James Yannatos

With a flick of the baton, the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) is under his command. But when he first came to Harvard, James Yannatos didn’t expect to stay here. After growing up listening to the Metropolitan Opera at the behest of his father, James Yannatos came to Harvard in 1964, expecting it to be a stepping-stone. “I thought, well, this would be a very nice parenthesis in my professional life. I had no idea I would still be here. The seductive thing was just the combination of working with students and making music at a very high level,” he says.

Harvard gives Yannatos a unique advantage over most other composers: the perfect test ground. “By writing a piece and then having an orchestra immediately to work on it and perform, you begin to see things that work, things that don’t work or that are difficult,” he says. “The business of composing is more to me an uncovering. It’s a discovering, first, but an uncovering.”

According to Yannatos, a fluid linear progression is essential to the success of any musical piece. In order to find that progression, Yannatos tries to extrapolate the human elements of music. He tries to give music “a human face.” Yannatos’s uncovering of music has been greatly affected by his accents in HRO as well as the students in his classes. “Being in the university, there are these very bright and talented people who do a variety of things. That is in many ways awesome,” he says.

One of Yannatos’s most ambitious composing endeavors, his Trinity Mass, which won the Artists Foundation Award in 1988, premiered with the HRO and Harvard choral groups just two years previous. In many ways, he is tied inextricably to the success of his students, strengthening his sensitivity to the way his music flows from paper to performance.

“To be a musician means you have to be bright. You can’t be a dummy,” says Yannatos. Many of his students could have chosen to go to conservatories such as Juilliard, but instead they chose to supplement their music training with a strong focus in academia. Serving as an advisor to the admissions committee, Yannatos is able to preview the music of prospective students giving him a role not unlike that of an athletic coach in the selection of admitted students. Yannatos also spends an inordinate amount of time at the beginning of each year to select the newest members of HRO. “He always likes to listen to people individually,” says Stephanie R. Hurder ’06.

His only complaint about the university is the way it views the arts. According to Yannatos, the university is sympathetic, but it views the arts as solely extracurricular. With an increased emphasis on the arts, Yannatos believes that he could fully tap the students’ rich musical talent, which is instead partially diverted by a flood of midterms and research papers. The notes may not write or play themselves, but with the help of Yannatos, they step off the page and into the concert hall.