James Yannatos was born and educated in New York City, attending the High School of Music and Art and the Manhattan School of Music. Subsequent studies with Nadia Boulanger, Luigi Dallapiccola, Darius Milhaud, and Paul Hindemith in composition and William Steinberg and Leonard Bernstein in conducting took Yannatos to Yale University (B.M., M.M.), the University of Iowa (Ph.D.), Aspen, Tanglewood, and Paris.
He has been Music Director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra since 1964, and has led that group on tours to Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Asia. In addition to having been the co-director of the New England Composers Orchestra, he has appeared as guest conductor-composer at the Aspen, Banff, Tanglewood, Chautauqua, and Saratoga Festivals, with the Boston Pops, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Baltimore, and San Antonio Symphonies and Sverdlovsk, Leningrad, Cleveland and American Symphony Chamber Orchestras.
Yannatos has received commissions for orchestral, vocal, and instrumental works which include Cycles (recorded by Collage), Tunes and Dances: A New England Overture (Phi Beta Kappa), Sounds of Desolation and Joy (Lucy Shelton), Concerto for Bass and Orchestra (Alea III and Edward Barker, Principal Bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra); Concerto for String Quartet and orchestra (Mendelssohn String Quartet, on C.D. by Albany Records); and Suite for solo horn (Erik Ruske, on C.D. by Albany Records). His most ambitious work, Trinity Mass (for soloists, chorus, and orchestra), was premiered in Boston and New York in 1986 (Jason Robards, narrator), and was aired on National Public Radio. His Symphony No. 3 for strings: Prisms, (on C.D. by Albany Records) and Symphony No. S: Son et Lumiere were premiered in the former USSR by the Lithuanian State Orchestra and the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra in 1990 and 1992.
His Piano Concerto was premiered in 1994 by the Florida West Coast Symphony with William Doppmann, piano (on C.D. by Albany Records). He conducted The Cleveland Chamber Orchestra in his Concerto for Bass and Orchestra in 1995, and the American Symphony Chamber Orchestra in his Symphony No. 3: Prisms in 1995.
Additional performances include his Symphony No. 4 (Tiananmen Square) performed in Prague, Czech Republic in 1992 (on C.D. by Albany Records); Duo for violin and piano performed at Kennedy Center in 1992; Piano Concerto in 1994 at Sanders Theatre; Haiku Cycle in Athens, Greece and Harvard University in 1995 and 1998; Onata Lux at Sanders Theatre and concerts in England in 1995 and New York in 1998; Piano Trio in 1995 and 1998 in Boston; Percussion Concerto in 1997 at New England Conservatory; and Symphony No. 5 (Son et Lumiere) in 1999 at Sanders Theatre; Symphonies Sacred and Secular in 2002 at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University.
Yannatos has published music for children including Amazing Grace (a choral drama), Harvard University in 1999; Cantata: Creation Sings its own Song, Boston University in 1999; and four volumes of Silly and Serious Songs, based on the words of children. He has also written music for television, including Nova's City of Coral, and Metromedia's Assassins Among Us and two operas.
He has received innumerable awards as a composer including the Artists Foundation Award of 1988 for his Trinity Mass, on C.D. by Albany Records.