Remembering James DePreist
Tonight is the last of the current round of talks about “You’ll Know When You Get There…” While I look forward to tonight, this morning I have something else on my mind. It is a personal memory of a great musician whose loss I am feeling.
Noted conductor James DePreist died this week. I personally mourn him because he made a difference in my life when I was an adolescent. Mr. DePreist, or, as he suggested we might call him, Jimmy, was the orchestral conductor and chamber music coach at the Westchester Music and Arts Camp. At that time (1967), it was housed at Croton Point Park, along the Hudson River. I arrived at the Camp in his second year. Mr. DePreist bore a significant pedigree having just served as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
What was most striking about Mr. DePreist was his modesty and musical smarts. He was completely unassuming, despite his level of virtuosity and knowledge. He clearly desired to be treated no differently from anyone else, be s/he a camper or administrator. The excellent New York Times obituary, a substantial one at that, was given the unfortunate headline “Pioneering Conductor Whose Legs Were Paralyzed, Dies at 76.” Indeed, when I knew him, Mr. DePreist was only four years out from having contracted polio, and when standing was always supported by extensive leg braces. Yet watching him, one was never aware of the braces or of his disability. He didn’t want to call attention to it and he didn’t want it to factor into his life any more than necessary. This was in keeping with his message of resilience, hard work, and desire to call as little attention as possible to one’s limitations. This was paralleled by his insistence on not calling attention to one’s demographic or racial identity. He did not want to be identified as a “Pioneer,” even though as a black man, he was in a distinct minority in the classical music world. What mattered to him was kindness, excellent, and perseverance.
If one had to weigh the significance of these three attributes in his mind, it was clear that the most important was kindness. The summer of 1967 was my first time away from my parents. My grandmother was dying of brain cancer, and my family had moved recently to the suburbs, where I was deeply unhappy. I was among the youngest group of campers in a setting filled with drugs, sex, and bragging about one’s artistic gifts or connections. I knew nothing about the former two. Some of my fellow musicians saw themselves as upper echelon musicians due to their connections with our instrumental performance teacher, or to the particular repertoire they were attempting. Most notably this meant that they played technically challenging Romantic piano concerti. But Mr. DePreist found none of this particularly interesting.
One of my clearest memories of Jimmy took place on an afternoon. I was sitting on a bench outside a practice room, probably looking as forlorn as I felt. In the background I could hear the sounds of one of my fellow pianists charging away at the Grieg or Schumann piano concerto, I forget which. My own teacher, at Julliard, wasn’t particularly interested in her students doing a limp job at showpieces. Mr. DePreist rolled up nearby in his wheelchair, sat down and put him arm around me. He asked me how I was, told me to pay no mind to what I was hearing or the fact that it was being rehearsed by a camper on the piano teacher’s own piano, and encouraged me to get back into the practice room.
As a chamber music coach, Mr. DePreist was equally encouraging. He suggested but never imposed musical ideas, realized that adolescents are a moody bunch, but could on the balance figure things out with time and support. Our piano trio and quartet performances were probably less than stellar, but they felt good. I always felt like there was someone holding me aloft, no matter how unsettled I was or whether or not my coach could, himself, stand unassisted. What a fortunate encounter this was.