After a career that brought him to orchestra podiums in Helsinki, Finland; Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Los Angeles, James Anderson DePreist was memorialized Monday near 19th and Fitzwater Streets in South Philadelphia at his boyhood church, steps from his onetime home.
"Jimmy was the prince of our family," cousin Sandra Grymes said of DePreist, who died Feb. 8 at age 76. He lost his father at age 6, she told the gathering of about 80 friends and family members at Union Baptist Church, and was raised by women who were "able to make space for him to do his own thing."
One was his aunt Marian Anderson, the celebrated contralto. DePreist's mother wanted him to be a lawyer, but Anderson "exercised a quiet subversion," feeding his interest in music and giving him orchestral scores.
"Jimmy grew up listening to her stories - the acclaim, the discrimination," Grymes said. "He was the son she never had, and she was his muse."
She recalled the episode in the 1960s when, on a tour of Southeast Asia, DePreist contracted polio. "Aunt Marian called Bobby Kennedy, and Jimmy was flown home on a military plane being used to transport soldiers in the Vietnam War."
DePreist lost the use of his legs, and as an African American who conducted from a seated position, he was a rare sight in the orchestral world, if a welcome one. He often performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center in the 1980s and '90s, and downtown at the annual Marian Anderson Award ceremonies.
Monday's memorial featured rotating slides of DePreist as a boy, with such artists as Leonard Bernstein and Leontyne Price - his trademark smiling eyes an unfailing leitmotif - and with President George W. Bush when receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2005. The service was interspersed with Mozart and Bruckner played by string players from the Philadelphia Orchestra and by Nicholas Stovall, principal oboist of the National Symphony Orchestra, where DePreist was once associate conductor.
DePreist also made an indelible mark as an educator, a role of which Juilliard School president Joseph W. Polisi spoke, recalling memorable performances of Rachmaninoff and Mahler led by DePreist on a Juilliard orchestra tour. He had been director of conducting and orchestral studies at the school.
Fellow conductor and teacher Murry Sidlin said DePreist saw "the music as new, and not stodgy replication. He was a compelling musician. Every performance evoked the specific spirit of that work." Several associates read excerpts from his poetry, told stories of his love of food, and quoted examples of a sense of humor that was omnipresent in place of the bitterness one might have expected in a life laced with challenges.
"Some people live and vibrate at a different frequency," said one of his two daughters, Jennifer. "It's hard to imagine that it's not here."
But it was. Printed on the back of the service's program was a DePreist poem: "Should you feel when I have left, a warm and loving unseen gaze, it will be me in softest thought, caressing you with now."
He left attendees with one more gift. A last item in the program was listed as "A Request, please," from James DePreist.
And with that, the strings played Mozart one more time.