For young, would-be conductors, the trip to the podium is never short—and most who start out in this fiercely competitive field never make it. For James DePreist, the journey encompassed 13 years, an attack of polio and periods of near total despair. But beginning next year, DePreist, now 39, will take over as musical director and permanent conductor of the 65-man Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, oldest in Canada. For DePreist, it is a double triumph. Quebec, the hotbed of Francophile sentiment, has picked not only an American, but a black one at that.
To DePreist, growing up poor in a Philadelphia ghetto, black was not exactly beautiful, nor was it an insurmountable hurdle. When he was 6, his father, a building foreman, died, but the family could still afford to pay for the boy’s piano lessons. His famous aunt, contralto Marian Anderson, gave him classical recordings with the orchestral scores to balance his craze for the mambo and Patti Page. By the time DePreist arrived at the University of Pennsylvania to study law, he had formed his own jazz quartet (they performed on Steve Allen’s Tonight show) and in his senior year he was leader of the 100-piece student band.
“I decided law wasn’t what I wanted,” DePreist explained. Wondering whether he could make a living at music, he enrolled in composition courses at Philadelphia’s Conservatory of Music. When he was asked to join the State Department’s cultural exchange program, he put the question to conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, a long-time friend of his Aunt Marian. Bernstein endorsed the tour, predicting: “You will be able to do all the things you can do, and you will find the one thing in life you can’t do without.”
In Bangkok, in February 1962, DePreist finally got a chance to conduct a full symphony. “Where have you been all my life,” he exclaimed to himself as he stepped down from the podium, having directed Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C major from memory. “I had found the thing I could do with a passion.” But as he went on conducting in Thailand and in the Philippines, his euphoria developed a dark side. He told friends, “You know, I’m waiting for the bubble to burst.”
It did. While with the Bangkok symphony, DePreist contracted severe polio (he had had only two of the three required polio shots). Flown home for emergency treatment, he recalls, “I considered myself part of a cosmic game God was playing, for some inexplicable reason, to test my endurance and sanity.”
Fighting back, he was able within a year—relying on leg braces and crutches—to enter the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conductor’s Competition. He made it to the semifinals. In 1964 he was back again, this time to win a first prize ($3,500), a year as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic and the opportunity to conduct the orchestra on coast-to-coast TV.
His TV debut produced not a ripple, apart from an offer to be musical director of a summer camp. “That was the bottom,” DePreist recalls grimly. He and his wife, Peg, a former physical therapist, sold their house in Philadelphia and headed for Europe—and freelance conducting. “I had no choice,” says DePreist.
In his fantasies, DePreist saw himself guest-conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic; the concert would be incredibly successful, he would be reengaged by the orchestra and offers would jam his mailbox. Incredibly, “this is what happened,” says DePreist with a broad grin. Having established himself abroad, he was summoned home in 1971 by Antal Dorati, a former Mitropoulos contest judge, to be associate conductor of the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. Meanwhile, the Quebec orchestra was looking for a permanent conductor. After hearing 10 guest conductors, they chose DePreist.
“Things happen when they’re supposed to,” DePreist now says philosophically, and adds, “Shifting from guest to permanent conductor is like shifting from lover to husband—you lose the privileges of an affair.” But DePreist, now furiously brushing up on his French—his new orchestra’s official language—is convinced that he has embarked upon a bon manage.