BEIJING — If China weren't a largely atheistic country, it would be tempting to describe Yanni as something of a musical messiah.
He of flowing mane, ethereal strains and critical stains arrived in the Chinese capital last week on the final stop of a triumphal swing through the world's most populous country. After two sold-out shows at an arena here, the keyboardist is set to make history tonight as the first Western artist in modern times to perform in Beijing's historic Forbidden City. His concerts are planned outside a Ming Dynasty temple where China's emperors once sacrificed to their ancestors.
And the public adulation has itself strayed close to worship.
"Some of his Beijing audience are crazy about Yanni," the Beijing Evening News said in a slightly bemused review Monday, "to the point of describing him as an increasingly magical 'musical god.' "
That there should be a touch of the spiritual about Yanni is unsurprising. The artist himself, who dislikes the label "New Age," describes his work in spiritual and philosophical terms. He brushes off frequent slams from critics with the serenity of a monk. His transliterated Chinese name can actually be taken to mean "elegant nun" (though no one has tried tackling Yanni's unused surname, Chryssomallis, just yet).
But even he confesses to being awed by the response he has received in China, where legions of fans packed auditoriums in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing in the past two weeks, giving him "the best audiences I've had in my career."
"This is amazing," Yanni said in an interview Thursday before an evening dress rehearsal. "If somebody told me a few years ago that I'd be playing in the Forbidden City, I'd have said it was impossible."
The two concerts tonight and Saturday at the Great Ancestral Temple, officially called the Working People's Cultural Palace by the Communist government, culminate a worldwide tour launched as a follow-up to Yanni's hugely successful 1994 appearance at the Acropolis in his native Greece.
In March, the tour sparked controversy when it landed at the Taj Mahal in India, the other crown jewel, besides the Forbidden City, in Yanni's "Global Music Event."
Environmentalists protested, claiming that the elaborate lighting and sound would harm the famed Taj. Farmers displaced by the concerts threatened to immolate themselves on the site until a timely financial settlement with the government and Yanni himself dispelled their suicidal thoughts.
Here, producers have been able to avoid trouble partly because of the convenient lack of activist groups in China's authoritarian society and because of the involvement of the government--the ultimate arbiter in all things--in the project from the outset.
"This is the first large-scale performance held in the Forbidden City by a foreigner," explained Jiang Li, spokesman for the official China National Culture and Arts Corp., which formally invited Yanni to come more than a year ago.
After scouting potential locations at the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven, the Yanni crew decided on the courtyard in front of the Great Ancestral Temple, an imposing, colorful structure first built in 1420 on the southeastern edge of the Forbidden City.
Even then, navigating China's numerous bureaucracies, from the fire department to the Beijing municipal committee to the Bureau of Cultural Relics, proved a challenge. "We've had to go through a myriad of approvals to get this concert done," said Danny O'Donovan, Yanni's personal manager.
Promoters wanted 5,000 seats in the courtyard; they settled for about 4,000 unforgiving-looking folding chairs, hundreds of which are reserved for Chinese officials. A request to beam lights from inside the temple out into the audience was denied. Special speakers designed to project sound directly outward, with no waves emanating from the back or top, will be tuned to a maximum of 40 decibels, the same level as at the Taj.
"What we do with our sound and lights is considerably less than what urban pollution will do to these monuments," said tour director-producer George Veras.
Workers handling 200 tons of equipment were admonished to tread carefully around the beautiful, delicate marble carvings and railings surrounding the temple, which have been decaying more rapidly with the onslaught of tourism.
"My least favorite word to hear in a location like this is 'oops,' " said Yanni. "There's no room for error."
Though steeply priced ($19, $36, $60) by Chinese standards, tickets sold out a month and a half ago. But Yanni's producers say the revenue will barely dent the $4-million cost of mounting the show.
Rather, the investment is in the concert video, incorporating both the Forbidden City and Taj Mahal shows, due out with a corresponding album by the end of the year. Yanni's Acropolis video has sold more than 1 million copies and became one of PBS' most lucrative fund-raisers.
For Yanni, the goal of his appearances in China is to promote cultural understanding. "Music as a language of communication is a very powerful tool," he said. "It bypasses culture, language and logic."
Perhaps, but in recent years, China has made throaty noises about the insidious influence of Western pop culture. How did Yanni survive the scrutiny?
O'Donovan, his manager, credits the "continuing educational process to let [officials] know what Yanni is about, what his music is about."
"They don't perceive me as evil," Yanni said. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here."