Conductor James DePreist

Roy Hurst talks with noted conductor James DePreist, who is taking the reins of Japan's most celebrated orchestra.

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ED GORDON, host:

Today noted conductor James De Preist leaves for Japan to take the reins of that country's most celebrated orchestra. NPR's Roy Hurst sat down with De Preist in New York. He reports on one man's extraordinary life.

(Soundbite of music)

ROY HURST reporting:

The maestro James De Preist is drilling a student conductor at the Juilliard School of Music. De Preist is sitting in a wheel chair at the back of the room as 21-year-old Sean is up on the podium, doing all he can to manage the large orchestra at his fingertips.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Mr. JAMES DE PREIST (Conductor): Fine. Stop. Right here, where we just stopped, your attention has to be to the horns. The accompaniment doesn't need your attention. They...

HURST: From time to time, De Preist feels the need to stop the action and interact with him.

Mr. DE PREIST: No, no, no, I was bugging him. But that's my job, because the orchestra wants clarity and musicality.

HURST: De Preist has been conducting for more than 40 years. An African-American, he's one of the country's most successful maestros of any color. He's most noted for taking the regional Oregon Symphony and making it into a world-class organization. And this month, he'll take the helm as permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony. Juilliard is a stopover before he leaves. De Preist says he's not a teacher, per se, but he's always willing to impart wisdom to young, budding conductors.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Mr. DE PREIST: Sorry. Violins in the rear can't see where the bottom of that beat is.

If you've been successful and if you've been conducting all that time, '64 to 2005, then you should have acquired some kind of knowledge to be able to look at a young conductor and see how you can more effectively have that person say what they want to say musically.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Mr. DE PREIST: They want a little accent, and you're not giving anything.

HURST: Ask De Preist what conducting is, and he'll say...

Mr. DE PREIST: Well, it's a matter of being able to inspire musicians in an orchestra to give their best, sharing the vision that you bring them. It's simple to say, but very difficult to bring off, something that cannot be taught and really is hard to pin down, and it either works or it doesn't.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

Mr. JIM SVEJDA (KUSC Announcer): Jimmy De Preist is not a talented conductor. He's one of the five finest that America's ever produced.

HURST: Jim Svejda is an announcer at classical radio station KUSC in Los Angeles.

Mr. SVEDJA: Not only does he know exactly what every note in every performance is doing, but you also have the sense he's sort of making it up as he goes along.

(Soundbite of "Sibelius with the Oregon Symphony")

HURST: This is De Preist's latest recording, "Sibelius with the Oregon Symphony."

Mr. SVEJDA: Kind of a dark, mysterious, scary quality in De Preist's Sibelius. He's a guy that just absolutely refuses to let music just speak on the surface, and he always digs down, often into music that really doesn't have much depth, but when he's conducting it, it sounds like it does.

(Soundbite of "Sibelius with the Oregon Symphony")

HURST: De Preist has a huge international fan base. Even so, he's not the caricature of the difficult, arrogant and tyrannical maestro.

Mr. DE PREIST: The idea of the maestro and this big ego trip is a waste of time, as far as I'm concerned. My friends refer to me as Jimmy.

(Soundbite of piano)

HURST: De Preist says he learned something about humility from his aunt, the legendary contralto and civil rights icon Marian Anderson.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Ms. MARIAN ANDERSON (Contralto): (Singing) Come, Lord, Lord of morning.

Mr. DE PREIST: She knew that she was Marian Anderson, but my aunt was simultaneously the most humble person I ever met in my life and the most powerful. And it was a combination of her not needing to strut her strength, because it was just a natural part of her. To the extent that anything has rubbed off, then I'm grateful.

HURST: As a little boy, De Preist was given gifts of classical scores and recordings from his Aunt Marian. He studied music informally, but he was set on becoming a lawyer.

Mr. DE PREIST: And any family who's already given Marian Anderson doesn't have to produce anybody else.

HURST: So to begin the story of James De Preist the conductor, you have to go back to 1962, when De Preist was just having fun, leading a jazz quintet. They toured Asia. He jammed with the king of Thailand and whatnot, and was asked if he wanted to conduct a rehearsal with the Bangkok Symphony. He accepted; and suddenly, an epiphany.

Mr. DE PREIST: You realize that you feel differently. You feel entirely differently than you felt before, ever, and you say, `This is something that I could really commit my life to. And not only could I, I would be really bummed if I couldn't.'

HURST: But it was during that period of discovery in Asia that De Preist learned he had polio. The disease paralyzed both legs.

Mr. DE PREIST: Timing is everything. It was important to have discovered what I wanted to do before I contracted polio. I was so motivated to do what I had to do; I just wanted to make certain my arms could work.

HURST: A year later De Preist found himself a finalist in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. It was held at Carnegie Hall with the famous Leonard Bernstein presiding. The story is somewhat legendary. De Preist, now with leg braces and crutches, is making his way onto the podium. The orchestra, the audience, the judges wait.

Mr. DE PREIST: So I'm still working out the logistics of how to maneuver with the crutches and braces, and then the issue is: All right, you come onstage and you sit down on the stool; what do you do with your crutches? And I lean them on the music stand.

HURST: He begins conducting Beethoven's "Fifth."

(Soundbite of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony")

Mr. DE PREIST: And I see the crutches sliding, sliding, sliding, and they crash to the floor. They just fall over. So I remember Mr. Bernstein saying, `Now, Mr. De Preist, do you want to start over again?' Well, you know, somebody has to get the crutches, and at that time I'm saying, `This is pretty ridiculous.'

HURST: De Preist didn't win that competition, but the next year he did. He then became assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. After that, he went to Europe, and his career began to take off, braces, crutches and all.

Mr. DE PREIST: When you have to conduct and that's the way you get onstage, it's the way you get onstage. You just do what you have to do in order to make it work.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

HURST: But his physical troubles didn't end with polio. In the late 1990s, De Preist contracted kidney disease and had to go on dialysis. This time, he thought of giving up conducting. Then came September 11th, 2001. As the twin towers were coming down, he got a call from Susan Baumgardner, a fan, a woman he had briefly encountered 10 years before.

Ms. SUSAN BAUMGARDNER: My experience with him was just so wonderful that I thought, `I'm going to try to give him a kidney.' And it was the easiest, biggest decision I've ever made in my life. I felt like if I could help him, that would be helping bring more music to the world.

Mr. DE PREIST: It's beyond the level of generosity. She was a life-saver.

HURST: But now at 68 and in a wheelchair, some have asked why De Preist doesn't feel the need to retire.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

Mr. DE PREIST: It is my life. Music is my life. So when anybody talks to me about retiring, then I figure they're ready for me to die. Because I'm not going to be playing golf. I'm not going to be playing tennis. So I don't know what it is that I'm supposed to do when I'm retired. I plan to do this as long as God gives me strength to be able to travel and to conduct.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

HURST: Roy Hurst, NPR News.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. You can hear any story from today's program or previous programs at npr.org. Just click on to Archives at the top of the page. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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