Story by Matt RichterShuffling to the Bradley Center's glass entry, my thin black socks offer up no protection for my even thinner ankles from the merciless Lake Michigan mid-winter winds-an icy breeze cuts through the slacks and wool pea coat I don, my "office professional" get-up I didn't have time to shed before the show. For previous concert reviews, I would have felt out of place shouldering a formal-casual look; tonight, however, I blend well with a crowd of silk and leather-clad middle-aged Yanni fans, all sharing the shadow of a youthful exuberance beneath blushed and after-shaved graying faces. From late 30's to early 60's, the elegant-but-eager crowd, some toting children, others Gucci handbags, produces a subdued roar, whispering to each other about particular musicians they are anxiously anticipating most. Still wondering what exactly a "Yanni" is, hoping this Greek mythological creature doesn't put me to sleep or force tired, mediocre piano melodies down my throat, I ponder the cliched labels Milwaukeeans shared with me when I asked who or what is a "Yanni": chick music, overtly dramatic, a waste of time, a snow monster living in the Himalayan Mountains.
Photos by Matt Schwenke
A "Yanni," I am soon to learn, isn't a sedative or a heterosexually-threatening, drawn-out piano ballad, nor is he a snow monster (it's yeti, not Yanni). He is a small Greek man, all smiles and pseudo-wind-swept black hair, a native of a small Greek village, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, and one of the most internationally revered composers/musicians today. A champion swimmer and self-taught pianist, in his childhood, Yanni shared his family's love of music, eventually following this passion, still not able to read a note. His chart-topping career began in 1992 with his first Grammy-nominated album Dare to Dream; since, his "one people, one world" approach to composing and playing ethnically and culturally diverse, mostly lyric-less music has taken him to multi-million-strong crowds and shows at the Taj Mahal, China's Forbidden City, and to his homeland at the Parthenon, which spurned the #2 best-selling music video of all time and a PBS fundraiser special smashing previous pledge-drive records. Touring now across the U.S. for his 2003 release, Ethnicity, his third Virgin Records and thirteenth album release, Yanni takes stage with a flirtatious skip as the curtains rise; I heave a pessimistic sigh, mustering patience for, I assume, an uncomfortable two hours.
Memorable shows, for me at least, aren't by my favorite artists; I thrive on the surprise-the "shock and awe"-of underestimated performances. Which leaves me in kind of a baklava (I don't know the Greek word for pickle). Yanni puts on a damn good show, and since my expectations couldn't have been lower, I am forced, to my yet-to-wane surprise, to rate this concert as one of the better I've attended in recent years.
The tiered stage, washed in soft blue light, reveals itself to a still-quiet crowd; Yanni's keyboard cubicle, dead-center, shrinks as my eyes take in the rest of the view. No less than 26 musicians surround the stacked keyboards marking Yanni's position, which suddenly becomes clear: the composer, the conductor. As the first song, a track from Live at the Acropolis, begins with a powerful drum lead-in by Charlie Adams, world-renowned drummer and teacher to a handful of rock's most notable artists including Smashing Pumpkin's Jimmy Chamberlin, the reason for this troupe's international fame crashes over the audience, myself included; instrumentation, from around the globe, at its finest.
As the un-breaking set unfolds, song by song, the multicultural symphony surrenders a violinist, a flutist, another percussionist, and other members, one by one, to the spotlight, wielding recognizable symphonic mainstays and mysterious, centuries-old instruments; they bolt upright to a standing position and belt out masterful solos, egged on by encouraging smiles and flamboyant gesturing from the maestro. A towering Australian man charges on stage, brandishing a seven-foot didgeridoo, captivating the audience with its surreal sound. A Peruvian flutist pulls out a Chinese flute, seemingly an extension of his own physical presence, for "Nightingale," a track written for the concert at the Forbidden City (for the previous track, he played a 3,000-year-old Armenian flute just as well). The following song features dueling violins exuding an energy permeating every corner of the arena. A cellist pulls and pushes his bow, producing a melancholy tirade of pulsing notes. Latin trumpet players layer jazz-infused bars over the sound of relentless conga drums, and a Paraguayan man with curly black hair tosses (yes, tosses) one of three harps onto his shoulder to prod the strings in Zeppelin-esque fashion. And for anyone believing "Yanni" is Greek for "ego," a mid-set song saw the composer take a back seat to another keyboardists' solo. The highlight: a stage-hand brings a drum set down to stage left, and Mr. Adams unleashes a flurry of changes, rolls and poly-rhythms, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Although the flowing hair and form-fitting gray sweater he wore may trip the gag reflex of 20-somethings terrified of anything that doesn't scream hetero with a thumping bass and bling-bling in the lights, Yanni demonstrates that world-class instrumentation is equally as universal as the language of math, and his work, flogged by stereotypes but appreciated globally, is hard not to appreciate.
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