Alum, conductor James DePreist dies
In 2005, DePreist, 76, was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor for artistic excellence in the country
February 11, 2013, 10:57 pm·
Richard Termine | DP
The international music community lost one of its great conductors on the morning of Feb. 8, when Penn alumnus James DePreist died at the age of 76 from heart attack complications in his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
In March of 2012, DePreist suffered a heart attack, which resulted in open heart surgery. He has been in and out of the hospital since then, according to his agent Jason Bagdade.
He graduated from the Wharton School in 1958, received his master’s degree from the Annenberg School in 1961, and was awarded an honorary degree from Penn in 1976.
DePreist studied composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music under Vincent Persichetti before he went to Penn.
After Penn, DePreist served as the Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, and was the Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at The Juilliard School from 2004 to 2011.
From 2005 until 2008, DePreist served as the Permanent Conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
“A good word to describe him would be magisterial. He had a commanding presence and gentleness at the same time. He inspired a lot of people who were touched by his love,” said Bagdade, who worked with DePreist for about 15 years.
Born in Philadelphia in 1936, DePreist was the nephew of the renowned singer Marian Anderson. “He was one of the first major African American conductors, but he didn’t really want to bring that part of his life into the foreground. He just wanted to be known as a conductor,” said Peter Frajola, the Associate Concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, who started playing under DePreist’s direction in 1984.
Frajola said the Oregon Symphony was a good regional orchestra when DePreist arrived in 1980, but within four or five years, “He took us from a regional orchestra to a major symphony orchestra status.”
Frajola also said that DePreist had a major impact on the music and arts culture of Portland, and that he will be sorely missed. “The world was much better off with him,” he said.
Throughout his distinguished career, DePreist worked with both a social handicap and a physical one.
DePreist contracted polio on a 1962 State Department tour in Bangkok, but he recovered and went on to conduct with every major North American orchestra, as well as groups internationally in Amsterdam, Berlin, Melbourne, Prague, Rome and Tokyo, among others.
“He will be remembered for being a groundbreaking African American conductor – an inspirational figure who overcame not only racial barriers but physical disability having to conduct with two paralyzed legs,” Bagdade said.
In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded DePreist the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor for artistic excellence in the country. DePreist has also written two books of poetry entitled “The Precipice Garden” and “The Distant Siren”.
He is survived by his wife Ginette and his two daughters, Jennifer and Tracy. Bagdade said that plans for a memorial service have not yet been finalized, but it will likely take place within the next few days.
Senior staff writer Aditi Srinivas contributed reporting.