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James Yannatos, Former HRO Director, Dies at 82

By Xi Yu, Crimson Staff Writer

Students who played under former Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra conductor James Yannatos will remember him as the man who stood at the podium during rehearsals in his brightly colored turtlenecks and corduroys. His precise movements of the baton would inspire both pre-professional and casual musicians for 45 years as they passed through Harvard’s halls.

Yannatos died last week at his home of complications from lung cancer. He was 82.

Yannatos, who lived in Cambridge with his wife and two kids, came to Harvard in 1964 as a lecturer and the music director for the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.

At the time, the orchestra was vastly different from the 90 member undergraduate ensemble it is today—it was an eclectic congregation of a few undergraduates, alumni, and affiliates who were able to play instruments.

Over his 45-year tenure as the conductor for the orchestra, Yannatos transformed HRO to the organization it is today, an all-undergraduate collective that plays with a distinguished repertoire and a loyal following.

To those who knew him at Harvard, “Dr. Y” was the mentor and leader who cared about the students as much as he cared about the music they made together.

He always remained mindful that his students would have to balance their coursework with their twice-a-week rehearsals.

Y. Diana Tsen ’11, a former HRO president, remembers Yannatos’ remark to seeing his orchestra suffer from the midterm slump one year.

“Tough day at the office?” Yannatos said to the dazed crowd of student musicians, according to Tsen.

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 a small guy, he had a big presence,” Lee said. “He was like a grandfather to most people in the organization.”

Yannatos always had a certain youthfulness about him, said Eugene W. Lee ’10, a former president of HRO.

In 2009, Yannatos retired from directing HRO, which celebrated its 200th anniversary the year before. But Yannatos did not retire his support for the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.

In a meeting to pass his baton to current director Federico Cortese, Yannatos, Cortese recalled, said in an affectionate tone: “You will love this job.”

“It meant a great deal to him to share his love of music,” said Nyia Yannatos, his wife. “He felt it was part of his mission as a teacher to pass that on.”

Nyia said that Yannatos was delighted at the start of each term to see how the orchestra would come together from the previous year.

“He cared about you as a musician and how you were going to grow as a person after you left Harvard,” Victor Lee said.

On the night of his last concert with HRO, Yannatos was awarded an honorary certificate for his decades of contributions to the orchestra. The certificate declared Harvard’s gratitude to how Yannatos “enhanced the cultural life of Harvard University” while “enriching the lives of thousands” with his music knowledge, artistry, and passion.

Yannatos was not only a conductor and instructor, but also a violinist and a composer.

In 1971, he wrote an opera titled “Rockets’ Red Blare,” which premiered at Harvard as a student production.

On Oct. 1 and 2, 2011, Intermezzo, the New England Chamber Opera Series, performed his rewritten score to “Rockets’ Red Blare” in a professional debut at the Agassiz Theater, which Yannatos attended.

“He died with his founding awareness, humor, courage, love, and profound grace, and peacefully,” his daughter Kayla wrote in an obituary for her father.

Yannatos is survived by his wife Nyia, daughter Kayla, and son Dion.

A public memorial service will be held on Dec. 10 at 3 p.m. in Sanders Theatre.

—Hana N. Rouse contributed reporting for this story.

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at

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