James DePreist was born in Philadelphia on November 21, 1936. At the age of six, his father died, leaving him in the care of his mother, Ethel DePreist, and his aunt, the legendary contralto Marian Anderson. He earned the degrees of Bachelor of Science in Economics and Master of Arts in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania, with plans to go to law school. He had an avocational interest in music and he performed jazz while a student at the University. His award-winning jazz quintet appeared on national TV, and he established the first National Jazz Fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania. He also studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and composed several ballets. In 1962 DePreist traveled in the Middle East and Asia on behalf of the State Department as an American Specialist in Music. His tour of Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Egypt and Lebanon was so successful that he was invited to return the following year. It was during this 1962 tour that he realized that he wanted to devote his life to conducting. He contracted polio in Bangkok and was forced to return to the United States for physical therapy. While in the hospital, he continued his study of the orchestral repertoire in the hope that he would be able to conduct again. Six months later, walking with the aid of crutches and braces, he entered the 1963 Dimitri Mitropoulos International Music Competition for Conductors. The following year he entered the competition again and won first prize. He was selected by Leonard Bernstein to be an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the 1965-66 season, becoming the first American Mitropoulos winner to serve as Bernstein’s assistant.
In 1967 DePreist moved to Holland, where he lived for three years. He made a successful European debut in 1969 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Following this success, he received many offers to guest-conduct in Europe and in North America, including several appearances with the Stockholm Philharmonic, which brought him rave reviews. During that same year he was awarded a Martha Baird Rockefeller grant.
DePreist became an associate conductor under Antal Dorati at the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. in 1971. He remained there until 1975, and the following year he accepted his first position at the level of music director with the Orchestre symphonique de Quebec, Canada’s oldest symphony orchestra. He was excited by the challenge of selecting his own repertoire and personally shaping an orchestra. He remained as music director until 1983, continuing to guest-conduct orchestras in Helsinki, Stockholm, Israel, and Toronto.
DePreist was named music director of the Oregon Symphony in 1980. He demonstrated that he was fully committed to transforming the Oregon Symphony into an orchestra of national prominence. Beyond his guidance as a conductor, he dedicated himself to the community of Portland. He was involved in fund-raising activities and added his influence to the effort to build a new performance venue, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he programmed a variety of contemporary works along with the standard orchestral repertoire and expanded the orchestra’s audience. He also made a series of recordings for Delos and Koch. Ovation critic Paul Turok wrote of Bravura, his first recording: “In less than a decade, James DePreist has built an orchestra of regional significance into one worthy of national, and perhaps even international, attention.” DePreist remained with the Oregon Symphony for twenty-four years. Although his final season was scheduled to be 2004-2005, he stepped down a year earlier to facilitate the search for a new conductor.
DePreist continued to be highly in demand, not only as a guest conductor, but also as a music director. He became principal conductor of the Malmo Symphony in Stockholm, Sweden from 1991 until 1994. During this period he recorded extensively for BIS with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and the Malmo Symphony. He also made a series of internationally acclaimed recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies with the Helsinki Philharmonic. His recording of the two Shostakovich cello concertos with soloist Torleif Thedeen and the Malmo Symphony won a 1995 Cannes Classical Music Award.
In 1994 DePreist became the musical director of the Orchestre philharmonique de Monte-Carlo in Monaco. He remained at this post until 1998, while continuing with his directorship of the Oregon Symphony and his many appearances as a guest conductor. Among these was his debut with the Boston Symphony in 1997, which led to a second invitation to conduct at the 1998 Tanglewood Music Festival. Additional summer festival appearances included the Aspen Music Festival, Wolf Trap, the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia, and subsequent concerts at Tanglewood in 1999 and 2000. He made successful appearances with other major orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras. In addition, he conducted the Baltimore Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Juilliard Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony and the National Symphony, among others. DePreist also had an extensive list of international appearances. These include engagements with the Sydney and Melbourne orchestras in Australia, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Tonkunstler Orchestra, the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne in France, and the Utrecht Symphony Orchestra. Following his retirement from the Oregon Symphony, he taught at Juilliard for eight years, during which time he also conducted the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
DePreist authored two books of poetry, This Precipice Garden, and The Distant Siren. He also wrote many articles for newspapers and magazines and frequently appeared as a public speaker. He was awarded fifteen honorary doctorates and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992. He was also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
DePreist died on February 8, 2013, in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 76. He was survived by his wife Ginette DePreist and two daughters, Tracy and Jennifer, from his first marriage to Betty Childress.