12-08-2016  6:01 pm      •     

Music icon James DePriest has died in Scottsdale, Ariz., at age 77.

While no cause of death has yet been announced, the groundbreaking classical music conductor, director and arranger had many health problems, including a bout with polio at the age of 28 that left him paralyzed; he regained his ability to walk, with crutches, and famously conducted while sitting.

DePriest was one of the first Black conductors to work with major orchestras in the United States and around the world. He led the Oregon Symphony from 1980 to 2003, transforming it into one of the most respected classical music institutions in the country.



The Symphony issued a statement Friday morning.

"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 spokesman Jim Fullan. 

"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," Fullan wrote. 

Born in Philadelphia, DePriest's classical music training started at a very young age possibly due to the influence of his aunt, also an icon of classical music -- opera singer Marian Anderson.

The maestro went on to guest conduct virtually every major orchestra in America and many others around the world.

At the time of his death he had made some 50 recordings of his work, had been awarded 14 honorary doctorate degrees, and had published two books of poetry – "The Precipice Garden," and "The Distant Siren."

In a promotional blurb for the books, Maya Angelou wrote, "His poetry has the tautness of a perfectly pitched viola and much of its resonance."

Serving as Permanent Conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra from 2005 to 2008, DePriest inspired a manga – a Japanese comic series – made into a live-action television show called "Nodame Cantabile." The show was a "quirky" romance about two young musicians, one of whom is hired by DePriest as the resident conductor for a fictional symphony; DePriest played himself in the series and conducted the Tokyo symphony on its soundtrack.

While serving as conductor for the Oregon Symphony, DePriest famously hosted a beloved Christmas tradition, a sing-along version of Handel's Messiah, which was popular across the Black community, especially among church-goers.

When he left his position, the event was changed into an auditions-only activity, which was a source of great disappointment in the local community.

At the time of his death, DePriest was working on a new mentoring program for young conductors.

"As a conductor he possessed an amazing ability to evoke the emotional content of the classical repertoire, especially work from the Romantic Period," said Fullan. "No one will ever forget his iconic love and passion for Rachmaninoff.

"He will be missed by the Symphony, its musicians, board and staff.  We all recognize that we stand here today because of him," Fullan wrote.

He is survived by his wife, Ginette, and family.


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