February 15, 2013

NEC Joins the Music World in Mourning the Death of Conductor James DePreist

First African-American Conductor to become an Orchestra Music Director

Pursued a Career on the Podium for 40 Years Despite Polio, Other Health Challenges

New England Conservatory joins the music world in mourning the death of James DePreist, who surmounted racial barriers and health issues to become an internationally renowned conductor. The 76-year old conductor, who was the nephew of the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson, died Feb. 8 of complications from a heart attack he suffered last year. 

DePreist won the gold medal in the Dmitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition in 1964, two years after contracting polio which left both legs paralyzed. He went on to become assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, Associate Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati, and a regular guest conductor of American and European orchestras. Of his permanent positions, his longest tenure was as music director of the Oregon Symphony, a post he held from 1980—2003 and during which he made 15 recordings.

NEC President Tony Woodcock served as Executive Director at the Oregon orchestra during part of DePreist’s term and remembered him with great admiration.

“Jimmy’s contribution to the world of music—in this country and abroad—was extraordinary,” he said. “His appointment to the Oregon Symphony as the first African American music director in the United States (which followed upon his similar appointment at the Quebec Symphony Orchestra), was an important landmark in our field. Jimmy’s warmth, humanity, and courage in everything he touched were inspiring for everyone with whom he worked.”

Even in his later years, after receiving a kidney transplant following long-term dialysis treatment, DePreist made significant contributions. He taught and conducted at the Juilliard School, served as permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, wrote two books of poetry, and in 2010 took on the duties of conductor and artistic adviser to the Pasadena Symphony, guiding it through a difficult transition after the abrupt departure of its longtime music director Jorge Mester. DePreist’s lifetime achievements were honored in 2005 when he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to an individual American artist or institution, which was bestowed by President George W. Bush (in photo).


Recognized nationally and internationally as a leader among music schools, New England Conservatory in Boston, MA offers rigorous training in an intimate, nurturing community to 720 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral music students from around the world.  Its faculty of 225 boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars.  Its alumni go on to fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide.  Nearly half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is composed of NEC trained musicians and faculty.

The oldest independent school of music in the United States, NEC was founded in 1867 by Eben Tourjee. Its curriculum is remarkable for its wide range of styles and traditions.  On the college level, it features training in classical, jazz, contemporary improvisation, world and early music. Through its Preparatory School, School of Continuing Education, and Community Programs and Partnerships Program, it provides training and performance opportunities for children, pre-college students, adults, and seniors.  Through its outreach projects, it allows young musicians to engage with non-traditional audiences in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes—thereby bringing pleasure to new listeners and enlarging the universe for classical music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation.

NEC presents more than 900 free concerts each year, many of them in Jordan Hall, its world- renowned, century-old, beautifully restored concert hall.  These programs range from solo recitals to chamber music to orchestral programs to jazz, contemporary improvisation, and opera scenes.  Every year, NEC’s opera studies department also presents two fully staged opera productions at the Cutler Majestic Theatre or Paramount Theatre in Boston.

NEC is co-founder and educational partner of From the Top, a weekly radio program that celebrates outstanding young classical musicians from the entire country. With its broadcast home in Jordan Hall, the show is now carried by National Public Radio and is heard on 250 stations throughout the United States.

Contact: Ellen Pfeifer
Senior Communications Specialist
New England Conservatory
290 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115