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Oregon Symphony icon James DePreist dies; 'he was music'

Oregon Symphony icon James DePreist dies; 'he was music'
FILE - In this May 9, 2002 file photo, James DePreist, talks about his conducting career as he sits in his high rise apartment overlooking downtown Portland. One of the early African-American conductors of a major orchestra and National Medal of Arts winner James DePreist has died at age 76. His manager, Jason Bagdade, says DePreist died at home Friday, Feb. 8. 2013 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens)

NEW YORK CITY - James DePreist, the former conductor and music director of the Oregon Symphony, died Thursday, according to The Julliard School of music in New York City, where he was Director Emeritus.

He was 77 years old. Oregon Symphony officials said he was known as just "Jimmy" to his many friends.

A cause of death was not specified. However, in 1962, while on a State Department tour in Bangkok, he contracted polio but recovered enough to win a first prize in the Dimitri Mitropoulous International Conducting Competition, according to his website.

After moving on from his post as conductor of the Oregon Symphony, which he held from 1983 to 2003, DePreist was given the honorary position of Laureate Music Director of the symphony.

"Jimmy's loss is really being felt around the world. We got to work early this morning and the Internet was just lit up." Jim Fullan, Vice President of Marketing with the Oregon Symphony said, noting they had messages from all over the country and the world as well as Facebook posts and blog entries about DePreist.

Fullan said DePreist played at the White House and around the world. "The man was revered," he said. "Jimmy was a giant."

"We got lucky in 1980 when Jimmy came to us as music director and conductor," he said. "And even more fortunate that he stayed here for 23 years, which is really unprecedented for a music director of his calibre."

"Portland was his home and he loved it here." Fullan  said. DePreist's notoriety extended beyond the symphony world. "People knew Jimmy," he said. "You knew that big, booming voice and the passion he brought to everything he did. We were very lucky to have him."

He said people are leaving flowers at a star for DePreist set long ago in the sidewalk near the concert hall where DePreist worked for over two decades. An inscription on the star reads "James DePreist. Much more than our maestro."

On Friday, theater ropes surrounded the star and the flowers left by mourners.

"He was music," Fullan said "Thousands of people became music aficionados because of him and his passion."

Beginning in the 1960s, DePreist worked with symphonies around the world and "was recently named Artistic Advisor to the Pasadena Symphony and Pops. He served as Permanent Conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra from 2005 until 2008,"  according to an email from Julliard.

"His varied recorded repertoire includes a celebrated Shostakovich series with the Helsinki Philharmonic and 15 recordings with the Oregon Symphony, which have helped establish that orchestra as one of America's finest," the post from Julliard said.

According to his website, DePreist has more than 50 recordings to his credit and was awarded 14 honorary doctorates.

Peter Frajola, Associate Concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, said he was hired by DePreist in 1984 as Assistant Concertmaster and he also played in the orchestra when DePreist was conducting.

Frajola said he "loved him. He was the most amazing conductor, absolutely amazing human being, great communicator. He had this great big warm personality and the whole audience just loved watching him play, loved having him here."

“It's a major loss for the world. He was a major star on the concert stage for all the big orchestras in the world," Frajola said, noting that he "conducted every orchestra you can imagine.”

"He was one of the great conductors in the symphony world." he said, adding he brought the Oregon Symphony "a lot of fame and fortune."

DePreist took the Oregon Symphony from a regional orchestra "and made us into a world-class, major symphony orchestra," Frajola said.

"Jimmy had this warm way of dealing with people and music" he said of working with DePreist."Just a wonderful person to work and play with. Everybody here in Oregon recognized him and it's a huge loss that he's gone."

"He had a real passion for the music. You could see it in his face when he was conducting," he said.

He said he the orchestra will be dedicating this weekend's performances of Beethoven's Ninth symphony - one of DePreist's favorites, according to Frajola and Fullan - to the memory of DePreist, along with another of his favorite pieces, which the men did not specify by name.

The last time DePreist was a guest-conductor in Portland was about 2 years ago, Fullan said.

In 2005, President Bush presented James DePreist with the National Medal of Arts, the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence.

DePreist also had two books of poetry published.