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The quiet storm

Greek singer Savina Yannatou defies boundaries and initial impressions.

March 08, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Savina YANNATOU unassumingly strolled on stage Sunday at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, her slender figure garbed in a flowing red chiffon tunic. Her most notable attribute: an apparent reluctance to perform, almost shyness.

She announced each song in a soft, gentle voice, sometimes simply providing a title and the number's country of origin. Occasionally, she recited an English translation of a song's lyrics.

For the first few numbers, the Greek singer's low-key demeanor dominated the music as well. Overt charisma -- despite a growing resume of rave reviews -- was clearly not her game. Singing with precision and control, reading her songs from a notebook on a music stand as she clutched the microphone, she made no apparent effort to invest her performance with anything other than a calculated focus on her songs.

This, despite the fact that the music she has explored through some 20 albums, most of it from Mediterranean countries, simmers with the passion of centuries of traditional songs.

Backstage before the performance, part of only her second U.S. tour, Yannatou displayed similar reserve. Almost dwarfed by a large armchair, the small, fine-boned Greek artist smiled when asked about the reaction to "Sumiglia," her boundary-less new release from ECM Records.

"When I first started singing Sephardic songs and Mediterranean songs," she said, "I really didn't think they could ever be released in an album. Now I have done a few CDs, and they have all had very good reviews. So, like all musicians and artists, I hope that we will make many more."

Back on stage, Yannatou's reserve slowly transformed, especially as she moved into rhythmic music from Bulgaria, emotionally intense tunes from Italy, Spain and Corsica and a gripping Palestinian song. Although her physical manner and between-song comments remained composed, her vocal style expanded dramatically.

Her initial emphasis on cool-toned interpretations, enhanced by a sumptuous sound and a subtle vibrato, gradually transformed into a startlingly diverse repertoire of vocal techniques. In some numbers she employed "throat singing" -- a technique in which deep throat tones are used to generate whistling overtones. For others, she flexed her sound to the point where she could produce a melodic line in octaves.

In the concert's last few pieces, she produced bird calls, yelps, squeals and growls with an intensity reminiscent of the late avant-garde singer Cathy Berberian, as she led her four-piece ensemble through electrifyingly contemporary sounding segments.

"I have always been fascinated with the different colors of the voice, the different ways of singing," said Yannatou, opening up conversationally, similar to how she opened up musically on stage. "And that, I think, is what attracted me to the different [styles of] music of the Mediterranean. Singing them becomes like a game, playing with the sounds and the words of different languages."

Yannatou still lives in Athens, where she was born. Although she devoted a few years to guitar lessons, her primary instrument has always been her voice.

"My sister," she said, "helped me get into a choir when I was very young -- 7 years old.... And she helped me to learn the second voice, taught me not to be confused by what the other singers were doing. And it turned out to be a very important experience for me -- to learn music, to learn how to be with other persons, to share the experience."

She studied voice at the National Conservatory and the Workshop of Vocal Art in Athens, continuing with postgraduate study at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her professional career began -- while she was still a student -- with vocal contributions to the popular "Lillipoupoli" children's program on Greek National Radio 3 under the direction of composer Manos Hadjidakis.

Yannatou initially concentrated on contemporary Greek song and opera. Renaissance and Baroque music attracted her interest next, followed in the early '90s by a fascination with vocal techniques and free improvisation.

By the mid-'90s she had met and formed a creative alliance with the members of Primavera en Salonico, the group that has backed her for more than a decade and with whom she has recorded several albums with combined U.S. sales of about 10,000.

"I first met them," she said, "when I became interested in Sephardic songs from Saloniki.... We started doing concerts and eventually, the songs of the Mediterranean came next."

"And now, suddenly," she adds with a smile, "it has been more than 10 years together."

Yannatou finished the Schoenberg Hall concert with more wide-open improvisations, her vocal excursions enhanced by the heroic accordion playing of the group's music director, Kostas Vomvolos; the multilayered percussion work of Kostas Theodorou, the string bass of Michalis Siganidis and the nay flute of Haris Lambrakis.

By this point it was fully apparent that Yannatou's quiet stage demeanor, like her calm, intimate conversational manner, represented only one facet of a complex personality. Rather than rely on superficial stagecraft, she employs her voice, her eyes and her inner intensity to mine a creative trove filled with emotional treasures.

"If you choose to do this kind of work," concluded Yannatou, "you have to have a basic love of music. And for me it is always the expression of the music, the feeling within the music, that has to come first. So, I can only hope that what I do, what I sing, is experienced as passionate, even if I don't necessarily seem that way when I am on stage."

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