James Yannatos, eclectic composer, engaging conductor

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 27, 2011

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The composer and conductor James Yannatos, who as leader of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra for more than four decades worked with thousands of young musicians, died at his home in Cambridge Oct. 19.

The cause was complications of cancer, said his daughter, Kalya of Marlboro, Vt. He was 82.

“He was an all-around musician and an excellent musician,’’ said Lewis Lockwood, a professor of music at Harvard who knew Dr. Yannatos since they were teenagers. “When I came to Harvard, I discovered he was already established here as the most beloved conductor that the HRO could have. He connected with the students wonderfully.’’

Dr. Yannatos was born into a Greek-American family in New York City. He played violin and later studied composition and conducting at Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art.

“I was a poor kid from the Bronx, and I was very lucky to have that free public school to go to,’’ he told the Globe in 1992.

His studies took him to Yale for his bachelor’s and master’s in music and to the University of Iowa for a doctorate and brought him into contact with noted 20th century composers including Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, and Luigi Dallapiccola, as well as Nadia Boulanger, who had taught Aaron Copland, among many others.

He met his future wife - Nyia O’Neil, a soprano and visual artist - at a summer Shakespeare festival in Ohio. Their courtship included a performance, on violin, of his own music, and they married in 1959.

Dr. Yannatos’s violin playing and conducting also caught the ear of Leonard Bernstein, who helped steer him toward a conducting post at Harvard. In 1964, Dr. Yannatos took up the leadership of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, one of the oldest continually performing orchestras in the country. He stayed for 45 years.

“He morphed from almost a peer to a grandfatherly figure, for the students in the orchestra,’’ said Norman Letvin, a professor at Harvard Medical School who played clarinet in the orchestra.

When Dr. Yannatos started with the orchestra, it could not always muster enough undergraduates to fill out its ranks, and the group routinely tapped other musicians from the Harvard community. During his tenure, Dr. Yannatos, referred to as Dr. Y by his students, made it a fully undergraduate orchestra. He also led it on tours to Europe, Russia, South America, and Asia.

“Dr. Y was very kind and inspirational to work with,’’ said Lucy Caplan, a violist and current Harvard senior. “He recognized that we were all there because we loved music, but not out of any sense of obligation, and students really appreciated that.’’

Success in his post meant negotiating the unusual dynamics of an orchestra made up of students on extremely diverse professional tracks.

Letvin, who has done work in HIV/AIDS research, remembers playing clarinet next to Eric Maskin, a future Nobel Prize-winning economist. A few feet away sat Martha Babcock, now assistant principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

At evening rehearsals, Dr. Yannatos’s task was, as Letvin put it, “to flip a switch’’ and create a cohesive ensemble of serious musicians, whether his students had spent the day studying music, organic chemistry, or Aristotle.

Throughout his time at Harvard, Dr. Yannatos remained active as a composer, and his catalog includes five symphonies, multiple concertos, choral works, chamber music, and even a comic opera. His last completed work, a saxophone concerto, is scheduled to be performed by the Longy Conservatory Orchestra, with soloist Kenneth Radnofsky, in February.

“He was always in his mind and heart a composer,’’ said Kalya, director of the arts at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn. “We would have to drag him away from his desk and his piano.’’

In 2003, preparing an artist’s statement that summarized his approach, Dr. Yannatos wrote: “I have felt compelled to use my musical voice to express my deep concern for issues that continually divide nations and people - war, poverty, and ignorance - while illuminating the beauty of life and the human spirit.’’

To that end, many of his larger works took on political themes, such as his Fourth Symphony, a memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

His most ambitious work was a 75-minute oratorio called “Trinity Mass,’’ addressing the anxieties of the nuclear age, its name taken from the test site of the first atomic bomb. For the piece’s Cambridge premiere in 1986, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra was joined by four local choruses. The libretto collected antiwar texts taken from Native American prayers, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the speeches of Albert Einstein, among other sources.

Typically for Dr. Yannatos, the score’s musical language was extremely eclectic, drawing inspiration from Gregorian chant, Japanese scales, gospel harmonies, Bach’s B-Minor Mass, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Dr. Yannatos acknowledged his eclecticism made him hard to place in any one stylistic school.

“I don’t fit into any simple category as a composer,’’ he told the Globe at the time of the “Trinity Mass’’ premiere. “That perhaps hasn’t helped my career over the years, but I don’t worry about that.’’

Early on, protecting time to compose meant bypassing at least one significant conducting opportunity. During William Steinberg’s tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1969 to 1972, Dr. Yannatos declined an offer to become a BSO assistant conductor, a post that might have led him on another path. In later years, he found time to guest conduct in North America and abroad.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Yannatos leaves his son, Dion of West Hurley, N.Y.; his sister, Katherine of New York City; and two grandchildren.

A memorial tribute will be held at 3 p.m. Dec 10 in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

Over the years, Dr. Yannatos believed that working with students helped sustain and fuel his own musical vitality.

“It’s always exciting for them because they are doing things for the first or second time, and you feel responsible to that excitement,’’ he told the Globe in 1992. “You can’t be the tired professional in the face of that enthusiasm.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

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