransisco Núñez founded the Young People's Chorus of New York City in 1988, the same year he graduated from New York University. The chorus now tours internationally, has commissioned more than 50 pieces by contemporary composers and is the resident chorus at yet another of our partner stations, WNYC (hear the chorus in a performance of new music with the Kronos Quartet, recorded last fall).

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