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Some Thoughts on James Yannatos

Kenneth Radnofsky
January 2012

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.