Conductor, Juilliard Emeritus James DePreist Dies

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He contracted polio in 1962 while in Thailand, affecting his walk for the rest of his life. He developed kidney disease in the 1990s and had a transplant in 2001.

In 2005, President George W. Bush presented DePreist with the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence. The conductor also received more than a dozen honorary doctorates, was honored in countries from Finland to Japan, and managed to write two books of poetry.

DePreist was the nephew of Marian Anderson, a celebrated contralto whose 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a landmark moment in civil-rights history. DePreist told National Public Radio in 2005 that that his aunt “was simultaneously the most humble person I ever met in my life and the most powerful.”

Though DePreist was a pioneer in terms of African-American conductors, he downplayed that aspect of his career.

“He never seemed to bring that to the foreground,” Frajola said. “It was always more important to him to play the music well, to be thinking artistically and to take care of his orchestra.”

In a 1992 letter to the editor of the New York Times, in which he responded to an article about minority conductors, DePreist made clear that artistry was his major concern.

“What self-respecting musician would really want to be engaged for reasons primarily other than artistic?” DePreist wrote. “In my view, any orchestra that engages a conductor, soloist or player because that individual is black not only offends the process but also demeans the musician and compromises the artistic integrity of the institution.

“Any prize artificially pushed toward our grasp is a prize not worth having.”

(Photo: AP)

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