By the time I arrived in Portland in 1989, one could take it for granted that the Oregon Symphony was a professional ensemble with a national reputation, but DePreist was the engine that made it happen. He took over a small part-time group of musicians in 1980 and, in just a few short years, moved them to a large new concert hall/practice space, transformed them into full-time professionals, led the group on its first out-of-state tour, and conducted the first recordings for a record label. If there was a genie inside Aladdin’s lamp who could grant all of your wishes, it was “Jimmy” DePreist.
My own wishes were fairly simple. I bought my first symphony subscription so that I could hear beautiful, stirring music on a regular basis. I wasn’t disappointed, but I immediately discovered something unexpected. The DePreist presence. It began the moment when he appeared behind the violins, and it built as he magisterially lumbered over to the conductor’s platform on his crutches, took his seat, and tapped his stand with the baton. Magic. Music. DePreist.
Curiously, my most vivid memory will always be a DePreist concert that I watched on TV. A few days after Sept 11, DePreist and the symphony gave a memorial concert to an overflowing concert hall (speakers were strung up outside on the South Park blocks so that the overflow could still listen). Our family gathered in the TV room and held each other as we listened to Samuel Barber’s Adagio, Dvorak’s New World, and more. Then the orchestra came to the finale: America, The Beautiful. I will never forget the sight and sound of what happened next. As the orchestra played and some members of the audience tentatively joined in, James DePreist turned to the hall, and with a facial expression that showed how much his own heart was breaking, cried out, “Sing!”
It was the kind of command that only he could give. We sang.