Ode to a Beloved Maestro

Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra alumni honor their late conductor, James Yannatos.

HRO alumni and current members play Tchaikovsky's 1812 OverturePhotograph courtesy of Randerson Photography

Saturday was a family reunion. Or, perhaps, even better, said conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO), Federico Cortese: “This reunion is fun, and other family reunions sometimes are not.”

HRO alumni—now doctors, lawyers, teachers, and some, professional musicians—reunited in Cambridge to play a reunion concert in honor of their beloved late conductor and music director, James Yannatos. “Dr. Y,” as his students affectionately called him, led the orchestra for 45 years, from 1964 to 2009, and passed away in 2011. HRO Foundation president Eugene Lee ’90, said, “This concert is something we’ve been trying to do for many, many years.” Finally, after several pandemic delays, the current HRO, along with 50 alumni, and members of the Yannatos family, gathered in Sanders Theatre. The HRO played the first two pieces, then alumni joined them onstage for the final number, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Before the music even began, it was clear who the musicians were playing for. A slideshow of Yannatos’s life depicted his early childhood in the Bronx—when he busked with his violin for his bus fare to the Manhattan School of Music—to his decades at Harvard, where he led the group on international tours and he and his wife, Nyia O’Neil, frequently hosted listening parties for students. One alumna remembered “Dr. and Mrs. Y’s” semester-kick-off gatherings as a highlight from her time in the College, while another joked that Yannatos’s signature outfit (a turtleneck) will always have a special place in her heart. Throughout his decades at Harvard, Yannatos made his students feel seen, not just as students and musicians, but as individuals. As Anne C. Shreffler, Ph.D., ’89, said, “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.” 

When he wasn’t in Sanders Theatre with the HRO, Yannatos was in his home office, composing. He was constantly shifting between “the musical realms that he loved to dwell in and the everyday matters of life on Earth,” said his daughter, Kalya Yannatos. As a composer, he was interested in art’s ability to spur action. As he once said, “I’ve 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.” His students inspired him. As his daughter said, “My father spent 45 years in this space making music with generations of young people who filled him with so much hope.”

The current HRO began the program with the Yannatos Violin Concerto featuring renowned violinist and Yannatos’s student Joseph Lin ’00. A celebrated soloist, teacher at the Juilliard School, and former first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, Lin gave a gorgeous, emotional performance of his former teacher’s composition. As Lin moved through the piece’s four movements—spanning from playful to yearning to jubilant—it was clear from his bearing that this was an homage to a dear friend and mentor.

The program also reflected rigor of material Yannatos chose for his students, with Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem, Don Juan. One of the most challenging orchestral pieces for string instruments, the program choice was typical of Yannatos, who helped students grow with difficult works by Mahler, Ravel, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky.

Finally, several generations of past HRO students left their section of the audience and joined the orchestra onstage for the 1812 Overture. The piece was particularly nostalgic for Lin, who played it in his first concert with “Dr. Y” in 1998. It was a striking moment: HRO past and present on stage, playing for the Yannatos family, as the bells, bass drums (meant to sound like cannons), trombones, and tubas brought the work to a close.

The night ended with excitement for HRO’s future—including the announcement of a $10-million fundraising goal—and deep gratitude for a person who made it what it is today. As Jean-François Charles, Ph.D. ’11, said, “Thank you for your inspiration, maestro.”

Read more articles by: Nancy Walecki

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