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, Paul Hindemith, and Philip Bezanson in composition, William Steinberg and Leonard Bernstein in conducting, and Hugo Kortschak and Ivan Galamian on violin took Yannatos to Yale University (B.M., M.M.), the University of Iowa (Ph.D.), Aspen, Tanglewood, and Paris. As a young violinist, he performed in various professional ensembles including a piano trio, string quartet, early music groups with Hindemith and Boulanger, and in the Casals Festival.
In 1964, he was appointed music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and has led that group on tours to Europe, Russia, South America, and Asia. He organized and co-directed the New England Composers Orchestra, the Tanglewood Young Artists Orchestra, and taught conducting and Tanglewood. He has appeared as guest conductor-composer at the Aspen, Banff, Tanglewood, Chautauqua, and Saratoga Festivals, and with the Boston Pops, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Baltimore, and San Antonio Symphonies and the Sverdlovsk, Leningrad, Cleveland, and American Symphony Chamber Orchestras.
Yannatos has received commissions for orchestral, vocal, and instrumental works which include Cycles (recorded by Collage), Sounds of Desolation and Joy (Lucy Shelton), Concerto for Bass and Orchestra (Alea III and Edwin Barker), Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (Mendelssohn String Quartet), Suite for Solo Horn (Erik Ruske), Symphonies Sacred and Secular: Prais'd be the Fathomless Universe (combined Harvard Choruses and Harvard-Radcliffed Orchestra), and Songs of Life, Love and Loss (Peggy Pearson/Boston Modern Orchestra Project).
His most ambitious work, Trinity Mass (for soloists, chorus and orchestra), premiered in Boston and New York (Jason Robards, narrator), and was aired on National Public Radio in 1986. His Symphony No. 3 for Strings: Prisms and Symphony No. 5 Son et Lumiere were premiered in the former USSR by the Lithuanian State Orchestra and the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra in 1990 and 1992.
Other works in which he appeared as composer-conductor include his Piano Concerto, premiered with the Florida West Coast Symphony (William Doppmann, piano), Concerto for Bass and Orchestra with the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, Symphony No. 3: Prisms with the American Symphony Chamber Orchestra, Symphony No. 2: Earth, Fire, Air and Water, Symphony No. 4: Tiananmen Square, and Symphony No. 5: Son et Lumière.
He has written for the stage (opera and theatre), television, chamber, choral and vocal works and published music for children including four volumes of Silly and Serious Songs, based on the words of children.
His violin concerto was premiered by Joseph Lin and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Yannatos at Harvard University. His cello concerto was recently premiered by Matt Haimovitz and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.