James DePreist, 1936-2013

James DePreist, who has been the director of the Oregon Symphony since 1980, talks about his conducting career as he sits in his high rise apartment overlooking downtown Portland, Ore., on May 9, 2002. DePreist, who is stepping down from the position in September 2003, is being succeeded by Carlos Kalmar. (AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens)

James DePreist, 76, the distinguished conductor and educator, died Friday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., of complications from a heart attack he suffered last spring, his agent said.

Born in Philadelphia, the nephew of famed contralto Marian Anderson, Mr. DePreist became early in his career something that is still a rarity today: an African-American conductor leading top-tier orchestras.

He studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

Two years after contracting polio on a 1962 State Department tour to Bangkok, he won the Dimitri Mitropoulous International Competition — conducting sitting and wearing leg braces. Leonard Bernstein was a judge, and tapped him to become an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1965. He was named associate conductor of the National Symphony in 1971.

He had a solid presence in Philadelphia, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra 30 times — at the Mann, an Academy of Music Anniversary Concert, in subscription series and Martin Luther King Day events. He made his orchestra debut in April 1972; his last appearance was at the 2010 Marian Anderson Award, leading Kabalevsky’s Overture to Colas Breugnon.

Mr. DePreist was a popular guest conductor and held titles with orchestras around the world, but his major U.S. titular appointment was as music director of the Oregon Symphony from 1980 until 2003.

“It was a regional orchestra when I got there,” DePreist told The Inquirer in 1990, “but within two years we had made the major ranking. Unlike some orchestras in this country, it has survived financial crises by being firmly rooted in the consciousness of the people. They do not think of the Oregon Symphony as an elitist, rich man’s organization.”

He had a long association with the Juilliard School, including, from 2004 through 2011, a tenure as director of orchestral and conducting studies.

He is survived by his wife Ginette; and two daughters, Tracy and Jennifer, from his first marriage to Betty Childress.

Arrangements were incomplete, but a service in Philadelphia is expected.