PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — James DePreist, one of the first African-American conductors and a National Medal of Arts winner, died Friday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., his manager Jason Bagdade said.
DePreist, who was 76, had been in and out of the hospital since a massive heart attack last March that was followed by open-heart surgery, his wife, Ginette DePreist, told The Oregonian newspaper.
DePreist was director emeritus of The Juilliard School‘s conducting program in New York. He was 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.
DePreist also led orchestras in Quebec, Monte Carlo, Tokyo and Malmo, Sweden.
The Oregon Symphony will dedicate its weekend performances to the charismatic conductor known as “Jimmy.”
“We are talking about a man with an international career, who achieved many things on international stages,” Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar said. “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.”
Peter Frajola, a principal violinist hired by DePriest more than a quarter-century ago, said the symphony took “phenomenal musical journeys” with the conductor, and his influence went beyond the concert hall.
“A huge figure in the Portland area; everybody knew him,” Frajola said. “Even if you weren’t a musician, even if you never went to the symphony, you knew who Jimmy was. Everybody loved him. He was just absolutely wonderful speaker to the audience. Made everyone feel welcome.”
DePreist was born in Philadelphia in 1936. According to his website, he studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.