James Yannatos, 1929-2011

Oct. 27

Composer and conductor James Yannatos died on Oct. 19 at his home in Cambridge.  Known as an inspirational mentor for several generations of students as conductor the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, he was also an accomplished composer. 

According to the Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler,

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.

From the Harvard Crimson:

Yannatos was aware that his students, experienced and well-versed in musical talent, had come from a variety of backgrounds, said Norman L. Letvin ’71, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who played in Yannatos’ orchestra all four years while he was an undergraduate.

“He had the ability of finding the right mix of how to push students and really understanding that it’s hard to switch gears as a student,” Letvin said.

Victor M. Lee ’05, a former HRO violinist, remembers the encouragement that Yannatos would provide in pushing the orchestra forward to try new types of music.

Yannatos hosted listening parties at his home after every performance, where students from the orchestra would be invited to listen to the soundtrack of their latest performance. At the listening party for Yannatos’ final performance, a group of orchestra members showed up in turtlenecks as a tribute to their outgoing mentor, Tsen said.

For full obituaries, visit the Boston Globe and Harvard Crimson.

Hear performances:

  Mozart - Overture to The Magic Flute

  Yannatos - Symphony No. 3:  Prisms

Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, James Yannatos, conductor
Recorded at Sanders Theater, Harvard University, on Oct. 31, 1998

(photo of James Yannatos courtesy of Harvard University)


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