James Anderson DePreist, one of the first internationally known African-American conductors, died Friday, Feb. 8, at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. at the age of 76.
According to news.msn.com, DePreist, director emeritus of The Juilliard School's conducting program in New York, had also served as the Oregon Symphony's music director from 1980 until 2003, transforming it from a small, part-time group into a full-time, nationally recognized orchestra with 17 recordings.
A man of great physical and musical stature, DePriest also led orchestras in Quebec, Monte Carlo, Tokyo and Malmo, Sweden. The Oregon Symphony dedicated its weekend performances to the charismatic conductor known as "Jimmy."
Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar commented, "We are talking about a man with an international career, who achieved many things on international stages," "And you can only do that if — aside from technicalities — you are a real personality, someone the musicians look up to, and you keep the audiences very, very interested. And I think in that sense Jimmy was great."
DePreist was born in Philadelphia in 1936. According to his website, he studied music composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and earned a bachelor's and a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2005, President George W. Bush presented DePreist with the National Medal of Arts, the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence. The conductor also received more than a dozen honorary doctorates and was honored in countries from Finland to Japan. In addition to writing music for concert and ballet, he also managed to write two books of poetry.
Though DePreist was a pioneer in terms of African-American conductors, he downplayed that aspect of his career. According to the Toronto Star, he was reluctant to be seen as a role model on the basis of his race, rather than purely for his musical accomplishments, yet he still understood that young black musicians regarded him as a role model, much as they had revered his aunt, the great contralto Marian Anderson, the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. The 1939 concert by Ms. Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial has become a landmark moment in civil-rights history.
In an interview on National Public Radio in 2005, DePreist told reporters that that his aunt "was simultaneously the most humble person I ever met in my life and the most powerful."
In 1997, DePriest appeared in My Country, an hour-long documentary on PBS in which he drew comparisons between racial barriers and the challenges faced by people with disabilities. The famed conductor contracted polio in 1962 while in Thailand, affecting his walk for the rest of his life, but he refused to allow the disability to affect his career; he went on conducting, even after both legs were paralyzed, forcing him to use a wheelchair when he conducted.
DePriest passed away during Black History Month, a time set aside to acknowledge the accomplishments and contributions of African American pioneers, such as this renowned conductor.
The following are related articles connected to Black History Month:
The Black Heritage Series: Eight honored men and women features a tribute to Marian Anderson, the celebrated aunt of James Anderson DePriest.
Four notable Black firsts in a city of firsts.