Composer and long-time director of Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, “Dr. Y,” as James Yannatos was known fondly by generations of Harvard and Radcliffe members of the orchestra, died at his home in Cambridge on October 19. For over 40 years, he led the students with a courtly, gentle demeanor and superb musicianship.
The most recent local performance of a work of his was at a concert at Agassiz Theater only two weeks before he died; he was not only present but participated in the pre-concert discussion. Mary Wallace Davidson wrote of that concert here, “Let me say at the outset that James Yannatos’s two-act Rocket’s Red Blare, in the opera buffa tradition, is richly rewarding on many levels…. Yannatos is a fine craftsman: the music was perfect for this multilayered invention, yet in a classical style with respect to recitatives and arias. In particular I enjoyed the humorous use of the woodblock or snare drum to punctuate recitatives.”
The Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Principal Cellist Martha Babcock, an alumna of the H-R Orchestra, reminisced, “He meant a tremendous amount to me when I was a student. He was a superlative musician, a natural and uninhibited person, and I appreciated it very much, as a 17-year-old coming from a small Illinois town. He was a person one could really connect to as a musician.”
Federico Cortese, music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, told the Intelligencer, “I was not his colleague, so I did not work with him for a long time. I was his successor. But I have affectionate memories, many. He always came to our concerts. Always. And he would come backstage and discuss things in a very gentle, nice way. Sometimes he came to rehearsals, too. He was not territorial at all; he was generous. No one knew better than he what the challenges were. Also the quality. He had a very good understanding of how a performance went, and he helped. Always.”
The H-R Orchestra’s concert in Sanders Theatre on December 6 will not only be dedicated to his memory but will feature a performance of the James Yannatos Concerto Competition winner, Ariel Mitnick, in the Barber Violin Concerto.
A Memorial Tribute to Dr. Y will be held on Dec. 10 at 3 pm, also at Sanders Theatre.