HRO honors Yannatos as alums and students share the stage

Sanders Theatre.

Alumni shared memories at the start of the performance to honor James Yannatos, who led the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra from 1964 until his 2009 retirement. Photos by Robert Anderson/Randerson Photography

4 min read

Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra alumni — from the Class of 1953 to the Class of 2022 —  gathered in Sanders Theatre on Nov. 12 to honor the memory of former HRO Music Director James Yannatos. Affectionately called “Dr. Y,” Yannatos conducted the orchestra from 1964 until his retirement in 2009. Yannatos passed away in 2011.

A video of Yannatos’ time with the HRO and speeches by his family and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra Foundation were greeted enthusiastically and warmly by alumni and students alike. The HROF also realized a longtime dream — welcoming HRO alumni back to campus to perform side by side with students in the orchestra’s stellar second concert of the season. The event was the fruit of a true collaboration between Music Director Federico Cortese, the orchestra’s student board, and the HROF.

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Led by Cortese, now in his 13th season at the helm of the HRO, the students opened the concert with the Yannatos Violin Concerto. Joseph Lin ’00 reprised his role as soloist from the HRO’s 2004 premiere of the concerto. Following the concerto was Strauss’ iconic tone poem “Don Juan,” which proved an ideal vehicle for the orchestra. The students channeled the work’s virtuosic energy and shaped its dramatic contours with dexterity and joy. Clad in HRO fleece vests made for the occasion, 50 alumni then joined the students onstage to close the concert with a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.

Maestro Federico Cortese greets the alumni and audience
Maestro Federico Cortese greets the alumni and audience at Sanders Theatre.

From the first notes of the joint afternoon rehearsal, the orchestra’s Music Director, Federico Cortese, embraced the alumni. With his guidance, the composite ensemble quickly coalesced, building the camaraderie so familiar to HRO members and audiences. Alumni shared, once again, in that special HRO magic, rising to the moment alongside the sterling student musicians.

It was an uplifting and indeed historic evening for the HRO, with current members making music with alumni for the first time, hearing cherished memories of Dr. Y’s Harvard years, and accompanying the distinguished violinist Joseph Lin. A former member of the Juilliard Quartet, Lin is one of many HRO graduates who have gone on to careers in music. The concert was also a product of the HRO’s characteristic efficiency and industriousness: the students prepared the repertoire right on the heels of their equally brilliant performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony just two weeks earlier.

HRO of today

While the concert offered the chance to look back on HRO’s storied past, it also cast a spotlight on the orchestra’s vital present. Since Cortese assumed the directorship of the HRO in 2009, the orchestra has entered an era of high musical precision and integrity. Amid societal crises and transformations, Cortese has ensured that the HRO remains a space of cohesion — a source of emotional sustenance and fellowship at the center of students’ creative lives. Having steered the orchestra through the pandemic-related strains on live performance, Cortese is cultivating in students the kind of expressive fortitude and sensitivity that is needed in today’s public discourse.

In its efforts to continue its support of the HRO, the HRO Foundation announced on Nov. 12 that it had formed an endowment fund, which will help support future student and alumni programming. Any alumni interested in attending HRO events on campus, mentoring current orchestra members, or contributing to the Endowment Fund are welcome to contact the foundation at