More than almost any other single figure, long-time Oregon Symphony music director James DePreist, who died Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz. from complications following open heart surgery last spring, helped vault the state's major music institution to national prominence. He was 76.
During the years he led the orchestra, from 1980 to 2003, DePreist helped transform the OSO from a minor regional orchestra composed mostly of part-time players to a major, full-time metropolitan professional orchestra. He also bolstered the OSO's profile by securing an important recording contract.
"A passionate and eloquent man, Jimmy was larger than life and a powerful force for music and the arts in the community of Portland and beyond," said a statement today from the symphony. "His work with the orchestra literally put it on the map. Under his leadership the orchestra moved from a small part time group to a full time, nationally recognized orchestra with 17 recordings. Stories abound about his personal generosity and love for musicians and his extraordinary ability to bring out the best in the people around him."
For example, OSO violinist Greg Ewer recalled Friday that after a fire ravaged his apartment just a few months after he moved to Portland to join the orchestra, DePreist generously contributed to a fund to replace his uninsured furniture and belongings. After his heart attack and surgery last year, the symphony musicians put together a video get-well card for him. In a profession full of imperious egos, DePriest was as well-known for his considerable musical gifts as for his affable personality, stage charisma and ability to rally community support for the chronically underfunded symphony.
DePreist led other orchestras in Japan and Europe as well as Jacksonville, Ore.'s summer Britt Festival classical series. He had recently retired as director of the conducting program at New York's prestigious Juilliard School and principal conductor of its orchestra, which he was scheduled to lead in concert in December but had to cancel due to his health issues.
One of only a few African-American conductors of his generation, DePreist was the nephew of one of America's most famous classical singers, Marian Anderson, who helped integrate American concert stages. He was also a pioneer disabled musician, using a canes and a motorized scooter after contracting polio in the early 1960s. A recipient of the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, DePreist's place in American classical music history is secure, but it's in Oregon that he made his greatest mark and where he will be most fondly remembered.