Maurice Peress, music director of the Austin Symphony from 1970 to 1972, died on Dec. 31. He was 87.
An assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, Peress conducted the first performance Bernstein’s “Mass” at the Kennedy Center. The multi-media masterpiece is slated to be performed in Austin this June in celebration of “Bernstein at 100,” to be led by Peter Bay.
A professor and author, Peress was director of the Kansas City Philharmonic and conducted internationally with the Vienna State Opera, Prague Spring Festival and all over China. He also conducted key productions of Bernstein’s “Candide” and “West Side Story.”
He taught at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and he led the Queens College Orchestra.
His 2004 book, “Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and its African-American Roots,” was widely praised.
Before coming to Austin, where he taught at the University of Texas, Peress conducted in Corpus Christi. For a while, he was music director in both cities. He led UT’s University Symphony Orchestra. In Corpus, he put together an annual opera, staging rarely performed works such as Hector Berlioz‘s “Beatrice and Benedick.”
Concerned with widening Texas audiences for classical music, Peress produced a series of televised “Concert Talks.” His Austin Symphony programs did not shy away from Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky and other composers that have fallen out of favor at times with the ensemble’s chief backers.
“His innovative and exciting concerts have inspired new enthusiasm within the community,” Jane Sibley, then president of the Symphony Society, told this newspaper in 1971 when Peress was signed to a three-year contract. “Needless to say, we are delighted that he is pleased with Austin and has agreed to another three years.”
Nevertheless, Peress, citing an overburdened schedule, announced his resignation at the intermission of the orchestra’s last regular subscription concert in 1972.
American-Statesman Amusements Editor John Bustin wrote of that concert: “It was, in every sense, a thrilling performance.”