Pioneering American conductor, National Medal of Arts winner and poet James DePreist died early this morning in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 76 years old. His death, his manager told Deceptive Cadence, stemmed from complications following a heart attack he suffered nearly a year ago.
Born in Philadelphia in 1936, DePreist studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music before earning bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. The nephew of the pioneering contralto Marian Anderson, DePreist told NPR's Roy Hurst in 2005 that his aunt had provided an extraordinary model. "She knew that she was Marian Anderson," DePreist said, "but my aunt was simultaneously the most humble person I ever met in my life and the most powerful. And it was a combination of her not needing to strut her strength, because it was just a natural part of her. To the extent that anything has rubbed off, then I'm grateful."
Like his aunt, DePreist became a trailblazer. He became a widely recognized artist in an era in which African-American classical conductors were few and far between. And despite a significant physical disability, he became a favorite of orchestras and audiences around the globe.
DePreist was a survivor of polio, which he contracted on a 1962 State Department-sponsored tour to Thailand and which paralyzed both his legs permanently. Later, DePreist encountered another significant challenge when he developed kidney disease in the 1990s and had to go on dialysis — and remarkably, he received a new kidney from a devoted fan.
It was on that 1962 Asia tour, however, that DePreist's professional life took an unexpected turn. He had been brought by the State Department to play with his jazz quintet; on something of a lark, he was invited to conduct a rehearsal with the Bangkok Symphony. That rehearsal led to an epiphany, as DePreist told Hurst: "You feel entirely differently than you felt before, ever, and you say, 'This is something that I could really commit my life to. And not only could I, I would be really bummed if I couldn't."
Two years after returning from Asia, DePreist won the highly prestigious Dmitri Mitropoulos International Music Competition for Conductors. The following season, Leonard Bernstein invited him to become an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. From that point, DePreist nurtured a substantial, though not glitzy, performing and recording career anchored in Portland, Ore., where from 1980 until 2003 he served as music director of the Oregon Symphony.
But DePreist's activities as a conductor ranged far more widely. Between 2004 and 2011, he was the director of orchestral and conducting studies at The Juilliard School, where he was succeeded by Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic. Along with appearing as a guest conductor across North America and Europe with most of the world's top-ranked orchestras, he also served at various times as the music director of Canada's Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, the Malmö Symphony of Sweden and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo.
Most recently, he was permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra — during which time he began appearing as a character in the Japanese manga and anime series Nodame Cantabile. He made more than 50 recordings, including a widely acclaimed Shostakovich cycle with the Helsinki Philharmonic.
Less well known is DePreist's work as a poet; he published two books of poetry, This Precipice Garden (University of Portland Press) and The Distant Siren (University of Willamette Press). No less a figure than Maya Angelou praised his work, saying: "His poetry has the tautness of a perfectly pitched viola and much of its resonance."