Symphony orchestra conductor James DePreist has been acclaimed as a rare and special artist. His extraordinary talent took him to the Oregon Symphony, which he transformed from a regional to a national orchestra. He was the first African American conductor of the Houston Symphony and was assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Known as one of the finest U.S. conductors, DePreist continues to support the American tradition of excellence in conducting and recordings.
James Anderson DePreist was born November 21, 1936 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a family where music was important. DePreist's mother was a singer and his aunt was the world-renowned contralto Marian Anderson. When DePreist was six years old, his father died. His famous aunt came to the aid of the entire family. She helped the family purchase two adjoining row-houses in a middle-class neighbor on the south side of Philadelphia. DePreist and his mother lived in one house and his aunt Alyce and his grandmother lived in the other. He obtained his early education in music in the Philadel-phia public schools, and at the age of ten he studied piano. Because of music lessons that lasted well after the regular school hours, DePreist found most of his friends in music classes. He participated in musical activities throughout high school and played in the City-Wide High School Orchestra. Music had become a major focus in DePreist's life, but he did not choose it as a career until years later.
After graduating from high school in 1954, DePreist entered the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School as a pre-law student. Not forsaking his musical interest, he took music classes and played in the symphony orchestra and the university marching band. He received his B.S. degree in 1958 and continued at the university to earn a master's degree. In 1959, DePreist studied composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music with Vincent Persichettie, a distinguished American composer. He also studied music history and the theory of harmony and orchestration at the conservatory. While in college, DePreist formed a jazz group called the Jimmy DePreist Quintet. This band became so well-known in the East that in 1956, they appeared on the Steve Allen television show. DePreist received his M.A. degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961.
In 1962, the State Department sponsored a cultural exchange tour and engaged DePreist as an American specialist in music. The tour was to cover the Near and the Far East with DePreist lecturing and performing jazz. While on tour in Thailand and attending a Bangkok orchestra rehearsal, he was asked if he wanted to conduct. This experience caused DePreist to realize he wanted to be a conductor. It also marked his debut as a conductor with the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and led to DePreist's becoming guest conductor at other locations on the State Department tour. Also in 1962 on the tour DePreist was stricken with polio. The disease paralyzed both his legs. He had to be flown home to the States in 1963 for care and therapy. After six months of intensive therapy and perseverance on his part, DePreist was able to walk with the aid of crutches and braces. In the midst of his recuperation, DePreist kept sight of his goals and prepared himself to compete in the Mitropoulos International Conductors Competition, which moved him closer to his goal of becoming a classical conductor and gave him the visibility that creates opportunities. In the competition, DePreist only made it to the semi-finals, but in the next year, he went on to win first prize. His abilities brought him to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who asked DePreist to sign on as assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic during the 1965–66 season.
- Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 21
- Receives B.S. from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Pre-law; studies with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory
- Receives M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania
- Debuts professionally in Bangkok, Thailand; cultural exchange tour of the Near and Far East; contracts polio
- Captures first prize in the Mitropoulos International Competition
- Conducts Marian Anderson's farewell concert
- Serves as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein for the New York Philharmonic
- Becomes the first black conductor to lead the Houston Symphony
- Becomes director of the Oregon Symphony
- Retires from Oregon Symphony
- Becomes director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School
- Debuts in April with the London Symphony Orchestra; new permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony
Legacy and Marion Anderson
On June 28, 1965 DePreist conducted the farewell concert of his aunt Marian Anderson. Her concert was held at the Robin Hood Dell in Philadelphia. In later years, DePreist remarked on what a tremendous contribution his aunt had made to the world of music, part of which was that it made possible much more African American participation. DePreist realized he entered rehearsal halls which in the 1930s may well have been closed to his aunt. In fact, in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Anderson perform at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. There was a great wave of protest. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization and was instrumental in getting Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to issue an invitation to Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Anderson sang to an audience of 75,000 in one of the most important and significant concerts in U.S. history. Subsequently, the policy of prohibiting African American performers in Constitutional Hall was changed. But through it all, Anderson had become for DePreist his hero, godmother, mentor, and close friend. In an interview with CNN in 2002, DePreist stated: "My aunt Marion used to say that she wasn't cut out for hand-to-hand combat. Her approach to life was to lead and fight by example of personality and character." Marion Anderson spent the last years of her life in DePreist's home.
After the completion of his appointment as assistant to Leonard Bernstein, DePreist had difficulty finding a serious classical position as a conductor in the United States, where orchestra boards favored European conductors. Most of the time his letters were met with no response while others suggested pop concerts. To realize his goal DePreist decided to go abroad. He moved to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and called that home from 1966 to 1970. He made his debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 1969, when he took over concerts scheduled to be conducted by Edo de Waart That same year he was awarded the Martha Baird Rockefeller grant, which allowed DePreist to tour in Europe and the United States as a guest conductor. From 1968 to 1970, DePreist was a guest conductor for the Symphony of the New World in New York. His home town recognized his creative talents and his success as a conductor, and he was presented with a Merit Citation from the City of Philadelphia in 1969.
The National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. engaged DePreist from 1971 to 1975 as associate conductor under Antal Dorati. In 1976, DePreist became the first African American conductor of the Houston Symphony. Although he was prepared for his patrons of the Texas symphony, not all of them were prepared for him as an African American. When he stepped on stage, there was a gasp from a woman in the audience. Remembering the guidance given by his aunt, Marion Anderson, DePreist remained calm. In spite of the attendant's unexpected response, DePreist was extraordinary, a skilled conductor who impressed his entire audience.
DePreist received an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976. He also became director of the Quebec Symphony and after four years was offered, in 1980, the directorship of the Oregon Symphony. DePreist's vibrancy as a conductor and his ability to connect with the audience fostered positive relation-ships with this symphony and its audiences. People found him witty, commanding, and charismatic. DePreist would sit on a swiveling stool when interacting with his audience, as the effects of polio required him wear leg braces and use metal canes when walking. He also used podium rails to turn and make statements and comments.
DePreist directed Sweden's Malmo Symphony Orchestra in 1991. In 1999, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, and he received a kidney transplant in December 2001. The Oregon Symphony, which initially was a regional orchestra, was transformed into one of national acclaim by DePreist's directorship. Marking his twentieth anniversary, DePreist and the Oregon Symphony were awarded $1 million for recordings. The funds helped to establish the Gretchen Brooks Recording Fund named for its donor. DePreist was able to have complete artistic freedom over record labels, producing, repertoire, venue, and medium Of the fifteen-album discography that DePreist conducted with the Oregon Symphony, many received critical acclaim. The recording with Neil DePonte of Tomas Svoboda's Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra became the first to be nominated for a Grammy Award in 2004. After twenty-two years as director, DePreist retired from the Oregon Symphony in September 2003. In 2004, he was named laureate director for the Oregon Symphony and continued to do occasional concerts over the seasons.
Juilliard School in New York named DePreist director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies in the fall of 2004. The president of Juilliard, Joseph W. Polisi, said in a school press release by Janet Kessin that "James DePreist beings extraordinary artistry and humanity to his new post. His musical and personal integrity will exist as a model for all the members of our community." DePreist led the orchestra in concert with violinist Gil Shaham as soloist in a Mendelssohn concerto and returned nearly every season to conduct. As director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies, DePreist selects, auditions, and trains five to six young conductors annually in an increasingly global profession. When the school reached its centennial in 2005, DePreist and his orchestral ensembles and conductors were in the forefront of activities. He planned to lead four of the sixteen concerts that Juilliard performs each season.
DePreist's ongoing commitment to conducting was recognized on November 1, 2000, when he received the Ditson Conductor's Award, given annually by Columbia University. As Columbia's 56th recipient of the award, DePreist was acknowledged because of his continued advancement of American music. Other recipients include Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Joann Falletta, and Christoph von Dohnanyi. DePreist has also been guest conductor for every major orchestra in North America and the leading orchestras of Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Manchester, Melbourne, Munich, Prague, Rome, Seoul, Stockholm, Stuttgart, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, and Vienna. He debuted with the London Symphony Orchestra in April 2005 with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. Five. In April 2005, DePreist became the new permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony.
DePreist has to his credit over fifty recordings and thirteen honorary doctorates. His compositions consist particularly of ballet scores. He has been honored as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. He has received the Insignia of Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland, the medal of the City of Quebec, and an Officer of the Order of Cultural Merit of Monaco. DePreist is also the author of two volumes of poetry, This Precipice Garden (1987) and The Distant Siren (1989). DePreist regularly appears at the Aspen Musical Festival, with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, at the Mann Music Center, and with the Juilliard orchestras at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
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Lean'tin L. Bracks