NEW YORK — Even in the motorized wheelchair he rode to the podium, or seated on the low swivel chair from which he conducted, James DePreist cut an imposing figure, one that usually got the best from the orchestras he led — whether major ensembles like the New York Philharmonic and the Oregon Symphony, or student groups at the Juilliard School, where he was director of conducting and orchestral studies for seven years.
Mr. DePreist, who died Friday at 76, was a black conductor who achieved international renown. And he refused to let disability derail his career; he went on conducting after polio, contracted in 1962, left both legs paralyzed and forced him to use the wheelchair.
Two years later, he won the gold medal in the Dmitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition, and in 1965 he became an assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic.
Though he was reluctant to be seen as a role model on the basis of his race, rather than purely for his musical accomplishments, he still understood, he said, that young black musicians regarded him as one, much as they had revered his aunt, the great contralto Marian Anderson, who was the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. It was a responsibility he took seriously, he said. In 1997, he appeared in ‘‘My Country,’’ an hourlong documentary on PBS in which he drew comparisons between racial barriers and the challenges faced by people with disabilities.
Mr. DePreist objected, however, to outreach programs that seemed to patronize black audiences.
‘‘I think if I’m seen as a role model, I would like it to be for conducting the subscription weeks, and not just the concert at the Apollo,’’ he said at the time. ‘‘I do not believe in engaging black artists and doing black music in black areas, because I feel that it is misleading, the worst kind of tokenism, especially if it’s the only time you see black artists or hear works by black composers.’’
Mr. DePreist died at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., his manager, Jason Bagdale, said. His wife, Ginette DePreist, told The Oregonian newspaper that he had been in and out of the hospital since having a heart attack last March followed by open-heart surgery.
James Anderson DePreist was born Nov. 21, 1936, in Philadelphia, completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania and studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory as well as conducting.
It was on a State Department-sponsored Asian tour in 1962 that Mr. DePreist, in his mid-20s at the time, contracted polio while conducting an orchestra in Bangkok. While being treated he spent several months studying scores in preparation for the 1963 Dmitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition.
During the competition, ‘‘the other candidates looked at me in braces and on crutches and thought, ‘Well, we can write him off,’ ’’ Mr. DePreist recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1987. But he recovered enough to reach the semifinals. The next year, he won.
His victory brought him to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who took him on as an assistant at the New York Philharmonic for the 1965-66 season.
Mr. DePreist moved to the Netherlands in 1967 and, two years later, made a triumphant European conducting debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. It opened doors, and in 1971 conductor Antal Dorati made him associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.
He soon began a guest-conducting career that took him to the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Symphony. He conducted orchestras across Europe — Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Copenhagen, Prague, Rome, Stockholm, and Vienna. He led performances in Seoul, Sydney, and Tel Aviv.
During his nearly quarter-century tenure in Portland, he transformed the orchestra from a good regional group to an esteemed one that won a following through more than a dozen recordings on the Delos label that Mr. DePreist made at its helm.
He published two books of poetry and received numerous honors, among them the National Medal of Arts bestowed by President George W. Bush n 2005.
Besides his wife, he leaves two daughters, Tracy and Jennifer, from his first marriage, to Betty Childress, and two grandchildren.