DePreist was born in Philadelphia to James (died 1942) and Ethel Anderson DePreist (1902-1990). He has served for more than three decades in multiple roles as Music Director of Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, Sweden's Malmö Symphony, Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oregon Symphony.
As guest conductor, DePreist has appeared with every major North American orchestra. He has also led orchestras in Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Manchester, Melbourne, Munich, Prague, Rome, Rotterdam, Seoul, Stockholm, Stuttgart, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and Vienna. He made his London debut with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Arts Centre in April of 2005.
James DePreist appears regularly at the Aspen Music Festival, the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Music Center and the Juilliard Orchestra.
DePreist has more than 50 recordings to his credit. His varied repertoire includes a celebrated Shostakovich symphony series with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as fifteen recordings with the Oregon Symphony. One of his signature works, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, is available in a recording with the Oregon Symphony. His latest recording, of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra, came out in December 2006 to somewhat mixed reviews.
DePreist studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, going on to earn bachelor's degree at the University of Pennsylvania and the MBA degree at the Wharton School. In 1962 while on a State Department tour in Bangkok, he contracted polio. However he recovered sufficiently, allowing him to enter and to ultimately claim first prize gold medal in the Dimitris Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. He was then chosen by Leonard Bernstein to become assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1965-66 season. DePreist made his highly-acclaimed European debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 1969. In 1971, Antal Doráti named him associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.
DePreist is the nephew of the late contralto Marian Anderson.
DePreist has been awarded thirteen honorary doctorates. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (Kungl. Musikaliska Akademien). He was named the Laureate Music Director for the Oregon Symphony. He is a recipient of the Insignia of Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland, the Medal of the City of Québec and an Officer of the Order of Cultural Merit of Monaco. He received the Ditson Conductor's Award in 2000. In 2005, President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Arts, the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence.