Marin Alsop, whose appointment as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra generated international headlines - and local controversy - will today become one of 25 MacArthur fellows selected for 2005.
The "genius grant," given through the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in recognition of "creativity, originality and potential," comes with a no-strings award of $500,000.
"We picked Marin because she's a standout," said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. "She's truly creative. And there's every expectation she will become greater still."
In a statement announcing the selection of Alsop, the MacArthur Foundation praised "her masterful conducting technique and visionary artistic programming" and "extraordinary ability to communicate, both with her orchestra and with her audience."
The foundation also singled out Alsop's "musicality, her skill in making the unusual understandable, and championing of contemporary music." The conductor "defies stereotypes and offers a new model of leadership for orchestras in the U.S. and abroad."
The foundation notified the fellows of their selection before today's announcement.
"It was a big surprise, believe me," said Alsop, 48, reached in England, where she is principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. "I didn't know anything about it before getting the call last week. They said they had been looking at me for a few years, which is a great compliment unto itself."
The search committee for the MacArthur Foundation's Fellows Program reached its decision about Alsop as early as June, before the music world learned in mid-July that she would make history by becoming the first woman to head a major American orchestra when she assumes the BSO post in 2007.
Alsop's BSO appointment in July set off an unusual controversy, when up to 90 percent of the orchestra's players - without criticizing Alsop herself - objected publicly to the music director search process and what they labeled its premature close.
"We watched all the stuff happening in Baltimore with great interest," Socolow said, "but we were not be able to say anything."
Although the unrest between BSO management and musicians added an unexpected element to the story, the historic choice of Alsop still generated a public relations bonanza for the orchestra. Alsop was "Person of the Week" on ABC World News Tonight and featured in Time magazine and publications around the globe.
Today's MacArthur Foundation announcement reiterates the high-profile status the New York-born conductor brings to the BSO.
"In appointing Marin Alsop the BSO's new music director, we knew we had found greatness," board Chairman Philip D. English said in a prepared statement. "She is a dynamic leader and mentor whose musical mastery transcends the stage. We are proud of her amazing contributions to the classical music world and to society."
Alsop, a protege of Leonard Bernstein, is former music director of the Colorado Symphony. As a guest conductor, she has led some of the world's top ensembles, including the London Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.
Her discography documents a repertoire of standards by Brahms and Tchaikovsky as well as works by many of today's leading composers, including John Adams, Philip Glass and John Corigliano. She has been music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California since 1991.
The prestigious and unusually generous MacArthur program recognizes a wide spectrum of talent and achievement.
The 2005 honorees include a fisherman in Maine involved in saving ecosystems, a vehicle emissions specialist in Virginia and a pharmacist in Pennsylvania fighting medication errors in the health industry.
"I think Marin's the first conductor we've chosen," Socolow said. "But we haven't done a fisherman or a pharmacist before, either."
The foundation conducts its search for fellows in secrecy. No one can apply for the award, popularly known as a "genius grant" (a term the foundation does not use). Recipients are chosen through a confidential process that can involve hundreds of anonymous nominators invited by the foundation. A 12-member committee, also serving anonymously, makes the final choices.
The cash award of $500,000, paid quarterly over five years, comes without restrictions.
"This is an interesting kind of philanthropy," Socolow said. Unlike most fellowships, "You can't write a report about this one. There are no requirements."
There have been 707 fellows named since the foundation began the Fellows Program in 1981.
"The money gives recipients a little more sense of freedom and a level of responsibility - proving you are worthy of it," Socolow said. "I see fellows eager to contribute back to the larger society, which, in many cases, they have been doing all along."
Alsop hasn't decided yet how she will spend the windfall.