Any prize artificially pushed toward our grasp is a prize not worth having.
James DePreist, one of the first African American conductors, died Friday after complications from a heart attack almost a year ago. He was one of the first African-American conductors, was awarded the National Medal of Arts (the nation’s highest award for artistic achievement) was the Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at The Julliard School and the Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony. Less known are his books of poetry, The Precipice Garden and The Distant Siren.
He was born in Philadelphia in 1936. He was the nephew of Marian Anderson, the contralto who made history in 1939 with her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and subsequently became the first black person, American or otherwise, to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1955.
He studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and his master’s from the Anenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1962, James DePreist was stricken with polio while on a State Department tour of Bangkok. He managed to recover sufficiently to enter and win the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition (though his walk would be affected for the rest of his life). Leonard Bernstein chose him to be assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1965-1966 season.
He has appeared with every major orchestra in North America (and others in London, Tokyo, Rome, Helsiki, Sydney to name a few) as a guest conductor and served as the music director of the Orchestre Symphonique du Québec, the Malmo Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oregon Symphony. He is credited for over fifty recordings. Here is his arrangement of the theme from his high school friend Bill Cosby’s show, played by the Oregon Symphony.