He made a kid love Bruckner

John McLaughlin Williams writes - There will be many tributes to the late James DePreist, and all will bear eloquent witness to the complete mastery and great humanity of a musician who touched many lives. Unfortunately, I had no personal acquaintance with Mr. DePreist, but he was frequently with me, whether from listening to his myriad recordings (that of Korngold's Symphony in F# stands out among many high points), or from recalling my first encounter with his conducting and musicianship.

As a young violin student resident in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of attending many concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra. On one occasion my mother took me to hear Bruckner's 4th Symphony performed by NSO and conducted by DePreist. It was my first encounter with both. Though I thought the music very long, I remember being mesmerized by what seemed endless paragraphs of sound, all marshaled seamlessly by the conductor. My mother made no special emphasis of the conductor's race, but I know in retrospect that she thought it important that I see this conductor, this African-American conductor, working at the top echelon of music. Though James DePreist's race was (and is) obvious, that is not what has stayed with me. Nor should it; it is his ability to make music speak across that divide where silence becomes poetry that remains timeless to all who heard his music making. He made a kid love Bruckner. Which I still do.

A picture has settled in my mind since I heard the news. I imagine the shades of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Toscanini, Szell, Walter, Ormandy, Bernstein, Solti and Reiner looking up to see James DePriest striding towards them. They greet him: "Jimmy, great to finally see you!"

Thank you James DePreist. May you rest with the Angels.

Photo credit Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Philip Amos said…
A fine and fitting tribute by John McLaughlin Williams. I moved from London to Canada the same year DePreist became conductor of the Quebec Symphony. I heard many of their broadcast concerts and remained an ardent admirer of his work thereafter. He was there only four years, but his long tenure with the Oregon demonstrated that he was an orchestra builder par excellence -- he put it firmly on the map as an ensemble to be reckoned with, while endearing himself to orchestra and public alike. His orchestra he treated as colleagues, the public as friends, known as 'Jimmy' to all. Honours he did receive aplenty, but I should much like to see his recordings given more recognition. His Shostakovich cycle with the Helsinki Philharmonic should be mentioned alongside some of the best in comparative reviews, perhaps especially the tricky 11th, and I think also of his recording of Rachmaninov's 2nd symphony with the Oregon, a recording which also introduced me to Respighi's orchestration of one of the etudes-tableaux.

Any neglect of talent rankles with me, and yes, as with Dean Dixon, I should like to have seen Jimmy in charge of a top-ranking orchestra, but as an African American in a less than always welcoming milieu, and to boot a man who had to cope with the loss of the use of his legs owing to polio, his achievements were as wondrous as his spirit and humility.

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