The 45-Year HRO-Pus of Dr. Yannatos

The formidable Harvard institution gets ready to move on

At the age of five, James Yannatos pointed to a violin in a New York City store window and asked his mother if he could have it. Seventy years and countless performances later, Dr. Yannatos’ lifelong career in music may be ending on a professional level, but it is far from coming to a close.

Today, with graceful flicks of his silver baton, he conducts the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, which is currently enjoying its 201st season. At the end of this academic year Yannatos will step down as conductor of HRO and senior lecturer in the music department, concluding his 45 years of affiliation with Harvard.

Yannatos’ youth and early adulthood were spent shrouded in music. In New York City, he attended the High School of Music and Art as well as the Manhattan School of Music. Both, he says, were among the most influential experiences in his life. His formal education in music did not end there, however, as Yannatos went on to study composition with the likes of French composer Nadia Boulanger and Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola and conducting with William Steinberg and Leonard Bernstein ’39.

Yannatos took over as music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra in the fall of 1964. He vividly recalls his first concert with HRO.

“It was very exciting. We did the Berlioz Overture, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and the Bertoz Concerto for Orchestra that had just been written 20 years ago,” he says. “I didn’t think anything of the concert, but everyone else thought, ‘Wow.’ Everybody was blown away, and I guess, basically my job was assured.”

With HRO, Yannatos has delighted not only classical music aficionados at Harvard, but also audiences from the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Canada, and Asia. But despite the prestige associated with his position, Yannatos never expected to remain a part of Harvard for as long as he did.

“I never really intended on staying here, I had no intentions. I still considered myself primarily a professional, and what’s a professional doing in a place like Harvard?” he says.

“But what kept me here were the students themselves. They were fascinating and interesting, and I enjoyed the intellectual component of the university and also our kids were growing up, and Cambridge was a great place for our kids to grow up.”

Yannatos, who signs his student emails “hugs all around” and hosts a dinner at his home after each concert season, is unsurprisingly regarded with similar warmth by his students.

“He’s extremely friendly with us. I sort of see him like an uncle figure,” says Christopher T. Lim ’10, a pianist for HRO.

Renowned pianist and music professor Robert D. Levin ’68, a freshman when Yannatos first arrived, speaks enthusiastically about the profound impact Yannatos has had on music at Harvard.

“Dr. Y has brought such devotion to this institution,” Levin says. “He has brought such idealism to working with the cycle of young musicians ever renewing itself who come into Cambridge and play in the most incandescent and inspiring manner year in and year out and show people why the HRO is not only the oldest orchestra in America, but it is also at the very, very top of university orchestras anywhere. So his mark on this orchestra will be felt for a very long time.”

Levin says that Yannatos’ work has extended beyond Harvard and had an effect on the conservation of classical music at large.

“We live in a market economy and it’s all supply and demand, and we assume that if there is no demand for classical music it’s all going to go away,” Levin says. “But the idealism of these students suggests that it will not allow it to go away. And it shows how important figures like Dr. Y really are, because by channeling the energy and the idealism of these students he gives this activity a prestige, a relevance, a here and now, a charisma that ultimately legitimizes and galvanizes these young people, which leads them to thinking that they are not only doing something which is a great deal of fun, but something that is a social mission.”

Yannatos has a much humbler view of his own success.

“To me the greatest legacy would be that these kids are always involved in music throughout their lives, and that music remains one of the important things that nourishes them, no matter what field they follow,” he says.

According to Lim, Yannatos’ wish has already been fulfilled.

“For most of the students in the orchestra, the fact that they are in the orchestra throughout college even though they may not be planning on pursuing a professional career in music, it’s a sign that music will always be a part of our lives,” he says.

HRO’s first concert this season will be held on Oct. 31 in Sanders Theatre. Yannatos will conduct his final concert with HRO on his birthday, March 13.

But though he’s leaving Harvard, Yannatos insists that he isn’t exiting the classical music scene indefinitely.

“I’ll be writing music, and being a mentor, and possibly doing what they call clinics,” he says. “And if any guest conducting comes up, then I’ll do it, but nothing imminent.”

—Staff writer Andres A. Arguello can be reached at