I have to confess: I was not prepared to see Yanni walk on stage Tuesday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
I mean, of course I knew he would be there. It was a Yanni concert, after all. Can't throw a Yanni concert without Yanni.
But if you've seen photos of Yanni in the last few years, he looks nothing like the Yanni from the '90s. In these photos he looks natural and well-aged, clean-shaven or subtly stubbled, fit and tanned and wavy-haired, like a Malibu dad at a garden party.
But on the sold-out second night of his North American spring and summer tour, out came Yanni Classic: Long mop of pulp-novel hair, thick black mustache, pearly smile, wearing a pristine white linen suit and bright blue shirt, like he just strolled in from a Tide commercial.
The Greek New Age composer has a good reason to pull out the throwback look. He's celebrating the 25th anniversary of his landmark concert and album Yanni Live at the Acropolis, which is the main reason I was here among 2,180 swooning fans in the first place.
Fair or not, to a lot of pop fans, New Age music is something of a punch line, and Yanni himself a punch line upon that. Why? Hard to say. Maybe it's the mononym. Maybe it's the mustache.
Or maybe it has to do his unparalleled global success. If forced at gunpoint to name one New Age album from the past 25 years – maybe ever – those same mainstream music fans might say Live at the Acropolis. It has sold 4 million copies (that's the official U.S. tally; Yanni himself claims 7 million) with the video selling a million more. The original 1994 PBS broadcast remains one of its most-watched ever, meaning Yanni has, in some small way, helped subsidize all that Sherlock and Poldark you're so fond of bingeing.
So yes, within its genre, Live at the Acropolis is a stone-cold classic, the Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City of New Age. And that's worth celebrating. But is it possible Yanni has more to offer the world in 2018 than '90s nostalgia?
Ruth Eckerd Hall isn't the Acropolis – or the pyramids or the Taj Mahal or Beijing's Forbidden City, all of which Yanni has played since 1993 — but it's also not far from Tarpon Springs and its sizeable Greek population, many of whom were there shouting "Yasou!" to their countryman.
"If somebody told me 25 years ago that I would be recording a concert at the Parthenon, and 25 years later I would be still around and playing this music, it's impossible," Yanni said in his soft, deep voice. "It's a good thing. Anything's possible. And I promise you one more thing: I am going to be around for another 25 years. This is the beginning. I'm just getting warmed up."
And what a warm-up it was. For more than two and a half hours, Yanni flitted between a Yamaha grand and an alcove of seven synthesizers, playfully exploring different cultures and styles, often more than once within songs. He'd incorporate a little jazz, a little classical, a little gypsy stomp, a little fiddle and western grandeur, always flicking his fingers in the air – not so much composing as feeling the notes his band played.
Songs became little musicological games: Was this style rooted in East Asia? The Middle East? Central America? With his 11-piece orchestra pulled from all corners of the world, you could hear a little bit of everything – which, he said, was kind of the point.
"We truly are one interconnected, interdependent, living, breathing world community," he said, "and we all belong to one race. And that is the human race."
Inevitably, some of it sounded sappy and safe, as his critics are wont to complain. A couple of songs got lost in their own romantic sway, the slow crescendo of the piano and orchestra begging to soundtrack a gratuitous sex scene on a beach.
But some of it was technically impressive, even at times thrilling. A generous bandleader, Yanni gave almost every player an extended moment in the spotlight. A passionate solo from violinist Samvel Yervinyan brought a tear to Yanni's eye. He had cellist Alexander Zhiroff rewind and slow down a complex harmonic so the audience could better appreciate what he'd done. Soprano Lauren Jelencovich was radiant on the demanding Nightingale, the show's only song with a vocalist. And drummer Charlie Adams, who played that night at the Acropolis, tore through a whimsical five-minute drum solo that brought the house down.
Yanni did not play Acropolis live in its entirety. But each time he got to one of its songs, the audience murmured in recognition and approval. When Adams tsk-tsk-tsked out the opening cymbals to the jubilant, triumphant Santorini, the crowd reacted as if McCartney had just dropped Hey Jude.
Whenever he talked about the Acropolis concert, and how much it still means to him now, Yanni, too, got emotional.
"There is no way to get over it," he said. "It was a turning point in my life. It was a turning point in my career. And it will be around forever, I think."
With a credit like that, Yanni can style himself however he wants. Fashions, like 'staches, come and go. But the passion in his music's here to stay.
— Jay Cridlin