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James Yannatos raised the baton for his first concert as Music Director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, the oldest symphony orchestra in the nation, in 1964. And after conducting for 45 years, leading 11 international tours, and guiding thousands of young musicians, “Dr. Y”—as he is affectionately known—stepped up to the Sanders Theatre podium for the last time on Friday night, conducting a moving concert that was at once a commemoration, a celebration, a look back, and a look forward.
The program reflected the sentiments of the evening, as the three pieces exuded exuberance, creativity, and triumph, respectively. The first piece—the overture to Mozart’s famous final opera “The Magic Flute”—was a bubbling introduction to a concert that would end with an epic performance of Brahms’ first symphony. The piece was marked by a controlled excitement, as the orchestra was focused and almost on edge, clearly aware of the night’s significance. Balance was a particular strength, as the playful, lilting flute and oboe floated easily on the propulsive strings.
Next was Dr. Yannatos’ own cello concerto, composed in 2004. The performance—the piece’s first since a catastrophic premiere two years ago—featured internationally renowned soloist Bong-Ihn Koh ’08. Koh gave a thoughtful delivery from the first notes, eking out tremendous expression from the piece’s idiosyncratic language. Yearning and singing through the cello, he swayed at times into a consonant orchestral sound before erupting out of it. He displayed a mastery of the virtuosic music, especially in a brief cadenza near the end of the movement.
The second movement, an Andante, seemed like it was always reaching for something, and as in the first, Koh shifted elegantly from introversion to extroversion. Impelled by a pizzicato theme in the cello at the beginning, the third movement continued Yannatos’ unusual tonality. The orchestra had a kind of bulging tension just below the solo cello, and the piece ended with a radiant flourish in the cello’s highest register.
After intermission, HRO President Eugene W. Lee ’10 and Office for the Arts Director Jack Megan spoke to the audience about Dr. Yannatos’ distinguished career and enormous impact on generations of Harvard undergraduates. Lee noted Yannatos’ “familial, loving relationship with his students,” and Megan presented an honorary certificate from the University Marshal after showing a slideshow of images of Yannatos with the HRO through the decades of his tenure. The certificate declared that “Harvard has deepest and lasting gratitude” for Yannatos, who “enhanced the cultural life of Harvard University” while “enriching the lives of thousands” with his music knowledge, artistry, and passion.
After receiving the award, Yannatos thanked his students with tears in his eyes. Instead of customarily saying goodbye to the seniors, that night he had to say goodbye to the entire orchestra: “I cherish each of you. I love you all. I wish you all a full life, a rich life, a meaningful life. Keep the treasure that you have which is music.”
He then left the stage and returned to conduct his final piece as Music Director: Brahms’ monumental Symphony No. 1. Like Yannatos’ tenure with the HRO, Brahms’ composition of his first symphony was an effort that spanned many years; after sketching out his first ideas, he allowed over two decades to elapse before deeming it fit to premiere in 1874. The HRO’s performance of the classic was one of their most profound and polished in recent memory. The violins forcefully sustained the opening line, topping the coherent string section. The decay and buildup to the recapitulation of the main theme was smooth and dramatic, finishing with overwhelming power.
Yannatos controlled the second movement’s thick orchestration delicately, using it to always support a clear, prominent melodic line. Julia L. Glenn ’11 finished the movement with a soaring violin solo. After the light third movement, the fourth movement was a gathering storm that led to a supreme finale. The orchestra’s sound in the famous theme in the middle of the movement was as beautiful as the HRO has achieved this season.
The “great Yannatos era,” as Lee put it in his remarks, is over, but Harvard and HRO alumni will feel Yannatos’ impact for decades to come. While writing his first symphony, Brahms said, “You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you,” alluding to Beethoven’s towering reputation as a symphonic composer. HRO’s next conductor, to take the podium next fall, must feel a similar shadow in following such a titan as Yannatos.
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