DePreist's major strides

Conductor: The BSO's guest has been in front of more than major orchestras.

April 15, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

James DePreist is perhaps the finest American-born conductor of such northern European symphonists as Russian Dmitri Shostakovich, Finn Jean Sibelius and Dane Carl Nielsen.

But that's not the only distinction that makes DePreist, 62, unique among the world's most respected and admired classical musicians. He's black -- the only African-American who has achieved international status as a conductor.

DePreist, who leads the Baltimore Symphony this week in works of Tchaikovsky and Brahms, is the nephew of the legendary contralto Marian Anderson, who fired this nation's conscience in 1939 when she was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall in segregated Washington.

"When I conducted the National Symphony for the first time in 1970, it was in Constitution Hall -- this was before the completion of the Kennedy Center -- and I called my aunt immediately after the concert," DePreist says.

" `It's incredible to me that you could not do the simple thing I just did,' I told her. Things had come a long way.

"I'd like to see barriers come down so that more disadvantaged kids -- whatever their color or ethnicity -- could be exposed to great music in the European tradition," he says.

Tomorrow, DePreist will be the guest of honor at the luncheon meeting of the BSO's Community Outreach Committee -- just as he was shortly after the committee was founded almost 10 years ago.

The committee's goal is, in the words of its mission statement, "to address the interests and needs of the African American Community with regard to symphonic music."

Black audiences

The most visible effect of the committee's recommendations has been "Classically Black" -- a five-concert series in which every program features, at a minimum, either an African-American performer or composer. BSO musicians also regularly visit inner-city schools and churches. The orchestra also plans to record -- at its own expense -- a compact disc of music by African-American composers.

One might expect DePreist to be an unqualified supporter of such efforts.

He's not.

"These committees, which exist in almost every city where African-Americans are in the majority or are the largest ethnic group, are well-intentioned, and they make earnest efforts to collect input from the inner-city community," DePreist says. "But they haven't questioned what they're doing.

"The notion of targeting black audiences with [black] musicians or what is perceived to be music that might be attractive to those audiences is a little ludicrous. Orchestras must acknowledge that there is a wide range of people for whom estrangement from classical music is simply a reality. It's not a question of how we reach out, but of making it a little easier for people unfamiliar with concert-going to reach in. The idea is for people to extend their horizons rather than to remain within those they already have."

The breadth of DePreist's interests is evident in his knack for Scandinavian and Russian music. His success with this music has been rewarded by prizes (for his acclaimed series of recordings of Shostakovich's music with the Helsinki Philharmonic); by posts (such as principal conductor of Norway's Malmo Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Stockholm and Helsinki philharmonics); and by honors such as election to the Swedish Royal Academy of Music and reception of the Insignia of Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland.

He was inspired to achieve from the beginning. Four of the best years of his life were spent at Philadelphia's Central High School -- one of the nation's most celebrated elite public schools for gifted youngsters.

"Race was irrelevant there," DePreist says. "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 did not fail to satisfy such expectations. But he had to battle two disabilities -- prejudice and the crippling effects of polio.

Although he first achieved fame as a jazz player and arranger, he only decided to become a conductor in 1961 -- when he was invited by the U.S. Department of State to tour the Far East, playing his jazz compositions, conducting jazz workshops and lecturing about American music. While in Bangkok, a chance opportunity to conduct a performance of Schubert's "Great" C Major Symphony led to an epiphany -- "as close to a revelation as anything that has ever happened to me," DePreist once said.

Major drawback

There was a drawback, however -- a big one. As a child, DePreist had received only two of the three required polio shots. In Bangkok, he contracted the disease and returned to the United States as a 26-year-old man who was unable to walk. Worse, he was depressed.

"Now that I know what I want to do," he wrote his friend Leonard Bernstein, "I can't do it."

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