WESTSIDE/VALLEY : Sound Philosophy : New Age luminary Yanni reflects on his musical exploration, the struggles of the planet and performing at the base of the Parthenon

<i> Don Heckman is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Composer/keyboardist Yanni--known by many for his long-term relationship with actress Linda Evans and his matinee-idol good looks--is making a major effort to place his music front and center this summer. The Greek-born performer, a consistent favorite with fans of New Age music, brings a 50-piece orchestra and his regular eight-member group to the Greek Theatre on Saturday for the first West Coast stop on a three-month tour.

“I’ve always wanted to use an orchestra,” said Yanni, who uses only his first name, during a break in rehearsal. “And the orchestra is not an afterthought in these concerts. This will not be ‘Yanni With Strings.’ It’s the music of a composer who has this sound in his mind, and who now has available to him all these instruments and all these colors.

“But I’m not trying to make a symphony concert,” he continued. “I’m doing a blend. So there will be a lot of compare-and-contrast, as well as a lot of blendings of electronics and acoustics. And there will also be a lot of pure acoustics and pure electronics.”


Much of the music will be drawn from Yanni’s newest album, “In My Time.” His record company, Private Music, is providing support for the tour, in part because of a belief that he is capable of breaking out of the New Age category and becoming a popular artist across the board. Private Music’s research, said CEO Ron Goldstein, “has indicated that potentially 10 million people know of Yanni.”

Although Yanni’s best known performances have been on instrumental albums made with his smaller groups, he is no stranger to other forms of music. His works have been used widely on television--especially in sports programming--for such events as the Tour de France, World Figure Skating Championships, U. S. Open Tennis Championships and Olympic Games. He also has scored a number of television films, and collaborated with ex-Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren on the music for an award-winning British Airways commercial.

Philosophical by nature (“I’m a Greek, how could I be otherwise?” he laughs), Yanni believes in confronting life with an appetite for its challenges.

“I always like to put myself in sort of threatening situations,” he said. “Because I believe that if you’re not nervous about what you’re doing, you’re just repeating yourself. You’re doing something that’s within your grasp.”

Born in Kalamata, in southern Greece, the 38-year-old Yanni (whose last name is Chryssomallis) came to this country at 18 to study psychology at the University of Minnesota. His first year in the United States was not easy. He barely spoke English, had little money, no job and no car. “But,” he said, “at that age, we all think we’re immortal.”

After gaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology, however, Yanni realized that he had another choice to make. Music--which had always been important, its fascination enhanced by his gift of perfect pitch--became central to his ambitions. “It was a choice I made with my heart,” he said.


He became a member, co-writer and producer of the cult rock band Chameleon before launching a solo recording career in 1984 with the album “Optimystique.”

Yanni did not travel as a solo act until 1988, when he went on the road with an ensemble that included “Entertainment Tonight’s” John Tesh on keyboards. The highlight of the tour was a performance with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra that elicited a rave review from a Dallas Times Herald critic, who described the evening as “exhilarating, moving and inspiring.”

Yanni’s emergence was timed perfectly to the growing popularity of contemporary instrumental music. Since 1984, he has released an album per year, often following the record with sold-out tours.

Even so, his greatest visibility was the result of his romance with actress Evans--which only increased after they appeared together on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. He is not hesitant to discuss the relationship, although he has little to say about the difference in age.

“It’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had,” Yanni said, “and it’s a relationship which charges me. It gives me energy, rather than draining me.”

In September, Yanni will return to Greece for a trio of concerts in a theater at the base of the Parthenon. The thought of performing his music near a central icon of human history is extremely moving to him.


“I look at the Parthenon and the surrounding buildings and I think that 2,500 years ago a human being conceived something like this, and I’m awed by it,” he said. “Not just as a Greek, but as a human. And I’m inspired by it, as well. Because if any one of us can do something, everybody else has the capability of doing the same thing. I think everybody in the world has the capacity to be creative. We all have it. We don’t all use it.”

Asked if he did not also think that he was being unusually optimistic in a difficult world, Yanni responded with a wry smile.

“People always criticize me for being optimistic,” he said. “But I think that being optimistic is a strength. OK, we’re going through tough times in the world now. But the world has always gone through tough times--in every generation. My parents were under the German occupation. The Germans would come in, take the whole village out, shoot the people and burn it out. Now we have a bad economy. OK. Before that there was World War I; before that there was the bubonic plague. There’s always something.

“And I just believe that human beings with vision and strength--which is something we all have, somewhere--can always make things happen, can always make things change for the better.”

Yanni’s persistent optimism also applies to his own career and plans for the future. But he is careful to define the importance of creativity in his life and his work.

“I’m 38 years old,” he said, “and hopefully I’ll be around for a few more years to explore other areas of music. I consider myself fortunate that what I do means something to the people who come to see me in concert and buy my albums. Because this is not a job. A job would be if I had to worry about this beat or that beat, about what’s selling. That would be a job.


“I’m not saying I couldn’t do that kind of thing,” Yanni concluded. “I probably could. But that would be crafting something specifically to package it and sell it. And that’s not how I see music. To me, music is therapeutic, it gives my life meaning. These pieces of music are my children. And creating them is my life.”

Yanni will perform with his 50-piece orchestra and his regular eight-member group at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets $12-$28. Call (213) 480-3232.