Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Haunting Melody

A Haunting Melody
travel memoir
by Greg Larson

          I’m what you would call a closet piano player, someone who loves to pound the keyboard, alone in the room.  I remember playing the piano in the basement as a child for hours at a time . . . Bach, Chopin, Mozart and other music filled the air.  But I’ve always wanted to play a grand piano in a public space, somewhere like a hotel lobby.  On a previous vacation at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, I found the perfect spot . . . a grand piano in a grand lobby.  Gretta and I scheduled a stay there for some R&R with friends, so I began to practice my favorite piano pieces and attempted to polish my technique for the upcoming opportunity.
Hotel Colorado


          Although the lobby of the Hotel Colorado seemed big and fancy, it had a casual western feel, and the townspeople considered it part of their public space. When we were there, families came to eat at the lobby restaurant or stop at the coffee shop.  They visited the hotel during the Christmas season to enjoy the outdoor lights, indoor Christmas trees and decorations.  On the weekends, teenagers came to the hotel and wandered through the lobby. Usually the girls gathered at the piano and played chopsticks, or impromptu arpeggios and chords.  Occasionally, someone played a bona fide piece of piano music.

Greg in the lobby of Hotel Colorado
           I selected three pieces of music:
  •    Misty by Errol Garner
  •    Waltz in A Flat Major by Frederic Chopin
  •    Moonlight Sonata (first movement) by Ludwig van Beethoven
          There are different reasons for enjoying each one.  Misty is a classic lounge piece, a romantic song with lyrics by Johnny Burke.  When most people hear it, they think of the movie Play Misty for Me, which made the song more popular.  The Waltz in A Flat Major is crisp and quick, with several melodic changes which are typical of Chopin.  But my favorite of the three pieces of music is the Moonlight Sonata.  Beethoven weaves his magic with a slow haunting melody.  It causes one to pause and visualize a calm moonlit night with lunar reflections visible on a placid body of water.  As the sonata begins, the music soothes the soul, but very quickly Beethoven inserts mournful, stirring phrases, as if there are potential storms beneath the calm surfaces of the listeners and the fantasized body of water.  The soft bass notes conjure thoughts of impending danger.  Sometimes when the visualizations run wild, I picture the remnants of a torpedoed submarine sinking to the bottom of a calm ocean. 

          On the Sunday morning of our stay, I invited our friends to come to the lobby to listen to me play the piano.  There were people sprinkled about the large space, some drinking coffee and visiting with friends, others reading or working crossword puzzles.

          We opened the top of the grand piano and I sat down at the bench and played a few chords and scales.  For a piano that received much abuse in a public space, the key action was pretty good.  I played Misty for our friends and became comfortable with the keyboard.  Fortunately, no crowd formed, which was a good thing for a self-conscious person like me.

          The Waltz in A Flat Major flowed smoothly, but with a few missed notes. It wasn’t too bad, considering all the sharps and flats in the piece.  The hotel staff smiled, glad that someone was playing real piano music.

          Finally, I began the Moonlight Sonata with some trepidation, knowing that it was long and fraught with difficulty.  The music sounds deceivingly simple, but to play it well, one has to master the bifurcated activity of two hands creating a seamless stream of sound. 

Greg playing a haunting melody
I missed a few notes but continued to the tough parts.  That’s when I noticed someone approaching the piano – very slowly.  In my peripheral vision I saw a disheveled man crossing the lobby, step by step, headed straight for the piano.  As he came closer, I noticed his unshaven face, rumpled hair, and bloodshot eyes.  His silly grin revealed some missing teeth.  His pant cuffs were high above the floor and he wore a cheap, polyester jacket.  He seemed mesmerized as if the melody had control of him.  Was he drunk?  Where did he come from?  I tried to concentrate on the music before me.

He stood against the curved side of the piano.  I began to miss some notes.  Then he bent over and stuck his head underneath the angled piano top and looked straight down, hypnotized by the hammers striking the wires. While he remained with his upper body beneath the piano top, he cocked his head sideways and looked straight at me, silly grin and all – no more than two feet from my face.

“Beautiful music,” he said in a matter-of-fact demeanor.

My concentration became unglued at that point, so I stopped playing.

“Thanks,” I replied, “I think I’ll start this last page again.”  I wanted to regain my composure and finish the piece in a calm fashion.  Who was this guy?  My subconscious thought was that he was a poor man, looking for some warmth in the hotel, possibly still drunk from Saturday night, or walking off a hangover.  The music was sensory stimulation for his brain – probably good for it.

I started to play again, and I noticed that he walked around the end of the piano and briefly spoke to Gretta.  She told me later that he said, “The music is beautiful.  Is it Gershwin?” 

She told him, “No, it’s Beethoven.”

“Beautiful,” he said, and then he walked away.  We never saw him again.

I finished playing the sonata and then played some less significant pieces that weren’t as polished.  When I finished, I walked over to Gretta and our friends and sat down.

“Who was that guy?” was my first question. “What an odd encounter.”  We all agreed that the man had an unusual appearance and was attracted to the music like a magnet.  “Well, he must have enjoyed it,” I added. “I guess that’s a good thing.  I know that I have one fan out there somewhere.”

When I returned home, I wanted to learn more about the hotel, so I ordered a book titled Hotel Colorado - Fountains of Enchantment.  When the package arrived, Gretta opened it.  She perused the book while I read the newspaper in the next room.

“There’s a lot of good information in here,” she raised her voice so I could hear her from the other room. “There’s a chapter on ghosts, and some have been seen in the lobby.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “All those old hotels have stories like that.”

Then I looked away from the paper and took a deep breath. “Ohhh!” I remembered the man at the piano.  I saw his silly grin and the missing teeth and the stubble.  I felt chills on the back of my neck.  Could it be?  Was he?  

I’ll always wonder.

Listen to the Moolight Sonata - just click the link below:

Holiday lights at Hotel Colorado