James DePreist  1936-2013

James DePreist 1936-2013

Acclaimed Pasadena Symphony conductor dies at home in Arizona

By Carl Kozlowski 02/14/2013

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James DePreist was a man of varied talents and incredible strengths, overcoming polio in his 20s to become one of the world’s top orchestral conductors.     

The nephew of legendary African-American contralto opera singer Marian Anderson, DePreist established his own giant presence in the classical music world. And thankfully for the Pasadena Symphony, he was a man who knew how to turn behind-the-scenes discord into a harmonious work environment — he took on the duties of conductor and artistic adviser of the orchestra in 2010 and helped guide its transition after the sudden departure of longtime music director Jorge Mester.

DePreist died on Friday at age 76 at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., from complications of a heart attack he suffered last spring. 

He is the second Pasadena Symphony conductor to die in less than a year. In August, world-famous Conductor Marvin Hamlisch, 68, died at his Los Angeles home after a short illness.

According to Pasadena Symphony Association CEO Paul Jan Zdunek, DePreist will be sorely missed and never forgotten. 

“Beyond being a world-class musician and someone this orchestra respected, he had an amazing way of coming in and sorting things through very quickly, assessing underlying motives, facts and figures, in our case defusing it and moving things forward as quickly as possible,” said Zdunek. “He was a very wonderful talent and a natural talent. When he walked into a room he had a genuine command, not a dictatorship type of command, but the kind that made people want to row the oars in the same direction.” 

DePreist spent more than four decades as a conductor, leading performances from Sweden to Japan. In addition to his duties with the Pasadena Symphony, he was the permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and director emeritus of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School in New York. 

His longest career tenure came with the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, and he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush in 2005. Receiving the nation’s most prestigious artistic award from a commander in chief represented a remarkable accomplishment for a man who, due to racism, had a hard time landing a quality classical conducting position in the US when he began his career in the late 1960s. 

DePreist reached his American breakthrough anyway, first as the associate conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, DC, in 1971, and then as the first African-American conductor of the Houston Symphony in 1976.  In addition to his conducting career, DePreist made more than 50 recordings and published two volumes of poetry, “This Precipice Garden” and “The Distant Siren.” 

DePreist is survived by his wife, Ginette, two daughters and two grandchildren. 

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