Yanni Is Still Chilling, 25 Years After the Acropolis

Posted May 16, 2018 7:40 p.m. EDT

PHILADELPHIA — The mustache is back. Yanni, the Greek-American god of sweeping, symphonic-ish musical light syrup, says he goes back and forth about keeping his signature facial flourish. He shaved it off a few years ago; it’s disconcertingly absent from the cover of his 2016 album “Sensuous Chill.”

But last weekend here, it had returned to its rightful spot, framed by the familiar, gentle cascades of shoulder-length hair. (I regret to inform you that, at 63, Yanni is thinning on top.)

All this hair has been kept the same dark, dark brown it was 25 years ago, on Sept. 25, 1993, when Yanni gambled his savings to organize a concert of his music at the Acropolis in Athens, backed by a full orchestra and, crucially, filmed live. Promoted heavily — some might say sadistically — by PBS in the years that followed, the film was his breakthrough: It drove 7 million sales of the album version and helped make the world safe for the similarly soft-drama, lushly instrumental sounds of “Riverdance,” Enya and Lindsey Stirling.

“They overplayed it, I felt,” Yanni said of his pledge drive pre-eminence backstage at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts before playing here Saturday, part of a three-month Acropolis anniversary tour that brings him to Radio City Music Hall on Saturday and across the country through Aug. 5. He mimicked what he’d yell at Yanni-drunk PBS affiliates: “Stop playing it!”

But he plainly loves to recall the show. (As well he should: It’s far and away the best thing he’s ever done.) “There’s no way you can redo the Acropolis,” he said before going onstage at the Mann Center, its sides wide open to the chilly, rainy, decidedly un-Athenian night. “The only thing you can do is help the audience feel as close as we felt, bring them to that place.”

Interested in glimpsing how and why hordes of people connect to music they perceive as classical — or at least classical-adjacent — I approached the Philadelphia concert as a kind of lapsed fan. An impressionable and theatrically inclined child when the Acropolis film was omnipresent, I loved it, probably for the same reason I fell for opera around the same time: It had the kind of preposterous grandeur that matched my aspirations. (Among the similarly besotted was Jiang Zemin, who, as the president of China, eased the way for a follow-up performance at the Forbidden City a few years later.)

I’m not the only one who has kept the campily delightful show in the back of his mind: It’s firmly lodged in our cultural semiconscious. Asked in an interview with The New York Times where he’d like to perform, the comedian John Mulaney said he wanted to play the Acropolis, “Just because only Yanni has done that so far.” Down an Instagram rabbit hole recently, I found a short video of a young composer and his husband at home, doing — deadpan — the start of “Santorini,” the stirring opener in 1993, on piano and maracas.

I haven’t really followed Yanni’s career since Athens; he may have blurred in others’ memories, too, at least until this week, when another Yanny went viral. Yanni-with-an-i played at the Taj Mahal in 1997, opening up a vibrant market for his music in India. He dabbled in even-easier listening, without surging Acropolis-style drama (“If I Could Tell You”); pan-global flutes (“Ethnicity”); and collaborations with crossover opera stars like Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming (“Inspirato”). A passionate fan base stuck with him through a few years’ hiatus around the turn of the century, attributed to exhaustion and depression, but it’s telling that he’s playing only one Radio City date on this tour, as opposed to 10 sold-out shows there in 1998.

On offer on Saturday in Philadelphia was a steroidal rendition of songs from “Live at the Acropolis” and other records, running 2 1/2 intermissionless hours; the 1993 concert clocked in at a tight 70 minutes. There was no orchestra this time, but the backing band dwelled on feverishly virtuosic solos — frenetic drums, shredding violins — as if to compensate for the lack of Acropolis-scale forces.

Yanni’s brass fanfares stand out in tiny nuggets, as if begging to become TV sports theme music. Suddenly changing gears from somnolent piano lines to driving propulsion and back again, the music has the blank moodiness of a score for a nonexistent film. Without lyrics, and with only the barest nudges toward feeling “sad” or “happy,” the show creates a woozy sensation of — only a Yanni song title will do here — standing in motion.

He spoke from the stage, as he had 25 years ago, about an astronaut looking down on our planet and seeing none of the borders we irrationally insist on. But mostly he was, as he described himself in the interview, apolitical. “Politics is irrelevant to me right now,” he told me, “even though it’s very relevant.”

The only bit of current events he dwelled on, both backstage and to the audience, was his recent experience playing in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of its government — concerts at which, he said, no restrictions were made on the activities or dress of women, either performers or attendees. (Photos show his female musicians playing, unlike in Philadelphia, with covered shoulders.)

“This country has taken steps in what I think is the right direction,” he said from the Philadelphia stage, echoing the message of another recent American tour: that of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne.

With Yanni in white shirt, pants and shoes, beatifically smiling and earnest, and sometimes awkwardly skipping around, his appeal came slowly into focus, captured by the title of his most recent record: He lets you chill. He playfully forces his band to do solos again and again, first faster, then slower, like a circus ringleader, but he seldom imposes directives on his audience. The spectacle is one of gentle stimulation; all the garish demonstrations of instrumental technique, the vaguely uplifting invocations of a changing society in the Middle East, give off an impression of sophistication — delivered with a grin that makes it all fun and manageable.

A handful of audience members who had paid an extra couple hundred dollars lined up backstage afterward for a meet-and-greet. Grown women cried in Yanni’s presence, one of them in front of her children. Another said that if she died tomorrow, she would die happy.

“When they like me,” Yanni had said before the concert, “they really like me.”