The Oregon Symphony dedicated the 2002–2003 season to its music director for more than two decades, James DePreist. A program for the tribute season declared, “James DePreist’s legacy is every note the orchestra will ever play.”
A board member of the orchestra summed it up this way: “He took a group that wasn’t a full-time professional ensemble and made it into a first-rate orchestra, in part because of his ability to attract and keep first-rate players.” His 50-plus recordings include more than a dozen records with the Oregon Symphony that helped immeasurably in growing its international reputation.
Born in Philadelphia in 1936, DePreist earned an undergraduate degree from Wharton and a master’s from Penn’s Annenberg School before studying composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. “At the time that I was at Wharton it seemed very logical. I was going to be a lawyer,” DePreist recalls. “I was making a geographical separation in my mind between those things that brought me a great deal of pleasure, and practical things. All of my musical activities were both avocational and extracurricular.”
His gifts, however, were too great to confine to a pastime. DePreist’s maternal aunt was legendary contralto Marian Anderson, the first African American ever to perform on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Anderson favored her nephew with gifts of classical records, sending him down the path that led to his receiving the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005.
In Portland, DePreist drew on his Wharton degree to devise ingenious marketing plans for building the Oregon Symphony. “I’d call him a multitasking demon,” former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt once said. “In addition to the music, he was involved in any number of things: fund-raising, promoting, and transforming the orchestra.”
U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield called DePreist the dominant figure in the state’s cultural life for 20 years. DePreist, in addition to being a busy guest conductor, is now permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.