Maestro, musician, and polio survivor
Leonard Bernstein was his mentor, but it was Itzhak Perlman who gave James DePreist practical advice. Photo by Jennifer Taylor
J ames DePreist was born in Philadelphia in 1936. He was diagnosed with polio in 1962. Two years later, he won the Dimitris Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition, and a year after that he was named assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
His career since then has included musical directorship for orchestras in Quebec City; Malmö, Sweden; Monaco; and Tokyo. He also was associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. DePreist has more than 50 recordings to his credit and in 2005 received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush. He is currently director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School and laureate music director of the Oregon Symphony.
At 22 years old, James DePreist had just come to a decision as to what he wanted to do with his life. He had grown up in Philadelphia, had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and had studied composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. DePreist had thought he might be a composer but decided instead to try a career in conducting. A man of great energy, he found himself uncharacteristically fatigued during a 1962 State Department tour in Bangkok, Thailand. Doctors there delivered a diagnosis that might well have derailed the plans of a lesser spirit: They told him he had contracted polio.
“There was no speculation as to the exact cause,” he remembers. “There were four or five other cases in Thailand. It manifested itself in my being very tired and having pain in my legs. I saw a doctor, who gave me a shot of something, and that night I had to get up to go to the bathroom, and I couldn’t stand up. And that was it.”
He spent the first weeks after the diagnosis in a Bangkok nursing home worrying about how far the disease would progress. “I was exercising my legs, trying to move my arms, with images of an iron lung in my mind before it was determined that the disease wasn’t continuing to move.”
There were some low moments, he says, as he waited in Bangkok for a way back to the United States. “I knew that I needed treatment and therapy, but there was some question if I was contagious and much bureaucracy between Washington and Thailand, and that’s where my aunt was very helpful.” His aunt was the famous contralto Marian Anderson, who had just sung at President Kennedy’s inauguration. DePreist had been told it would be at least a week before a plane could be arranged. When his aunt found out his condition, “a plane happened to be there the next morning,” he recalls. “It was a military transport, and in the stretchers all around me were wounded Marines and soldiers from Vietnam in far worse shape than I was, and it really put things in perspective. And I was entirely optimistic and had a great deal of faith, and so I said, ‘All right. This is what it is for the moment, and we’ll see what’s going to happen.’”
I thought it was so important to be standing, and I was in braces, and keeping my balance was very confining.
Back in the United States, DePreist entered Masee Memorial Hospital for Convalescents in Philadelphia and lived there for about a year, learning to walk with braces, to use crutches, and to maneuver stairs, among other therapies. He spent much of his time in his room reading musical scores.
“When I came to the rehabilitation center, all the patients had some kind of trauma, because they couldn’t walk or do things, and they wanted to make sure they had social contact. I just wanted to be in my room reading scores, so my door was closed, and there was this major discussion about whether I was going through some huge depression. The staff finally said no, he seems perfectly happy. And I was happy. I had finally decided what I was going to do with my life as far as music was concerned. My excitement over that in some ways almost overshadowed the fact that I had polio. I did wonder what I was going to be facing. There hadn’t been a conductor coming on stage with crutches and braces, but amazingly enough, I said this is still what I want to do.”
His friend Leonard Bernstein encouraged him to enter the Dimitris Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition, and DePreist, on crutches and in braces, won first prize. Bernstein then selected him to be assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the 1965-66 season, and DePreist’s extraordinary career was launched. Since then, he has worked with every major North American orchestra and with others around the world. Most of that work has been from a wheelchair.
“I remember when I was starting out, I thought it was so important to be standing, and I was in braces, and keeping my balance was very confining. Then a liberating moment came in Stockholm around 1969. The soloist was Itzhak Perlman, who was also a polio survivor and who was performing from a wheelchair. And he said, ‘Why are you standing up?’ I had no intelligent answer except that conductors always stand. So I sat down on a stool, and it was so liberating that from that point forward I have always sat to conduct. The main thing about sitting down is you have to be seen by the musicians. You have to be clear in terms of our upper body gestures. Your eyes are tremendously important; you use your face to communicate.”
Speaking of fellow music legend Perlman, DePreist remembers a laugh the two of them shared: “We were talking about how people commented on how elegant our low bows were at the end of performances. What we knew is that we were looking around at the floor to make sure our braces hadn’t dropped any hardware.”
Craig Vetter is a freelance writer in Chicago working on two books, fiction and nonfiction.