James DePreist, Barrier-Breaking American Conductor, Dies at 76

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James DePreist, one of the first African-American conductors to have a major career, despite two significant physical ailments, died Friday in Scottsdale, AZ.

He was 76 and died of complications stemming from a heart attack he suffered last spring, according to his manager.

A tall, commanding, and genial gray-bearded presence, DePreist was known as a prolific recording artist, an exceptionally reliable guest conductor and later, a well-liked teacher at the Juilliard School. He traveled widely despite having to conduct from a specially engineered motorized chair, due to a youthful contact with polio.

In 1999, he revealed he was suffering from kidney disease, but would continue his work despite the need for dialysis.

Nephew to the late contralto Marian Anderson, DePreist came late to music. He originally planned to be a lawyer and graduated with a B.S. from the Wharton School of Economics. But in his mid 20s, music caught his interest and he studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory. One of his big breaks came when the State Department hired him as "a music specialist" to go to the Far East. While in Bangkok, Thailand he contracted polio.

Despite this physical setback, which forced him to walk with leg braces and crutches, he continued to pursue conducting; in 1964, he took first prize in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting competition in Athens.

Around this same time, DePreist had come to know Leonard Bernstein through his aunt. Bernstein encouraged DePreist and eventually hired him as an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the 1965-66 season. DePreist then moved to Europe in 1967 where he made his European debut conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

DePreist said the decision to move to Europe was not based on race but rather on the fact that this was a common step for American conductors looking to jump-start their careers. "Barriers were not anything I really thought of both because of my religious faith and the example of Aunt Marian,” he said in a 1998 interview in the Los Angeles Times,. “The barriers were real. But in our family, we never thought of any barrier as being significant if we were determined and prepared. It was just a temporary obstacle."

After working in most of the major European capitals, DePreist landed a job as associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1971. In his first year, he conducted at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. – the same hall at which his aunt had been barred from appearing in 1939.

DePreist was music director of the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, building it into one of America's more adventurous orchestras. His more than 50 recordings spanned the symphonies of Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich to many corners of the modern repertoire. He received numerous awards throughout his career including a National Medal of Arts in 2005. He also published two volumes of poetry through University of Oregon Press.

In the last decade, DePreist devoted much of his efforts to teaching, as director of orchestral and conducting studies at Juilliard from 2004 to 2011. He also worked as a spokesperson in the fight against the global spread of polio, often collaborating with the violinist Itzhak Perlman and Rotary Club International.

In a 2005 interview on WNYC's Soundcheck, DePreist spoke about the role his race has played in his career.

“It’s natural to assume that if racism is part of the country, it’s part of every aspect of it including the music business,” he said. “But if I look back on my career, I can’t say that there was anything I didn’t have, I didn’t get because I was black. I know many of my non-black colleagues who would have liked to have the career that I’ve had.”

DePreist is survived by his wife Ginette; and two daughters, Tracy and Jennifer, from his first marriage to Betty Childress.

Listen to the full Soundcheck interview at the top of this page.