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Harvard’s Musical Dilemma

The passing of Dr. James Yannatos, former conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, marks the end of an era. Dr. Y, as his students affectionately called him, oversaw one of Harvard’s largest and one of America’s oldest musical institutions, leading the group in rehearsals and concerts for over 45 years.

It is striking to consider the number of distinguished academics who came through the HRO during Dr. Y’s tenure. The Boston Globe, for example, points out that one year, Harvard Medical School Professor Norman Letvin sat next to Nobel Prize-winning economist Eric Maskin in the clarinet section. Perhaps even more staggering, however, is the corresponding roster of professional musicians. Cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Matthew Haimovitz, composer John Adams, and pianist and Harvard Professor of Music Robert Levin—just to name a few—all performed with Dr. Y in one form or another. Even the current New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert once served as Dr. Y’s assistant conductor.

This impressive list is a testimony to the fruits of Dr. Y’s recruiting efforts. As The Crimson has pointed out, at the time Dr. Y assumed his position, the HRO was but an “eclectic congregation of a few undergraduates, alumni, and affiliates who were able to play instruments”—a far cry from the 90-person symphonic orchestra of underaged virtuosi it is today.

Given the significant increase in both the number of players and the quality of playing that the HRO saw during the Yannatos era, the questions follow: Where does it go from here, and how should musical life at Harvard change in response to the enormous influx of technically gifted musicians into its academic ranks?

Curiously, it seems as though Harvard has in large part ignored this question. For years, a conspicuous divide has existed between the music department and the music students. The department, whose focus has traditionally been the theoretical and historical aspects of music, has remained aloof with regards to student performances. It provides little financial and logistical support for students who are not music concentrators. Exacerbating this situation is the fact that the vast majority of Harvard’s performing musicians are not music concentrators, specifically because the department does not make musical performance its priority.


The end result of this feedback loop has been the spawning of a vast number of entirely student-run musical groups on campus. Truth be told, this is a rather endearing quirk of Harvard’s musical scene. Being produced and directed entirely by students, groups like the Bach Society Orchestra and the Dunster House Opera are not as likely to be found on other college campuses. The autonomous nature of these groups has undoubtedly contributed significantly to the development of its constituent musicians. Yet the lack of an institutional backing for these students remains a notable disadvantage, especially considering the amount of musical guidance the modern-day conservatory student receives.

The Office for the Arts at Harvard has taken steps to fill this gap in Harvard’s musical world, providing monetary grants such as the Artist Development Fellowship and arranging master classes for students by world-class musicians, such as soprano Renée Fleming and pianist André Previn. But the OFA’s efforts are sporadic and fail to provide the constant stream of support required by serious students of music.

There are numerous ways in which Harvard could implement additional conduits of study for music students. Hiring more faculty members who are performing musicians and offering more courses in musical performance are two of the most obvious ways. When Professor Robert Levin retires in the spring of 2013, it will be critical to find not only a brilliant musical thinker, but also a consummate performer, to replace him as the instructor of one of Harvard’s best classes, Chamber Music Performance and Analysis. Harvard could also rekindle its long-standing relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and gain students access to BSO rehearsals as the Juilliard School has done with the New York Philharmonic. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Harvard should provide more of a framework for aspiring musicians to pursue their career goals. While the Office of Career Services provides thousands of listings in investment banking, consulting, and engineering, it offers few if any options for those wishing to become professional musicians. Of course, a career in the arts is inherently less defined than those in other fields, but the present complete dearth of guidance is troubling.

Such additions to the life of the undergraduate musician would provide an invaluable counterpoint to the already-excellent academic aspects of Harvard’s musical scene. Cooperation between the music department, the OFA, and the students,would ensure that excellent music would not just be seen and thought about, but also heard and played. Given how much Harvard excels in other fields and the overabundant talent of its music students, there is no reason it should not become one of the nation’s leading musical institutions.

Yuga J. Cohler ’11 is currently a master of music student in orchestral conducting at Juilliard School.