By Ted AYALA
Conductor James DePreist, celebrated conductor and recipient of the National Medal of Arts, died at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. on Feb. 8 from complications stemming from a heart attack suffered in March 2012. He was 76.
DePriest had been serving as artistic advisor to the Pasadena Symphony following the abrupt end of its long-serving music director Jorge Mester’s tenure in May 2010.
“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we mourn the passing of our dear friend,” read a statement from the orchestra. “Maestro DePreist, or Jimmy as he preferred to be called, was not only a consummate musician and trailblazing conductor, but also a most thoughtful, loving, and centered human being who touched us all deeply.”
Under his advisorship, the Pasadena Symphony has operated without a permanent music director opting instead for a format of rotating guest conductors. Its 2013-14 season, which was recently announced, will continue the format.
DePreist was expected to conduct the close to the orchestra’s 2012-13 season in May, but was forced to cancel his appearance following his heart attack. Kansas City Symphony Orchestra conductor Michael Stern conducted in DePreist’s place.
At the orchestra’s concerts on February 9, guest conductor Nicholas McGeegan dedicated the performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 4” to the memory of DePreist.
James Anderson DePreist was born Nov. 21, 1936 in Philadelphia. He studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with bachelor and master degrees. While on a State Department tour of Thailand in 1962, DePreist contracted the polio that would afflict him for the rest of his life. Undaunted, he threw himself into a career in music, winning top honors at the Dimitri Mitropoulos Conducting Competition in 1965, then becoming assistant to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic the following year.
In 1980, he became the music director of the Oregon Symphony, a position he would hold until complications from kidney disease forced him to relinquish it in 2003. Under his direction, the orchestra achieved national attention for its excellence. During this time, they also recorded numerous recordings for the Delos label, many of which were received favorably by the public and critical press.
From 2003 to 2008, he served as permanent music director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. In Japan, DePreist received much attention from the media, making appearances as a key character in the manga and anime “Nodame Cantabile.”
Like his aunt, the contralto Marian Anderson, DePreist became a symbol for breaking down racial barriers in the world of classical music. In the 1960s and 1970s, his career suffered from still pervasive racial discrimination in the United States. During this time he built his career in Europe.
Though respected widely for his musicianship, DePreist never became a celebrity in the classical music world.
In an interview with “The Oregonian” a few years ago, DePreist recalled his mentor, the Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati, telling him, “You’ll see people with bigger careers than you. They’ll go sailing past. You just be concerned about the music and the career will take care of itself. We bring our brick to the edifice. Don’t worry about putting it in front or up high.”
“I always, always think of that,” DePreist said.
DePriest leaves behind his wife of 32 years Ginette, two daughters from a previous marriage, and two grandchildren.