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Some Thoughts on James Yannatos

From the Program Notes of the World Premiere of James Yannatos' Saxophone Concerto, by Ken Radnofsky (soon to be published)


I have known James Yannatos as a good colleague and friend for about 15 years. I had listened to much of his music on cd, and other media going back to cassettes, had attended Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra concerts frequently, where I also heard more of his works live, and had judged regularly for their concerto competition, which had the added benefit of a chance to have a quick dinner with Jimmy before those dates. Invariably, we would discuss the idea of a saxophone concerto at those times, or, once a year at some gathering. And while it may have started as just talk, we both became more and more serious about it, and a couple of years ago, we started looking for ways to make that happen. By this time, Jimmy had begun to have a health issue, which from my point of view, he was dealing with realistically, and wasn't going to let it slow him down. And, it didn't. Indeed the most vivid picture in my mind, will always be seeing him driving past the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge in late September this year, just as I was walking to Longy, and hearing his familiar voice over the traffic, without slowing down (and that in retrospect was metaphoric of Jimmy's desire to have the most complete life he could), telling me that the Cambridge performance of his opera, 'Rocket's Red Blare,' was in 2 days, as he drove on. We were to have a couple of email exchanges during the next week or two, including one poignant letter on Oct. 14, 2011 in which he wrote,


'I have news that is hard for me to have to share, my oncologist has informed me that my time on the planet is shorter than I had hoped. I have been so looking forward to our work together in February as you both bring the Sax Concerto out into the world and to my ears. It seems I will most likely not make it, though of course I will be there in spirit full force...'


I really didn't want to believe it, as Jimmy had never ever said that before. I naively wrote that I was practicing on the concerto, and wanted to proceed believing that the doctor was wrong. I hoped to see Jimmy, to play for him, and discuss the concerto, which had just arrived from the copyist in final form. He graciously responded that I could see him on Sunday Oct. 16, but that playing would not be necessary. I will always be grateful that he allowed me to have those short moments. He was absolutely clear in his thoughts as he always had been, pointed out a few places that I needed to understand, and, I left, and while believing it was perhaps our last visit, promised to practice the piece that week. I did, too. He died 3 days later Wednesday Oct. 19. I will remember Jimmy as having lived a life with great exuberance, with uncompromising artistic and personal integrity, and dedicated to musicmaking, whether as conductor or composer.


James Yannatos' Concerto was written all during 2011, with the third movement being the most recently completed movement. I was given manuscript facsimiles to study as they were completed in concert pitch, and received the saxophone parts just a few week's before the composer's death. What is it like to know that the composition you are writing may be your last work? Well, James Yannatos certainly had come to grips with it. The saxophone concerto is an honest and unpretentious work, an outflowing of emotion, but presented in a rational way, unified as autobiographical if not programmatic, as well as a chronicle of the heartfelt feelings of the last year of the composer's life. The work, literally, begins with the 'Dies Irae,' heard with an ominous tympani. And, although beginning with this Last Judgment, the composer told me in a quiet and serene moment on the Sunday we visited, that although this was his 'Cancer Concerto,' it was meant to heal. 'Praise God from whom all things flow,' is given a setting in the first movement, along with a beginning cry in the saxophone, soaring lyricism, glorious melodies, both wistful, jubilant, and all at the same time, portraying the American melting pot, from which he was born. In fact, there is a sixteenth note motive presented in both orchestra and saxophone, which to me, is vaguely reminiscent of Bernstein's 'New York, New York.' Yannatos was born in NYC, and shares his American/New York and New England frames of mind with both Bernstein, who gave Yannatos early encouragement in high school and at Tanglewood, and Copland, as the second movement contains the tender lyricism attributed to Copland's works, but surrounded on both sides by a kind of Gregorian Chant. The third movement represents a chronicle of emotions of Yannatos' last months, presented in heroic fashion with some similarities to Richard Strauss' use of thematic material, as:allegro giusto, cantabile, piu maestoso, cantabile, a tempo, piu vivo, largamente, allargando, broad and, for one final beat, 'a tempo'. This little exclamation, presented after a first, but final lullaby marked broad in the piece, is an unapologetic, quick chromatic run, which is Jimmy's final musical salute, to life. My notes are personal ones. I hope they are of some use to the audience and offer a glimpse into an amazing and unforgettable man, who made everyone else's life better.


I am also grateful to Leon Botstein, a former assistant conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and President of Bard College, where we will perform the piece later this Spring, who suggested presenting the work first at Sanders Theatre with the Longy Conservatory Orchestra, scene of so many of Jimmy's many fabulous concerts at Harvard, and to Julian Pellicano, who embraced the idea immediately and programmed the work as a world premiere with his committed young people of the Longy Orchestra.


-Ken Radnofsky January 16, 2012


© 2012 by Kenneth Radnofsky. All Rights Reserved

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