James Depreist

James DePreist was born in Philadelphia in 1936, the nephew of renowned contralto Marian Anderson. After earning undergraduate and advanced degrees from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at University of Pennsylvania, he studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. A first-prize winner in the prestigious Dmitri Metropoulous International Conducting Competition in 1964, DePreist was selected by Leonard Bernstein to work with him as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra during the 1965-1966 season.

In 1980, DePreist was named music director of the Oregon Symphony, a position he held until 2003. During his 23-year tenure, he led the transformation of the Oregon Symphony from a small, part-time orchestra to a nationally recognized group with 15 groundbreaking recordings. Throughout this period, DePreist conducted in guest appearances with major orchestras in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Helsinki, Tokyo, and other cities. One of the first African American conductors to achieve international renown, DePreist made over 50 recordings with various symphony orchestras in addition to his 15 with the Oregon Symphony.

Other leadership roles include tenures with the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, Sweden’s Mälmo Orchestra, and L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo. One national critic wrote of his conducting: “His performances tend to be alert and extroverted yet reasonably elastic, sensuous and colorful; his interpretations can be personal without becoming idiosyncratic.”

Widely admired for his humanity and his ability to communicate, DePreist received numerous civic awards and recognitions in Oregon, including honorary doctorates from several Oregon colleges and universities. In total, he received 15 honorary doctorates from universities all over the country. He published two books of poetry during his time with the symphony, This Precipice Garden (1986) and The Distant Siren (1989).

DePreist retired as music director of the Oregon Symphony in 2003; he was laureate music director until 2007. After leaving Oregon, he served as director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School of Music and permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra. In 2005, James DePreist received the National Medal of the Arts, the nation’s highest award for artistic excellence. He passed away in February 2013. His widow, Ginette DePreist, has written a memoir, Reach Up: My Beautiful Journey with James DePreist, which will be published in 2024.

Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia; The Oregonian

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