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DePreist, James(1936–) - Conductor, Chronology,  

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Symphony orchestra conductor James DePreist has been acclaimed as a rare and special artist. His extraordinary talent took him to the Oregon Symphony, which he transformed from a regional to a national orchestra. He was the first African American conductor of the Houston Symphony and was assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Known as one of the finest U.S. conductors, DePreist continues to support the American tradition of excellence in conducting and recordings.

James Anderson DePreist was born November 21, 1936 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a family where music was important. DePreist’s mother was a singer and his aunt was the world-renowned contralto Marian Anderson. When DePreist was six years old, his father died. His famous aunt came to the aid of the entire family. She helped the family purchase two adjoining row-houses in a middle-class neighbor on the south side of Philadelphia. DePreist and his mother lived in one house and his aunt Alyce and his grandmother lived in the other. He obtained his early education in music in the Philadelphia public schools, and at the age of ten he studied piano. Because of music lessons that lasted well after the regular school hours, DePreist found most of his friends in music classes. He participated in musical activities throughout high school and played in the City-Wide High School Orchestra. Music had become a major focus in DePreist’s life, but he did not choose it as a career until years later.

After graduating from high school in 1954, DePreist entered the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School as a pre-law student. Not forsaking his musical interest, he took music classes and played in the symphony orchestra and the university marching band. He received his B.S. degree in 1958 and continued at the university to earn a master’s degree. In 1959, DePreist studied composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music with Vincent Persichettie, a distinguished American composer. He also studied music history and the theory of harmony and orchestration at the conservatory. While in college, DePreist formed a jazz group called the Jimmy DePreist Quintet. This band became so well-known in the East that in 1956, they appeared on the Steve Allen television show. DePreist received his M.A. degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961.

In 1962, the State Department sponsored a cultural exchange tour and engaged DePreist as an American specialist in music. The tour was to cover the Near and the Far East with DePreist lecturing and performing jazz. While on tour in Thailand and attending a Bangkok orchestra rehearsal, he was asked if he wanted to conduct. This experience caused DePreist to realize he wanted to be a conductor. It also marked his debut as a conductor with the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and led to DePreist’s becoming guest conductor at other locations on the State Department tour. Also in 1962 on the tour DePreist was stricken with polio. The disease paralyzed both his legs. He had to be flown home to the States in 1963 for care and therapy. After six months of intensive therapy and perseverance on his part, DePreist was able to walk with the aid of crutches and braces. In the midst of his recuperation, DePreist kept sight of his goals and prepared himself to compete in the Mitropoulos International Conductors Competition, which moved him closer to his goal of becoming a classical conductor and gave him the visibility that creates opportunities. In the competition, DePreist only made it to the semi-finals, but in the next year, he went on to win first prize. His abilities brought him to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who asked DePreist to sign on as assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic during the 1965–66 season.



Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 21


Receives B.S. from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Pre-law; studies with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory


Receives M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania


Debuts professionally in Bangkok, Thailand; cultural exchange tour of the Near and Far East; contracts polio


Captures first prize in the Mitropoulos International Competition


Conducts Marian Anderson’s farewell concert


Serves as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein for the New York Philharmonic


Becomes the first black conductor to lead the Houston Symphony


Becomes director of the Oregon Symphony


Retires from Oregon Symphony


Becomes director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School


Debuts in April with the London Symphony Orchestra; new permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony


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