More than Yanni's skills, dazzling diversity delights Wednesday, February 16, 2005 By Elizabeth Clark The Grand Rapids Press GRAND RAPIDS -- Pushing pins in a world map for the various origins of Yanni's talented, multiethnic orchestra results in a musical connect-the-dots that's truly greater than the sum of its parts.
It's also greater than you'd expect from Yanni, the poster boy for New Age music who's still trying to live down that New Yorker cartoon in which the dentist queries, "Novocain ... or Yanni?"
To quote my companion at the show, it was like an "international spaceship" touching down on the Van Andel Arena stage Tuesday. The two-hour set for a delighted, two-thirds-capacity crowd was hardly what you'd call a sleeper.
Cheesy though they were, the thunderclap sound effects heralding a dramatic curtain-fall for the peppy, proud Yanni -- wound up like a bounce-around Tigger -- did get one's attention.
The music kept the crowd rapt, although it often wasn't because of the cocksure headliner tinkering with one hand or the other or both on paired stacks of triple keyboards.
Yanni, like certain politicians, knows how to surround himself with really smart people.
As of Yanni's 2003 CD "Ethnicity," that entourage includes singers, who added tremendous texture and a Deep Forest-style density to the performer's vast repertoire.
Backing singer Alfreda Gerald's pristine pipes and powerful stage presence really lit up the landscape of "On Sacred Ground" -- the evening's first show-stopper.
Gerald and vocalist Michelle Amato's operatic acrobatics in the aria "Ode to Humanity," set to a score not unlike an extremely uptempo "Besame Mucho," also blew the house down.
One-man woodwinds section Pedro Eustache, whose vast resume includes first-seat soloist for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" score, was no slouch either and dished out as much depth to the soundscape as the divas did drama and flair.
Among the 10-strong strings section (not including harpist, electric bassist, hammered dulcimer player or keyboards), first violinist and soloist Armen Movessian stood out as a virtuoso who lent classical credibility to Yanni's compositions -- which ultimately bear the scarlet letter of the oft-slighted field of electronica.
Not the greatest pianist
Frankly, Yanni's keyboard prowess is largely a studio animal.
The work behind getting the keyboards to make just the right sound at the touch of one key doesn't translate in the live arena, and much of the more involved fingerwork takes flight from the fingers of backing keyboardist Ming Freeman, who seems a bit like the "Star Wars" student of The Force who's outgrown his Jedi knight.
The few songs Yanni spent at the bench of the Yamaha grand didn't evince so much a virtuosity for piano but a palpable passion. In a medley that merged a dazzling wind and string score with "Nostalgia," which Yanni wrote as a child, the arpeggios at its core didn't seem radically more challenging than "Chopsticks," although they seemed to celebrate with a childlike awe the tinselly sounds of the piano's upper register.
The Asian serenity of "Nightengale" better showcased his skills. Much of the compositional credit for the renowned Yanni live experience is due to orchestrator Jeffrey Silverman, a longtime collaborator of Yanni's whom, in press materials, states, "It's like Yanni has built a house, and he knows how he wants it furnished, but he invites me to contribute my sense of color."
At times that color is downright blinding.
Encore number "Santorini," what with its bumping bass beat, Chaka Khan-like powerhouse vocals and didgeridoo-techno cred, was even actually sort-of hip.
I just called a Yanni song sort-of hip.
I hereby forfeit any punk points I may have accumulated during my years of crowd surfing and head banging.
Shucks. I was really hoping to trade them in for a tattoo.