While there are internationally renowned musicians who are lionized by their fans, Yanni finds himself more often than not being “adopted,” as he might say, by the people of the various countries who believe in him and his music. Wherever he goes, Yanni is welcomed with open arms as a member of the family, spending a few hours with his thousands of worldly relatives at any given time, and talking with them. He can be assisted by his impressive orchestra on the grandest stages on Earth – at the Acropolis, Taj Mahal, Forbidden City, El Morro Castle, and Egyptian Pyramids, to name a few – or he might be flanked by only his piano, amid an intimate conversational setting, as is the set-up of his current tour. Nevertheless, no matter the medium of his musical expression, Yanni continues to succeed as a composer and pianist because there is an undeniable substance about both the man and his selection of indelible instrumental music.
Now with 18 albums to his credit, beginning with “Optimystique” in 1980, and his most recent being “Sensuous Chill” (2016), nobody, not even Yanni himself, could have predicted that, upon immigrating to the United States in 1972, his life would take the fated turn it did. It was while he was studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota, where he immersed himself in music, forming a rock band, that ultimately paving the road to his purpose and life’s work.
The outcome of Yanni’s creativity – which for him has always been a courageous “surrender to the unknown” that is divested of all judgment – has been a slew of songs that move and stir the soul. This is irrespective of one’s cultural heritage, for his non-lyrical music traverses boundaries, filling hearts with a uniquely profound sense of empowerment that proves what it means to be fully alive. Undoubtedly, his revered pieces, such as “Nostalgia,” “Felitsa,” “Nightingale,” “The End of August,” “Keys to Imagination,” “Santorini,” “One Man’s Dream,” “Rainmaker” and “Until the Last Moment,” among many others, represent Yanni’s never-ending love of, and passionate ode to, humanity. Loyal listeners of the composer graciously return their respect by interacting with him in person and on Facebook Live, especially during the ongoing “An Evening in Conversation with Yanni and His Piano” tour (fun fact: Yanni’s daughter, Krystalán, helps run his social media).
In this up-close-and-personal forum, Yanni answers questions from audience members, is apt to take musical requests, and freely speaks his mind with a full-fledged emotionality and genuineness that reveals a philosopher’s wisdom within the musician. As his father helped teach him during long hikes in Greece, Yanni is keenly aware of the beautiful fragility of life, and much of what he says during these engagements doubles as invaluable life advice.
Yanni, who is currently in the midst of his tour, which opened on February 11th in Fort Lauderdale, FL, will make his way to Southern California for a four-city stop next month. He will begin in Costa Mesa at the Segerstrom Hall on Monday, April 3rd, before going to Santa Barbara, San Diego, and then Los Angeles on the 7th. In anticipation of his return to SoCal, Yanni recently gave an exclusive interview on Tuesday, February 28th about a variety of topics:
Before I begin, I want to thank you so much for your time, Yanni, and for positively affecting so many around the world with your one-of-a-kind music.
Yanni: My pleasure, I appreciate your kind words.
In all your travels, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about humanity and yourself?
Yanni: (takes a thoughtful breath) To be honest, it comes down to being in the moment. When you’ve been in so many countries and cities, everything is a surprise. I am honored to learn everything about every culture. I keep my heart open.
You have fans all over the globe, many of whom are in the Middle East, particularly Iran. Do you think you’ll ever perform there?
Yanni: We were close a couple of years ago, and we almost made it. I’ve been in communication with the people of Tehran. It hasn’t happened yet, but I will play in Iran one day.
In fact, a lot of people from Iran come to see me in Armenia. There were once two Iranian kids in their early 20s who got on their mountain bikes and rode 1,200 kilometers from Tehran to where I was playing — in Yerevan, Armenia. They rode through the mountains, the rain, and the streets to finally get to my concert – which had an 8 pm start time – at 6 pm. I introduced the boys to the audience and they got a standing ovation for five minutes (joyfully laughs). It touches my heart.
How is your adopted panda bear doing these days? (Yanni was bestowed the honor of a giant female panda cub in 2011, who he named “Santorini.” This inspired Yanni to form a partnership with the World Wildlife Fun to foster awareness about the endangered animal).
Yanni: It’s very much still around (delighted). It’s a great honor that I had the privilege of receiving from the Chinese people. It is very uncommon, as the Chinese government leases them (panda cubs) to nations only. And I’m grateful to be the only person allowed to do this. The panda is also the symbol of peace for the Chinese – it is like their Nobel Peace Prize – and it means so much to be awarded with such an honor as part of promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.
What was it like to be a big part of José José’s redemption? (José José is a legendary Mexican tenor whose voice eventually deteriorated following bouts with alcoholism, Bell’s Palsy, vocal nodules, and emphysema. He was later recruited by Yanni to record “Volver A Creer” on “Yanni Voces,” and to also perform it live in a tender moment, with Yanni at the piano, in 2008).
Yanni: He’s such a nice man. He was on “Voces” with Cristian Castro (among others). I thought to myself that we should find a piece of music for this man. It’s so terrible to lose your voice, and I found an old song that I felt he would be able to sing, and he worked very hard – and concentrated – with a courage to manage it. And then to repeat it live in Mexico City (site of the concert) – people were crying.
Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but is it true that you’ve never performed any of your songs from your first album, “Optimystique?”
Yanni: (chuckles) Actually, it’s interesting that you mention that. I do plan on playing songs from my first album during this tour, where I really want to surprise people (watching at the venue or on Facebook Live) by answering insightful questions. It’s not really a concert, it’s like a Q&A series where we get really close and I lift the veil between me and the audience. [In contrast to this] in a big arena, you can’t really see or receive everyone, and I realized [over time] they wanted to ask me questions.
(Note: True to his word, Yanni played “Farewell” from “Optimystique” for the very first time on Sunday, March 5th, in Washington, DC. The performance can be viewed on facebook.com/officialyanni)
It is believed that you risked a large portion of your own money to finance the Acropolis concert, which, of course, proved to be an amazing success with PBS sponsoring it. Please describe that era of your life.
Yanni: This is a topic I can talk about for a long time, but I’m going to try to give you the shortened version (pensive). I was in Greece at the time, and they don’t give that heavily guarded theatre (the Herodes Atticus Theatre) out too much, and certainly not to everyone.
I worked very hard. My own record company didn’t believe me, as they tried to discourage me, telling me that I would lose my money. I didn’t let them [discourage me]. I put my own money down – all of it. At one point, my business manager said that I had no more money left, but I didn’t care. I wanted to do it, and it ended up changing my life and career. The concert went worldwide, and it just exploded, surprising me. It was a big risk, but you have to maintain and keep fear to a minimum, and just stay focused.
You’re noted for being one of the very few musicians with perfect pitch – a skill that you’ve developed since playing the piano at the age of 6. Given this ability, have you thought about singing?
Yanni: I have sung a couple of times, but I don’t like my singing voice. And I have always been shy about singing, though I did a couple of vocal tracks, but people soon figured out it was me (chuckles).
Is it accurate to say that the instrumentally abstract nature of your music has the special ability to cut across barriers and thus impact people of many cultures?
Yanni: I like instrumental music. There’s an entire message there that doesn’t rely upon language, and it makes it across borders and anywhere in the world, where anyone will understand what I’m saying.
Besides “Felitsa,” which is dedicated to your mother, do you have a favorite song to play?
Yanni: (laughs heartily) You’re asking me to pick between my children! I love them all. My favorite song is normally the one I’m working on in the present moment.
I started out as an electronic-synthesizer maker, using all electronics. I was playing rock ‘n’ roll bands, and string quartets, and then symphony orchestras, and have toured with exclusively piano music.
Do you think you’ll ever reunite with John Tesh? (Tesh toured with Yanni in the late 1980s, and then went on to become a famous composer in his own right, arguably best known for the “NBA on NBC” theme).
Yanni: At the time [referring to the band they were in during 1987-88] there were only four of us. It is certainly possible. I had fun training him (Tesh) for a whole month. He was a great guy!
Finally, do you think your love life and/or relationships at any given time have impacted your music? In other words, do you think your music sounds better when you’re single or when you’re with someone?
Yanni: (pauses briefly) My music sounds better as I get older and wiser. My love life has been very important in terms of the construction of experiences that have been impactful to me, including my travelling and meeting cultures. I’m at the best stage of my life right now – I don’t need to prove anything else, and I don’t have anybody to answer to but myself. And to be true and to keep learning is the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
To catch Yanni’s first 2017 appearance in Southern California on Monday, April 3rd, at the Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, please visit scfta.org
For more information about how to see Yanni on his current tour — including his stops in Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Los Angeles — please visit yanni.com