Dr. James Yannatos
(1929–2011) Music Director, 1964–2009
The Legacy of “Dr. Y”
by Anne C. Shreffler GSAS ’89, P’18
James Edward Ditson Professor of Music, Historical Musicology Harvard University
“The HRO now has a young, disciplined, and demanding conductor who likes good music (the music I like) and insists it be played well,” wrote Joel E. Cohen ’65 in the Harvard Crimson on November 9, 1964. Dr. James Yannatos’s first concert with the orchestra made a very good impression indeed. Years later, Matthew H. Coogan reported in the Crimson on Yannatos’s final concert with the orchestra on April 19, 2009. For forty-five seasons, Yannatos brought his considerable gifts as a violinist, composer, conductor, and mensch extraordinaire to the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and the whole University community. If you were a senior in the class of 1965 or a freshman in the class of 2012—or any class in between—you would have had an opportunity to play in the HRO under the leadership of the orchestra’s beloved “Dr. Y.”
The thirty-five-year-old Yannatos had come to Harvard on the recommendation of his former conducting teacher Leonard Bernstein. After attending the High School for Music and Art in New York, Yannatos studied violin and composition at Yale (receiving both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees). He received his doctorate at the University of Iowa. His composition teachers included Paul Hindemith, Nadia Boulanger, and Luigi Dallapiccola, and he studied violin with Hugo Kortschak and Ivan Galamian. He continued to play the violin his whole life, with friends and colleagues including Harvard faculty Luise Vosgerchian and David Hughes. In addition to the HRO, Yannatos conducted the New England Composers Orchestra, the Tanglewood Young Artists Orchestra, and appeared as guest conductor at Tanglewood, Aspen, Banff, Chautauqua, and other leading music festivals.
When Yannatos began his tenure as conductor of the HRO, the orchestra had had four conductors in the preceding fourteen years. More stability and a higher musical level were desired. Starting in 1958, the orchestra was been in a position to hire professional conductors from outside Harvard, due to the creation of appointments for the conductors of the HRO and Glee Club as Lecturers in the Department of Music. Yannatos was the third HRO conductor, after Michael Senturia ’58 and Henry Swoboda, to be hired under this arrangement. (The Department later named Yannatos as Senior Lecturer.)
Already in November 1964, he immediately set to work in the serious, no-frills style familiar to generations of students, according to Cohen’s description of the first concert: “Dr. Yannatos was not pampering the orchestra. His spare style of conducting left his left hand almost unused. The rest of him seemed so firmly in control that the orchestra never wandered.”
Indeed he challenged the orchestra with the most difficult works by Richard Strauss, Mahler, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, as well as the entire Classic and Romantic symphonic repertoire. A concert in December 1968 juxtaposed Schoenberg’s searing Holocaust memorial, A Survivor from Warsaw, with Beethoven’s Ninth, a pairing which has since become more common but was quite rare at the time.
Yannatos, a productive composer, viewed new music as an integral part of the symphonic repertory. The orchestra regularly performed world or U.S. premieres, by composers including Kurt Weill, Dallapiccola, Gunther Schuller, as well as new works by Harvard faculty Walter Piston ’24 (himself a former HRO conductor) and Leon Kirchner. It was fitting therefore that Yannatos chose to feature a world premiere for the opening concert of his 45th season. Carson Cooman’s Flying Machine was dedicated to the conductor in honor of his 80th birthday and his valedictory season with the HRO.
The orchestra also played Yannatos’s own music, including the memorable Trinity Mass in April 1986, a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra marking the somber 40th anniversary of the first American nuclear test. His very last concert with the orchestra in April 2009 featured his fiercely contrapuntal and lyrical Cello Concerto, movingly rendered by cellist Bong-Ihn Koh ’08. Those who attended this concert, as I did, will also never forget the passionate and compelling performance of Brahm’s First Symphony that night. Shortly before Yannatos’s untimely death in October 2011, his only opera, Rocket’s Red Blare, which had last been performed by students in 1971, was revived in October 2011, by the professional company Intermezzo at the Agassiz Theater. Yannatos had completely rewritten the score, and this performance was one of the last he was able to witness.
And then there were the tours! Alumni and alumnae from the Yannatos years will fondly remember the trips to the Far East, Europe, Mexico, South America, and all across the United States. These were not just about giving concerts. The 1966 summer tour to South America was intended to be a cultural exchange as much as a musical venture. Almost twenty years later, the HRO was chosen by the United States Information Agency to represent American Music at Expo ’85 in Tsukuba, Japan. In 1978, the orchestra was invited to participate in the Berlin International Meeting of Youth Orchestras, sponsored by the Herbert von Karajan Foundation. John T. Bethell’s memorable account of this tour in Harvard Magazine is not to be missed:
Yannatos insisted on the highest musical standards while fostering an atmosphere of community and mutual support. After their “audition” concert in Berlin in 1978, he had warm and inspiring words for the orchestra: “You have filled this moment with communication and community. The competitive aspect of these concerts is dwarfed by the occasion you have made.”
Harvard’s musical world was saddened when Dr. James Yannatos died after a battle with cancer on October 19, 2011. He is survived by Nyia, his wife of 52 years, two children Dion and Kalya, and grandchildren. To the thousands of students who were inspired by his leadership, “Dr. Y” was not just a conductor; he was a mentor, counselor, guide, and guru. His legacy was honored by family, friends, and former students at a memorial service in Sanders Theater on December 10, 2011. Yannatos’s legacy continues with the HRO’s annual concerto competition, which now bears his name.
Please see the Tribute to James Yannatos on the website of the Department of Music.