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10 Steps to the Yanni Phenomenon : Commentary: The musician's popularity defies critics' assessments. Here's a primer on what may lie behind the adoration of his legion of fans.

July 07, 1995|STEVE METCALF | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Yanni, as many of you may know, is very big just now.

But what is this thing called Yanni, really?

The 40-year-old, Greek-born composer-keyboardist-philosopher disavows any New Age designation. For that matter, he disavows pretty much anything in the way of category or genre, saying only that his music conveys "what life feels like to me."

His fans do not seem to be discomfited by this absence of category.

"He's just Yanni," one of them recently said to a quaintly category-minded reporter.

Still, if we can't pigeonhole him (how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?), we can perhaps take a stab at grasping a fleeting ray, a speck of his mercurial, ever-changing essence.

In that spirit, herewith are 10 Ways of Looking at Yanni, with commentary.

* As heir to the longstanding tradition of male pianists who mesmerize women with their keyboard stylings.

This tradition, loosely defined, would take in such figures as Liszt, Paderewski, Jose Iturbi, Liberace, Roger Williams, Glenn Gould and possibly also Ferrante and Teicher.

The piano (including its modern electronic variants) has been the quintessential musical instrument of romance and seduction, at least in the hands of the great masters, since the mid-19th Century.

Think of the many paintings of Liszt that depict him seated at the grand, lost in reverie while a bevy of adoring honeys look on, their bosoms fairly heaving with rapture.

Similarly, women fainted at Paderewski concerts with such regularity that concert promoters took to hiring nurses to be in attendance.

This is a legacy that Yanni, understandably enough, would seek to carry forward.

* As the man who lives with Linda Evans.

There's no way to prove this, but it seems that Yanni's rise to stardom has had at least something to do with his live-in relationship with the esteemed former star of "Dynasty." Indeed, Evans is reported to have been involved in many of Yanni's business decisions, including selection of staff members.

The crucial question is, would Yanni have become a worldwide celebrity if he had been living with, say, Doris Lessing or Jeane Kirkpatrick?

* As a highly original artist whose profound spirituality has created a unique kind of music that everybody (except critics) can relate to.

This is the position that many Yanni fans have taken with respect to the soft-spoken, mustachioed entertainer.

A recent Hartford Courant call-in box invited readers to register their thoughts about Yanni.

Among the more representative replies:

"I don't normally listen to piano music, but his is full of expression, very exotic."

"I hope my 4-year-old son will be just like him. By the way, he likes Yanni, too."

"It's the greatest new kind of music we've had in decades. A lot of people say it's boring, but I say it's a happy type of music that we should have more of."

Socio-aesthetic note: Of the 50 or so people who called to talk about Yanni, only three were men. Of these, two registered disapproval, the only disapproving calls of the entire bunch. One said, "Any decent jazz player would make this guy look like the fool that he is." The other said, more simply, that Yanni "sucks."

* As a no-talent poseur whose music, for all its sonic grandiosity, has the approximate intellectual weight of "Mairzy Doats."

This would be a fairly accurate summary of the position taken by many members of the Critical Community.

Indeed, where Yanni is concerned, the gulf between the opinion of the critics and the fans is approaching Michael Bolton-like dimensions.

Of course, even if this view is valid, think of all the no-talent poseurs out there, and how hardly any of them ever get to perform at the Acropolis under the stars, in front of thousands of cheering people. Perhaps there is something "bigger" going on here. Who knows?!

* As the heir to the long line of darkly hirsute male entertainers who attain a level of celebrity that would be hard to attribute solely to talent.

Examples here would include Neil Diamond, David Copperfield, Fabian.

* As steward of a small but honorable show-biz convention: the one-name artist.

There are some honorable members of the mono-moniker club: Hildegarde, Cantinflas, Sade.

On the other hand, there's also Charo, Twiggy, Cher, Mantovani and Zamfir. For the record, Yanni's surname is Chryssomallis, an admittedly tough handle for this business.

* As a man who has caused both rejoicing and soul-searching at PBS.

The "Yanni in Concert: Live at the Acropolis" show, which has been shown nationwide on public television, is now the second-most effective PBS show for eliciting pledges, just a hair behind the Three Tenors.

The decision to broadcast the concert on PBS was reportedly made after some delay and with some reluctance, after discussion of its suitability for the network that also broadcasts the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

* As a kind of peaceful, easy-feeling link between pop music and classical music.

Many of his fans claim this distinction on behalf of the Y-man.

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