James DePreist Dies

Janos Gereben on February 12, 2013
James De Priest
James DePriest

Former Oregon Symphony Music Director James DePreist, 77, died last week. No cause of death was announced, but DePriest had many health problems, including a bout with polio at the age of 28 that left him paralyzed; he regained his ability to walk, with crutches, and conducted while sitting.

DePreist was one of the first African-American conductors to work with major orchestras in the United States and around the world. He led the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, transforming it into a respected regional orchestra. The Oregon Symphony issued a statement:

A passionate and eloquent man, Jimmy was larger than life and a powerful force for music and the arts in the community of Portland and beyond. His work with the orchestra literally put it on the map. Under his leadership the orchestra moved from a small part time group to a full time, nationally recognized orchestra with 17 recordings.

DePreist was born in Philadelphia where his classical music training started at a very young age, possibly due to the influence of his aunt, opera singer Marian Anderson.

He had made some 50 recordings, had been awarded 14 honorary doctorate degrees, and had published two books of poetry — The Precipice Garden and The Distant Siren. In a blurb for the books, Maya Angelou wrote, "His poetry has the tautness of a perfectly pitched viola and much of its resonance."

Serving as permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra from 2005 to 2008, DePreist inspired a manga, made into a live-action television show called Nodame Cantabile. The show was a quirky romance about two young musicians, one of whom is hired by DePriest as the resident conductor for a fictional symphony; DePreist played himself in the series and conducted the Tokyo symphony on its soundtrack.