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James DePreist: One of the first Afro-American conductors


James DePreist, who died on 8 February aged 76, was one of the first African-American conductors and a National Medal of Arts winner.Director Emeritus of the Juilliard School's conducting programme 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 recognised orchestra.

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," the 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."

Peter Frajola, a principal violinist who was hired by DePreist more than a quarter of a century ago, said the symphony took "phenomenal musical journeys" with the conductor, and that his influence went beyond the concert hall.

"A huge figure in the Portland area; everybody knew him," Frajola said. "Even if you weren't a musician, even if you never went to the symphony, you knew who Jimmy was. Everybody loved him. He was just absolutely wonderful speaker to the audience. Made everyone feel welcome."

Born in Philadelphia in 1936, DePreist studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

DePreist was the nephew of Marian Anderson, the celebrated contralto whose 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a landmark in civil-rights history. DePreist said his aunt "was simultaneously the most humble person I ever met in my life and the most powerful."

Though he was a pioneer in terms of African-American conductors, he downplayed that aspect of his career. In a 1992 letter to The New York Times, 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? 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."

He contracted polio in 1962 while in Thailand, affecting his walk for the rest of his life. He developed kidney disease in the 1990s and had a transplant in 2001. He received more than a dozen honorary doctorates, and also wrote two books of poetry.