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James DePreist is remembered as more than a pioneering conductor in a memoir by his widow, Ginette

James DePreist conducts a rehearsal of the Pasadena Symphony at the Ambassador Auditorium on Oct. 20, 2010.
Jay L. Clendenin
/
Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
James DePreist conducts a rehearsal of the Pasadena Symphony at the Ambassador Auditorium on Oct. 20, 2010.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s rededication of Marian Anderson Hall earlier this month brought into sharp focus the rich legacy of a groundbreaking contralto and civil rights icon who called this city home. A new memoir shares a more intimate view into that legacy, chronicling the life and career of the renowned classical music conductor James DePreist, Anderson’s nephew, whom she helped raise.

Reach Up: My Beautiful Journey with James DePreist, by his widow, Ginette DePreist, tells the story of his early life growing up in a close-knit family in South Philadelphia; his unconventional path to the orchestral podium; and the circumstances that eventually brought them together. Memoir, biography and love story intertwine with James’ own poetic reflections, offering a rich and evocative glimpse into the world of classical music from the 1960s through the early 2000s.

Even as a young man, James DePreist — Jimmy to those who knew him — embodied a wide variety of interests. He was a jazz musician with degrees in finance and communications, a classical conservatory student of composition and orchestration, a composer for ballet and arranger of jazz tunes.

As an adult, he thrived as an orchestral conductor, serving as music director at the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec for seven years, and at the Oregon Symphony for 23, as well as holding other leadership positions in Sweden, Monte Carlo, and Tokyo, to name a few. He directed conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School for seven years. Throughout his career, he made more than 50 recordings, and guest conducted major ensembles around the globe.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 1929.
Marian Anderson Collection/Penn Libraries
Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 1929.

He succeeded in this extraordinarily demanding career despite numerous obstacles and setbacks, from the racism of the time to his physical limitations and complications from polio, contracted when he was 25 — always facing those challenges with an amazing grace, confidence and optimism.

“He had a great example behind him: Marian Anderson, who opened so many doors for the Black race,” says Ginette, who was in town for the rededication of the hall. “And so he thought it would be just fair to continue in her path.”

“Also add to it the fact that there’s a great deal of disabled people being ignored just because it’s embarrassing, or because of whatever reason,” she says. “He wanted to prove that you don’t have to have that stigma; you can continue your life being successful. And so much so that most of the people forgot sometimes that he had to walk onstage with crutches!”

Neither racism nor polio embittered him, slowed him down or dampened his drive to succeed. Audiences saw instead a tall, handsome man with an athlete’s physique; an interpreter of classical music with the soul and literary prowess of a poet; a strong leader on and off the podium, exuding warmth, good humor and empathy for musicians and members of the communities they served.

“I think it was in their DNA,” says Ginette, referring to Jimmy and his aunt Marian’s connection with community. “They wanted to prove that they were more than musicians or singers or artists.

Between the festivities on June 8, Ginette sat down to chat with me about the book in a backstage dressing room at the newly christened Marian Anderson Hall. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.


Ginette DePreist at the rededication of Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.
Pete Checchia
/
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Ginette DePreist at the rededication of Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.
Ginette DePreist with Susan Lewis

The title of the book, Reach Up, I understand, comes from a sermon delivered at Jimmy's neighborhood Baptist church. 

Yes, indeed. He was a teenager, and he was at church with his mother, and the preacher was talking about obstacles and experiences. He was talking about — each time you think there’s no issue, just reach up, and the Lord will give you a hand.

And it stayed with Jimmy a long time. And after his polio experience in Thailand, this same preacher [and I'm talking about Jimmy at 14 versus Jimmy at 25], came by his house, and after a conversation, he said, “Jimmy, it’s time for you to reach up. The Lord will give you a hand. And I thought it was such an appropriate title for the book.”

He didn’t have a typical path to the conductor’s podium, did he? 

No, actually, he didn’t. His passion at the time was jazz. So he made a lot of arrangements, he had several bands, and he was just having fun. He never planned on getting into classical music. That just came about in Thailand, of all places.

The State Department sent him on a cultural diplomacy tour because the King of Thailand was a jazz musician and fan — a trip that turned out to be life-changing in two respects.

Yes. Playing jazz every Friday night with the King was thrilling, but he wanted to discover other branches of the music world in Thailand, so he went to the [Bangkok] Conservatory. The orchestra was rehearsing a piece that Aunt Marian had given him for his birthday. He knew that symphony by memory, basically. So the director offered for him to step on the podium and try to rehearse. And that moment was a true revelation for him. That's how he decided, OK, I found what I want to do in my life. It was Schubert’s Ninth Symphony.

And then, heartbreakingly, he also contracted polio on that trip. How did he discover that?

[After that rehearsal] the director of that orchestra asked him to conduct the portion of the concert. The king was impressed by him and asked “after you end the tour, do you have time to come back to Thailand and try to organize a concert for the Red Cross?” So he did. And after the rehearsal, he didn’t feel so good. And that’s when he discovered that it was not a simple cold, but it was polio. He was 25 years old, and he had been immunized in the United States, but the strength of that virus was different in Asia at the time.

Leonard Bernstein encouraged him to keep going and enter the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition, which he won in 1964. He then became an assistant to Bernstein.

That’s right. But you have to understand one thing. He also entered the competition two years prior and got into the finals but didn’t get the position. So he returned to Thailand for a year, and developed an orchestra there and came back, and when he saw the competition was going to take place again, he risked getting into it. And won!

This kind of perseverance became a way of life for him. Could you talk about your life together — when did it begin? You were a producer at the Canadian Broadcast Company?

He did his first interview in French on my show for CBC in Quebec City. He had just been named the new music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra at a time where the Parti Québécois won the election and favored French culture over English culture and was also promoting a separation of the country. So people were kind of puzzled by the fact that here is mostly a French orchestra that hires an American conductor. So a journalist at the press conference told Jimmy, “Aren’t you feeling a little awkward to be only speaking English with a French orchestra?” And he said: “I'm not music director yet. I’ll be back in September. When I come back, I’ll speak French.” So I told my colleague, “You heard that?” We were trying to have the first interview in French, and we did.

This book chronicles the subsequent experiences in your life together — stories of his triumphs and challenges, making great music with musicians worldwide, both in leadership roles and as guest conductor.  He came to Philadelphia 33 times!

Conductor James DePriest, photographed in 1987
Robert Miller
/
Portland Art Museum
Conductor James DePriest, photographed in 1987

One of the stories I particularly like was about the weekend where he had to fill in for Klaus Tennstedt in Philadelphia, and at Carnegie Hall. He was conducting Mahler 10 for the first time ever. Without a score. And he was also flying back and forth to Portland, Oregon because he also had concerts there that weekend. That’s just astonishing. 

It is close to craziness, would you say? And I told him so. I said, “You know, you’re going to fall ill if you keep up that kind of schedule.” But you have to understand, The Philadelphia Orchestra he grew up with, it was like the ultimate; it was like the Taj Mahal for him. And he would never say no to such an ensemble of musicians. And obviously, on top of it, Carnegie Hall, for a conductor, is always such an honor to go into, especially that Aunt Marian was involved in restoring that hall. So, all of that cemented even more his resolve to get that work and make it work.

One of the things I love about this book is that along with all of the great stories that you tell, every chapter, and there are 44 small chapters, every chapter starts out with a poem by Jimmy, with the exception of one, chapter 29, which starts out with a poem by his mother. But the chapter on this weekend in Philadelphia, with Mahler 10, starts out with a short poem: Grounded enough to fly without fear.  

Isn’t it appropriate, don’t you think?

It’s so appropriate, and that’s why I marvel at your selection of these poems, because the poems were published in the 1980s. Yet, it seems like as you read this book, you are hearing Jimmy’s thoughts, his internal thoughts about life, and they relate so well to the stories that you tell.  The second chapter is a love poem, which is beautiful. How did you make this selection? 

I think it’s a byproduct of having a soulmate with whom you go to bed and wake up every morning and every minute of the day you’re together. You finish your thoughts, your planning [is] in sync. I think that’s a deeper sensation that you get into your being that’s saying, “Yeah, this meant this and that meant that.” And when I revisited this book of poetry, I found it fairly easy to choose the poem that would really fit with the subject of the chapter.

It's almost as if he was with you picking each poem. 

I do believe that, Susan. I do believe that. I mean, I’m very naïve, maybe, but I do believe that Jimmy is nested in the center of my soul all the time.

And as we mentioned, chapter 29 starts with a poem by his mother. And that’s the chapter about Aunt Marian’s last year. 

Well, they were so close. They were two sisters that are the closest. And Jimmy was the son that Marian never had. So, that bond, not only as sisters, but as a mother with one child and a woman who never had the opportunity to have one, I think that it was fitting that I would attribute that chapter to her sister.

Poetry and music seem connected for him. Could you talk about the role of music and poetry in his approach to his art? 

He said one time in an interview that if he had had the choice and poetry would make money, he would probably be a poet. That doesn’t mean he would give up music, but poetry, it was kind of a quiet space, a universe in itself to analyze, to be able to put things together, to be creative in both ways. It was a new form of breathing. And he loved it.

Now that you’ve finished the book, and selected all of these poems, and wrote all these stories, are there certain poems or stories that you keep going back to in your mind?

Obviously, the end of our lives together was the most difficult to write about. When you lose somebody so dear, you have a scar, and if you scratch too much, the pain comes back. So, that was a difficult moment. As far as the poems are concerned, I wouldn’t be able to choose. There were some that have some kind of humor. Obviously, those that were addressed to me were very, very important and very touching, and I have a couple of them in the book.

Well, the book is so rich with stories and his own words in the poetry and revealing so many different aspects of him. His struggles, his love of music, his courage and resilience — and his warmth and kindness. He had this effect on so many people. I know when we first met him years ago with you, we went out to dinner and his warmth and good nature was so enveloping. And I sense from reading the book that he had that effect on musicians, on people in the community, on many, many people he came into contact with, as did you. 

Yes. I think that it was part of our lives together. He was such a driving force in life. He loved his life. He felt very cherished by it; he appreciated what it brought him and he wanted to pay back. And he had a great sense of humor; you know that! He would make people laugh, all the time and he was quick. So when he felt that somebody was awkward, he was always ready with a joke or a turn of phrase. That was Jimmy.

How do you think he would want to be remembered?

It’s interesting that you’re mentioning that because today during the renaming of the hall, I was thinking of Aunt Marian, and people were asking how would she react to that? And Marian used to say, “Don’t make any fuss about this. No fuss about this.” It was always no fuss at the end of an honor or something. And I have the feeling that Jimmy would do the same. “Oh, we had a good time. We had a good time. We’re the ones who are privileged in many ways.”

REACH UP: My Beautiful Journey with James DePreist is out now on Luminare Press.

Selected Discography:

Poetry:

  • James DePreist, This Precipice Garden, University of Portland Press (1987)
  • James DePreist, The Distant Siren, Willamette University Press (1989)
Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.