DePreist, James 1936–
James DePreist 1936–
James DePreist, in the words of the Boston Herald, “commands attention and respect as one of America’s foremost conductors.” During a long career with the Oregon Symphony, he was the only African American who regularly took the stage as conductor of a major American orchestra. DePreist overcame a major hurdle early in his career, surviving and succeeding despite the devastating effects of a bout with polio. Regarded as one of the world’s top interpreters of classical music’s Scandinavian and Russian repertory, DePreist has conducted orchestras all over Europe and is as well known internationally as in the United States.
DePreist was born in Philadelphia on November 21, 1936. A major influence early in life was his mother’s sister Marian Anderson, the pioneering singer who, among many other accomplishments, became the first African American to appear at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1955. DePreist spent summers at Anderson’s Connecticut vacation home, and she encouraged him to pursue music despite his initial leanings toward a law career.
Another influence was the creative atmosphere at Philadelphia’s Central High School, a top public institution that attracted the city’s best students. “Race was irrelevant there,” DePreist told the Baltimore Sun. “It was the most stimulating place imaginable—all that mattered was how smart you were and how hard you worked. Being successful wasn’t enough; you were expected to do great things.” DePreist seemed to be on the way to a career as a composer; earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, he studied with top composer Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music.
DePreist composed several jazz pieces and was invited by the U.S. State Department to tour the Far East, performing, lecturing, and giving jazz workshops. One day in 1962, on short notice, he agreed to conduct a performance of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major—and was instantly hooked on the experience. It was, DePreist was quoted as saying in the Baltimore Sun, “as close to a revelation as anything that has ever happened to me.” But just as he made this breakthrough, DePreist contracted polio. The disease was
At a Glance …
Born November, 21, 1936, in Philadelphia, PA; son of James Henry DePreist and Ethel Anderson DePreist; nephew of opera singer Marian Anderson. Education: University of Pennsylvania, BS, 1958, MA, 1961; attended Philadelphia Conservatory of Music.
Career: Traveled to Asia with U.S. State Department music tour, 1962–63; made conducting debut with New York Philharmonic, 1964; assistant conductor, New York Philharmonic, 1965–66; principal guest conductor, Symphony of the New World, 1968–70; made European conducting debut with Rotterdam Philharmonic, 1969; associate conductor, National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, DC), 1971–75; music director, L’orchestre symphonique du Québec, 1976–83; conductor, Oregon Symphony (Portland, OR), 1980–.
Selected awards: Gold Medal, Dmitri Mitropolous International Music Competition for Conductors, 1964; grantee, Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music, 1969; numerous honorary doctorates.
Addresses: Office —Conductor, Oregon Symphony, 711 SW Alder 200, Portland, OR 97205.
partly the result of incomplete immunizations earlier in life.
Paralyzed and depressed, DePreist (according to the Sun ) wrote to his friend, conductor Leonard Bernstein, “Now that I know what I want to do, I can’t do it.” But DePreist persisted, studying orchestral scores from his hospital bed and over time recovering the ability to walk with crutches. (He still uses crutches and conducts from a chair.) By 1964 he was able to enter the Dmitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. He came away victorious with first prize and spent the next season as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic—a plum post for a young conductor.
Despite this promising beginning, DePreist’s career was slow to gather steam. Racial discrimination may have played a role; another factor was the strong prestige American orchestras of the day attached to European–born conductors. To some extent, the same phenomenon occurred in reverse; the few active African–American conductors on the scene found greater success in Europe than at home, and DePreist began to gain critical acclaim after his European conducting debut with the Rotterdam (Netherlands) Philharmonic in 1969.
A guest slot with Sweden’s Stockholm Philharmonic inaugurated a series of successful DePreist appearances in Scandinavia, where Anderson had also been a longtime audience favorite. The Stockholm appearance was sent DePreist’s direction by his mentor Antal Dorati, who also chose DePreist as associate conductor of Washington, D.C.’s National Symphony in 1971. DePreist’s first top artistic position in North America was with Canada’s Quebec Symphony in 1976; he remained there until 1983.
DePreist’s most important permanent post has been as music director—a position encompassing both conducting and artistic direction—of the Oregon Symphony in Portland, Oregon. Hired in 1980, DePreist quickly built what was generally considered an ordinary regional orchestra into one of national and even international significance. By 1993 the Oregon Symphony held top attendance figures among American orchestras in markets of Portland’s size, and DePreist did not have to resort to time–honored crowd–pleasers to attract classical fans—his programs were noted for the diversity of new music they contained.
DePreist declined, however, to champion the music of African–American, or even American, composers specifically. “I don’t think of symphonic music as Eurocentric,” he explained to the Houston Chronicle. “It’s Euro–centric in only the most superficial of ways. Symphonic music is relevant to and can be enjoyed by anyone who opens themselves to that experience … the idea that one achieves cultural diversity in the audience by programming black music—not only do I disagree with it, but it’s something I resent.”
Likewise, DePreist remained ambivalent about his status as a role model for young African–American musicians seeking to enter the world of classical music. “If there can be any encouragement drawn from my example, I think that’s fine,” he told the Boston Herald. “But I don’t want to focus on the fact that I’m black. I certainly don’t want to get an engagement because I’m black, and I certainly don’t want to be denied one because I’m black.” DePreist told the Herald, that he “never had time to waste speculating” whether or not he had been the victim of discrimination: “Fortunately, I’ve been too busy.”
Indeed, in the 1990s DePreist augmented his regular conducting schedule in Oregon with music directorships and podium appearances in Monte Carlo, Monaco (the Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo), Malmö, Sweden (the Malmö Symphony), and Helsinki, Finland (the Helsinki Philharmonic, with whom DePre—ist made a widely praised series of recordings). After recording a varied repertoire in over 35 compact–disc releases, DePreist emerged in 2001 and 2002 at the forefront of new efforts to market classical music in an era when support from the major labels was drying up: a $1 million gift from Oregon Symphony donor Gretchen Brooks, intended to help the orchestra market recordings on its own, gave DePreist total artistic control over the project.
In the late 1990s DePreist seemed to be in declining health, but a diagnosis of kidney disease and subsequent dialysis treatments gave his performing career renewed vigor. He announced plans to retire from his Oregon Symphony post in 2005, on the 25th anniversary of his hiring, but was slated to continue a full schedule of appearances both there and in Europe up until that time. A published writer with two volumes of poetry to his credit, DePreist looked forward to continued creativity in the musical arena as well. “I have conducted practically everything I wanted to,” he told the Buffalo News. “But the older I get, the more I realize that it takes a lifetime of commitment to plumb the depths of the great works.”
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Baltimore Sun, April 15, 1999, p. E1.
Boston Herald, January 14, 2000, p. S5; June 29, 2001, p. S12.
Buffalo News, April 29, 1995, p. Entertainment–8.
Chicago Sun–Times, May 29, 2002, p. 48.
Houston Chronicle, November 21, 1993, p. Zest–10.
St. Louis Post–Dispatch, April 2, 2000, p. F4.
—James M. Manheim
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