Toby Saks, founder of the Seattle Chamber Music Society and an acclaimed cellist, died early on Thursday (Aug. 1) — sending waves of shock and grief around the world as music lovers got the news. She was 71 when she lost a short battle with fast-moving pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis she met with bravery and calm.
Today has been a long day of grief, resurfacing memories, and of music, above all.
I auditioned for the Oregon Symphony in May of 1995. I played my first two rounds, and then came the finals.
There sat the great man himself. James DePreist. The Maestro. Jimmy.
He asked me about my time in Philadelphia, laughed about the legendary Joseph DePasquale (with whom I’d studied at one time), and asked me how long I expected to stay with the Oregon Symphony. Somewhat taken aback, I mouthed some mealy phrases about seeing how things went, maybe trying to get into the Philadelphia Orchestra someday (my dream job at the time). I left the stage and was later welcomed to the orchestra by Jimmy personally. Thus began my eight years under him at the Oregon Symphony.
Jimmy was perhaps best described as “the people’s maestro”. He seemed to appeal to just about everyone. Blazers fans, cab drivers, parking attendants, random people on the street – they all knew about Jimmy, and were fans of what he did with the Oregon Symphony – even if they never set foot in the concert hall. He was a fearsomely intelligent man, but never came across as erudite (unless he needed to be). He loved television, and seemingly was on top of most pop culture topics of the day, unlike many other maestri.
At one of my first rehearsals, I forget what piece we were rehearsing, but he stopped the orchestra and said “Do you know that new Les Schwab [tires] commercial that’s on right now? Where the car is driving calmly along, and suddenly there’s ice around the next corner, and the music for the commercial gets very tense and foreboding? That’s how I want you to play this passage.” We all laughed, but we also knew exactly what he was going for.
Jimmy came up in the classical music world with some of the greatest artists of the day, and worked with the next generations at the Aspen Music Festival. They became regular soloists with the Oregon Symphony, and the interplay and delight that came across in their collaborations were often highlights of each concert. Such artists were Andre Watts, Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg, Lynn Harrell, Itzhak Perlman, and many more.
Jimmy was a maestro in the old school sense, at least in terms of his repertoire. No one would ever accuse his Mozart of being his calling card, for example. He would do the major Mozart symphonies, dutifully, but with not so much passion. His passion lay with the Romantic repertoire. The performances that absolutely stand out for me as the highlights of my time with him were such works as the symphonies of Sibelius, Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp major, Bruckner’s Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, Mahler’s First, Third, and Fifth Symphonies, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and Symphonic Dances, and perhaps even more impressive the Roman trilogy of Ottorino Respighi. He had such a seamless conception of these large-scale works, he knew how to manage the emotional and structural content over the long term, and the big climaxes of these works were almost painful in their intensity and emotional payoff.
He also enjoyed conducting newer works. He gave one of the (if not the) first professional commissions to now renowned composer Jennifer Higdon (her work Shine) for the Oregon Symphony’s 100th season and in honor of composer Morton Gould. He commissioned major works by John Adams (Slonimsky’s Earbox) and conducted works of David Dzubay, Gubaidulina, Kanchelli, Daugherty, Lees, Persichetti, Hersh, and many more, during his tenure with the Oregon Symphony and around the world.
Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony was considered the orchestra’s signature piece during Jimmy’s tenure, and I had the great fortune to play it with him several times during my first eight years with the orchestra. In particular, when I was acting principal viola during my first season, we played the Second for a live television broadcast to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Oregon Symphony. I take great pride in getting him to crack up on camera during the octave leap the violas have in the opening lines of the symphony, complete with a DePasquale slide to the upper octave. He always loved it when the strings did stuff like that. For him, the sound was paramount – he wanted fullness, lushness, and an opulent conception of sound from the strings, very much in the vein of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.
On a personal note, Jimmy was an extraordinary communicator, whether it be a one-on-one conversation or an address to thousands of patrons. In particular, he had a remarkable gift for handling hot-under-the-collar musicians. I remember going into his dressing room more than once, outraged by something, and having him listen to my complaints and I would in turn feel like I’d been listened to, and my concerns would be fully addressed. Then I would leave the meeting and realize a couple of minutes later that he’d promised me nothing in the bargain – he just let me have my say and feel better, and we each went on our way. It’s a rare (and sometimes infuriating) quality to find in any leader, never mind in a music director.
He took particular delight in meeting the new offspring of his musicians. This delight was so genuine and contagious – the baby often seemed as delighted to be met as he was to meet her! And the parents would be so full of pride to have their new loved one doted over by such a massive and intimidating maestro! Today there are doubtless many photo albums being hauled out to see those photos of Jimmy with a now-grown child, all smiles and affection.
I know that I will never again have the opportunity to work under and have the privilege of knowing a person of such character, integrity, and depth as James DePreist. It scarcely seems possible that he is no longer with us. He was always immortal in my heart of hearts – he dodged so many health bullets in his life, especially in his last years with the Oregon Symphony, that it seemed that nothing would ever truly fell him. Avanti, my dear Jimmy. You will be so missed.
Today’s New York Times published an obituary for J. Richard Hackman, an expert in team dynamics. In his 2011 article Six Common Misperceptions About Teamwork for the Harvard Business Journal, Hackman wrote:
“Misperception No. 2: It’s good to mix it up. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team. Without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members’ misbehavior.
“Actually: The longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.”
Not only sports teams or string quartets – symphony orchestras could also be considered in this statement. It’s a shame that many managements don’t subscribe to this view instead of seeing an endless supply of eager, young talent emerging from conservatories and music schools to replace higher-cost musicians.