PORTLAND, Ore. – James DePreist, one of the first black conductors and a National Medal of Arts winner, died Friday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., his manager Jason Bagdade said.
DePreist, 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.
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.
In 2005, President George W. Bush presented DePreist with the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence.
DePreist was the nephew of Marian Anderson, a celebrated contralto whose 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a landmark moment in civil-rights history. DePreist told National Public Radio in 2005 that that his aunt was simultaneously the most humble person I ever met in my life and the most powerful.
In a 1992 New York Times letter to the editor, in which he responded to an article about minority conductors, DePreist made clear that artistry was his major concern.
What self-respecting musician would really want to be engaged for reasons primarily other than artistic? DePreist wrote. In my view, any orchestra that engages a conductor, soloist or player because that individual is black not only offends the process but also demeans the musician and compromises the artistic integrity of the institution. Any prize artificially pushed toward our grasp is a prize not worth having.