James DePreist

About James DePreist

Maestro James DePreist was not only an influential American conductor, he was one of the first African American conductors to achieve international acclaim. He was particularly notable for his long tenure as the music director of the Oregon Symphony, a position he held for 23 years. 

One could say that Mr. DePreist was born into a musical community as the nephew of the legendary contralto Marian Anderson, which added to his deep roots but that is where their similarities ended.  Born on November 21, 1936, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mr. DePreist suffered the death of his father at the age of six. His mother, Ethel, and his aunt Marian went on to raise young James. He went on to earn his bachelor degree Science in Economics and Master of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania.  He excelled in music however, his plans were to go to law school. This quickly changed once he started performing with his jazz quintet which appeared on national TV.  Mr. DePreist studied music composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. He was asked to go on a State Department tour in Bangkok, Thailand in 1962 as a jazz specialist and was even asked to do a jazz session with the king.  However his life changed forever when he was invited to conduct a rehearsal with the conservatory orchestra in Bangkok which he realized he enjoyed immensely. Sadly he also contracted polio while he was there. The two events brought him to a crossroad. Both of his legs were paralyzed and eventually he needed the aid of a wheelchair for the last 8 years of his life. Although this disability set his mobility back some and he was forced to use crutches and braces, his new role as a conductor allowed his talent to shine and he was able to win first prize in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition.  From that experience, he received the attention of Maestro Leonard Bernstein who chose him as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic at the young age of 29 years.  In 1969 and at the young age of 33, he launched his European debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. In 1971, Antal Dorati asked DePreist to become his Associate Conductor with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.  By 1980, DePreist was chosen music director of the Oregon Symphony where he shaped and transformed the orchestra from a part-time orchestra to a orchestra with national recognition and several distinct recordings. 

Over the years, DePreist held numerous prestigious positions and was able to carve out a distinguished career in music. He was the permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra from 2005 to 2008 and served as a guest conductor for virtually every major American orchestra, as well as numerous orchestras (i.e., Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Manchester, Melbourne, Munich, Rome, Tel Aviv, to name a few) around the world. DePreist also guided the youth by teaching and leading the conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School as well as the Aspen Music Festival, Wolf Trap and Tanglewood. He was a significant figure in academia. 

DePreist’s contributions to music were recognized with numerous awards and honors, including 15 honorary doctorates which included being elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as several European awards. He was also one of the few conductors awarded the National Medal of Arts, which he received in 2005. At the time of his death (February 8th) in 2013, he was a laureate music director of the Oregon Symphony. Posthumously, DePreist was inducted into the Philadelphia Music Alliance’s “Walk of Fame.”  DePreist also was a composer and a poet who published two books of poetry, The Precipice Garden (1987) and The Distant Siren (1989). He was a great communicator who was able to bring the city of Portland together with music. His fans included people who had no knowledge of music.  His work and influence remain a substantial part of the American classical music scene.

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