James DePreist

James DePreist, 1936-2013: A giant falls

The trailblazing conductor, who led the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, dies at 76

James DePeist conducting. Photo: Richard Termine/Juilliard

James DePreist conducting. Photo: Richard Termine/Juilliard

James DePreist, the robust and big-spirited conductor who raised the Oregon Symphony to “major” status and established it firmly as a full-time professional orchestra, has died.

DePreist, 76, died Friday morning, according to the Juilliard School, where he was director emeritus of conducting and orchestral studies. Cause of death was not immediately released. A large, genial, physically imposing man who was also a published poet, DePreist became music director of the Oregon Symphony in 1980 and immediately became a focus of excitement. He quickly became a beloved public figure, known for his eloquent speaking voice and dry sense of humor as well his sweeping style on the podium, where he was especially known for his grand approach to the Romantic composers. He retired from the Portland orchestra in 2003.

At a time when Portland’s arts scene was much smaller than it is now, DePreist exuded a charisma that galvanized support not just for the symphony but for the entire arts scene. For many years he was probably the best-known, and best-loved, arts figure in Oregon. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he was a nephew of the great contralto Marian Anderson, and as an African American conductor he was also an international trailblazer. He rose to prominence in 1965-66, when Leonard Bernstein named him assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and later conducted most of the leading American orchestras and many of the leading international ensembles. Besides leading the Oregon Symphony for 23 years, during which he and the orchestra released 15 of his 50-plus recordings, he was leader at various times of the Quebec Symphony, Sweden’s Malmo Symphony, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. He was also associate conductor to the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., under Antol Dorati, early in his career. In 2005, President Bush awarded him the National Medal of the Arts.

In Portland, it seemed, everybody knew Jimmy, even if they’d never met him. He managed to be simultaneously an elite figure and a regular guy, the sort of person people just naturally looked up to. He grew up a big jazz fan and kept up his enthusiasm for it. He wrote poems, and he conducted around the state even though his career often took him away for long stretches. It didn’t hurt, either, that people knew he wrote the theme song for his high school buddy Bill Cosby’s top-rated television comedy series. Jimmy had a prodigious intellect and seemed to savor life. In 1962, while on a State Department tour in Bangkok, he came down with polio, and it left him with a weak lower body that required him to sit while conducting. Yet even sitting, he almost always seemed the biggest presence in any room.

By the time he retired from the Oregon Symphony, some members of the orchestra were ready for a change to the meticulous approach of his successor, Carlos Kalmar, whose style is very different from DePreist’s big sweeping musicality. But today, across Portland, people are shaking their heads and saying, “There’ll never be another Jimmy.” And they’re right. Oregon has lost a giant.

He is survived by his longtime wife, Ginette.

In Jimmy’s honor, the Portland Center for the Performing Arts Foundation will open the ArtBar at SW Main and Broadway from 5pm-7pm, for those who would like to gather and share their memories of with others.

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