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DePreist brings a difference to the podium


Conductor James DePreist likes to do things differently. His program with the Baltimore Symphony this week proves it.

Instead of the customary overture-concerto-symphony format, DePreist, the music director of the Oregon Symphony and the Monte Carlo Symphony, will lead a concert of overtures: Rossini's "La gazza ladra," Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," Glinka's "Russlan and Ludmilla," Beethoven's "Leonore Overture No. 3," Mozart's "Magic Flute" and Wagner's "Tannhauser."

Most in the audience will be familiar with each work. Hearing them together will make the experience unique.

"It's something I've tried in Portland, [Ore.]," says DePreist of his programming idea. "It's really just a combination of light and serious works, and it seems to work. But it is different than any other program I know."

DePriest himself is different from any other conductor who regularly appears on the BSO podium. He's black -- the only African American who has achieved international status as a conductor.

DePreist may come by his pioneering status genetically: He is the nephew of the legendary contralto Marian Anderson, who fired this nation's conscience in 1939 when she was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall in still-segregated Washington.

"When I conducted the National Symphony for the first time in the early '70s it was in Constitution Hall -- this was before the Kennedy Center was built -- and I called my aunt immediately after the concert," DePreist says. " 'It's incredible to me that you could not do the simple thing I just did,' I told her. Things had come a long way."

According to "Americanizing the American Orchestra," a report from the American Symphony Orchestra League, not far enough.

The report recommended that orchestras make themselves more "accessible" to minority audiences by engaging more minority soloists and conductors. It also suggested that orchestras do away with blind auditions in order to hire more minority orchestra musicians.

One might expect DePreist to be an unqualified supporter of these recommendations.

He's not.

"I certainly agreed with many of the league's ideas, but the

notion of luring [minority] audiences with [minority] musicians is a little ridiculous," DePreist says. "As long as it's a matter of craftsmanship, I'm in favor of encouraging and hiring black musicians. Where I have problems is when people are simply employed because of their color. It's demeaning to any artist, and it defeats the whole purpose of having a career."

DePreist's conducting career is among the brightest of hisgeneration. He has a reputation as a personable, if demanding, orchestral trainer and for his reliability in almost all areas of the repertory. He is also known for his inspiration in specific areas -- such as the huge, complicated post-romantic scores of Sibelius, Nielsen and Shostakovich, and in such modern masters as the Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen.

DePreist's knack for Scandinavian and Russian music has been rewarded with the music directorship of the Malmo Orchestra (one of Sweden's largest), and his appointment as the principal guest conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. These positions have made the 57-year-old conductor one of the most popular and influential musicians in Scandinavia. They have also created the apparent anomaly of a musician whose roots are African celebrated for his interpretations of music from Europe's coldest, northernmost places.

Not at all astonished

DePreist doesn't find this the least bit astonishing. The best four years of his life were spent at Central High School -- the elite public high school for bright boys in Philadelphia that corresponds to Baltimore's City College.

"Race was irrelevant there," DePreist says. "It was the most stimulating place imaginable -- all that mattered was how smart you were and how hard you worked. Being successful wasn't enough; you were expected to do great things."

Few people could argue DePreist failed to satisfy such expectations. Although he had a world-famous aunt, he did not have an easy time establishing himself as a musician. He had to battle two disabilities -- prejudice and the crippling effects of polio.

Although musically trained as a child, DePreist studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania's famed Wharton School and later earned a master's degree in film at the same university's Annenberg School. But after military service, he could not resist music's pull. He enrolled at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, with the intention of becoming a conductor.

But he already had a reputation as a jazz player and arranger. In 1961, as a 26-year-old, he was invited by the U.S. Department of State to tour the Far East playing his jazz compositions, conducting jazz workshops and lecturing about American music. accepted the invitation with misgivings. There were, after all, no guarantees about conducting anything but jazz workshops. But on advice from Leonard Bernstein, a friend of his aunt, he decided to accept.

"You'll find out all the things you can do and the one thing you can't do without," Bernstein said.

While in Bangkok DePreist found out how right Bernstein was. He was asked to conduct a performance of Schubert's "Great" C Major Symphony and experienced an epiphany -- "as close to a revelation as anything that has ever happened to me," DePreist once said.

There was a drawback, however -- a big one. As a child, DePreist had received only two of the three required polio shots. In Bangkok, he contracted the disease and returned to the United States as a man who was unable to walk. Worse -- he was depressed.

"Now that I know what I want to do," he wrote Bernstein, "I can't do it."

A return to the podium

Even depression, however, couldn't keep DePreist from music. Physical therapy enabled him to walk on crutches and he returned to conducting, eventually winning the prestigious Dmitri Mitropoulos Competition in 1965. The prize carried with it a year as Bernstein's assistant with the New York Philharmonic. His career was finally launched.

Keeping that career moving took much longer.

In the next seven years, DePreist did not get the engagements that someone who had won so prestigious a prize and so many glowing notices might have expected. Racism might have been a cause, but more likely, DePreist says, was the American prejudice "against any American conductors, white or black."

He made his career -- as other talented American conductors, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's David Zinman, did -- by going to Europe. His successes there made it possible for him to break through in his own country.

DePreist considers his work as music director of the Oregon Symphony since 1980 to be one of his greatest achievements. The Portland-based orchestra has achieved national status under his direction; it has made several acclaimed recordings and built a new hall. These accomplishments would have been impossible without DePreist, music insiders say.

Every time a position at an important American orchestra opens up, DePreist's name is among the few that always turn up. It seems inevitable that one day he will accept such a position. But he seems genuinely thrilled to remain where he is.

"Come here and discover why everyone wants to move to Oregon," he says. "This is the most fantastic place in the world to live. I figure I have the best of both worlds. I can go to New York, to Chicago, to Monte Carlo and to Stockholm. And then I can come back and live in Portland!"

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