The sun comes out again for Yanni
01:00 AM EST on Sunday, March 28, 2004
BY SHARYN WIZDA VANE
He knows about the shopworn "Yawnee" jokes, the vaguely condescending New Age moniker that dogs his music, the much-discussed 1998 New Yorker cartoon that depicted a dentist asking his patient, "Novocaine or Yanni?" He knows about the critics' jibes at his hard-to-define symphonic style ("musical wallpaper," sniped The New York Times; "like Kenny G with more toys," carped the Los Angeles Times).
"I can't blame people for wanting to put me in a box," the Greek-born singer, who performs Saturday at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, says by phone from his Florida home. "We do that to everybody. There's a tendency in society to put people in a box -- then we can find them. However, art is not like that."
So what is it, then? For Yanni, art is both taskmaster and salvation.
He catapulted to fame in 1990 after appearing on Oprah with then-love Linda Evans, selling 600,000 albums in the two weeks after the show. He staged a concert at the Acropolis that aired on PBS and was seen by half a billion people; a subsequent live recording of the event has sold more than 7.5 million copies.
He went on to mount concerts in China's Forbidden City and at the Taj Mahal, hiring full orchestras to swell out the instrumental compositions he's known for. He worked so hard, in fact, that his relationship with Evans crumbled and depression set in.
His descent and ascent -- punctuated by a return to his beloved music that culminated in Ethnicities, his first album in three years -- is chronicled in the memoir he released last year, Yanni In Words (Miramax).
"The book ended up being a cathartic process, a healing process," Yanni says. "I wanted to speak in my own language and tell my own story in my own words. I've given a lot of interviews, and most of the time the articles are short. I didn't think the public had a real sense of who I was as a human being."
Yanni on Yanni is Horatio Alger writ large: Born Yianni Chryssomallis in the seaside village of Kalamata in 1954, he taught himself to play the piano, became a champion swimmer as a teen and came to America to seek his fortune, scrabbling out a living with rock bands in Minneapolis clubs before recording a few albums of his own music.
The Oprah juggernaut
Those early efforts garnered a growing but still-modest following until he met Evans, the former Dynasty star who'd been a fan before the two met and fell in love in 1989. It was Evans who suggested that Yanni accompany her to a segment on Oprah.
The night before the show, Yanni was nervous. Once the show started and Evans began talking up his talents, he became terrified.
"Then it was show time," he writes of the taping. "Oprah called me out. I'd never been on national television and I was petrified. It was nothing like being onstage. All the cameras and lights hit my face and I felt out of control just knowing that millions of people were watching."
But then he played "In the Mirror," a song he'd written for Evans. He went over his allotted time, but Oprah asked him to play out to commercial; after the break, she told viewers she had Yanni CDs in her car and home and that she was buying copies to give to her friends.
"The show had turned into one big Yanni commercial," he writes. As a result, his album Reflections of Passion started flying off the shelves.
And those fans have stayed with him, loyally standing by while their star, clad in his trademark white (a lost argument with a producer before a show, Yanni explains in his memoir), has suffered the slings and arrows of a music press with a full quiver.
"It's accurate to describe Yanni's colourless tunes as music to be massaged by . . . These sounds -- I hesitate to call it music -- fill the silence and wash over you without leaving any lingering impressions," Ottawa Citizen critic Shannon Rupp wrote of Yanni's 1998 tour.
"Ms. Rupp's pathetic play on words in describing his performance as 'Yawni' shows all readers both her lack of wit and just how lacking in any value her review will be," fan David Schwartz wrote in rebuttal. "I would suggest to her that the thousands of people who paid good money to see him perform simply enjoy his music. It really is quite that simple."
Such a disconnect between fans and critics has happened throughout history when classical-style composers are also showmen, explains University of Texas ethnomusicologist Andrew Dell'Antonio (who quips that the classical-music community "wishes Yanni didn't exist"). Everyone from 19th-century pianist Franz Liszt to 1970s glitzmeister Liberace has been shunned for eschewing the near-invisible stage presence favored by most of the genre's artists, he says.
But Dell'Antonio says he's also noted a subtle sexism inherent in many of these criticisms. The focus on Yanni's hair, open shirts and swoony stage presence; the disparaging descriptions of emotional reactions by fans, many of whom are indeed women -- all could be seen as coded ways of dismissing Yanni's creations as little more than the musical equivalent of romance novels.
"It's really a matter of negotiating what art is for," Dell'Antonio says. "Selling classical music in a version that is comfortable, expected, that fans come to hear what they expect and something that doesn't challenge them, that's what someone like Yanni or Liberace does. It doesn't push the envelope in any way. On the other hand, it doesn't mean that his work is any less expressive or valid."
Yanni himself says it's pointless to argue with the critics. He'd rather focus on his music and the passion he and his fans feel for his creations.
Indeed, letters from fans helped break him out of the depression triggered by overwork that made him quit music for a year and return to his family in Greece, spending plenty of time with his father, a banker.
"I did 170 shows in 1998 . . . I found my limit by exceeding it," he says. "Then life came in and gave me a lot of pain. I wouldn't take any antidepressants; I went right into the pain. It was very painful for the first month or so.
"Then I started hanging out with a wise man; my father. We walked on the same mountain we had walked when I was a child, twice a day. Pretty soon, I started turning around."
Finally, he felt ready to return to his music -- though not without some trepidation.
"Talk about a terrifying moment, to go back after a year," Yanni remembers. "The thing that my father always said about a musical instrument: 'You leave it once, it leaves you 10 times.' I was wondering if I could ever get it back. 'Will the muscles in my hands even be strong enough to play the piano?' "
But when he finally got up the nerve to sit down at the keys, the music flowed.
"It was a brilliant moment in time," he says. "It reminded me you don't play with logic, you play with your heart. The piano will never let you forget."