Beethoven Meets Gershwin Meets Albrechtson

Posted by on Jun 12, 2011


Dan Albrechtson is slight of stature, stooped as though permanently shaped to sit on a bench and let his shoulders lead dancing fingers across a black and white striped musical floor.  A retired math and computer teacher, his spectacles echo the days of computer programming gone by: large, square rims made of thick wire, but his tux and Scots-plaid vest are high class.

“Do you know what request I receive the most?”  He takes a sip of his coffee (“one sugar, one splenda, got to make it equal,” Dan quips) as he sits next to me on his break.  I shake my head, no.

“Frank Sinatra.”

I love Ol’ Blue Eyes’ music and when I express this, he brightens, “I saw Frank Sinatra in 1982 at the U.S. Cellular Arena, though of course it wasn’t called that, then.”

Chatting about crooners of music past, Dan tells me about his recent trip to San Francisco where he saw Tony Bennett perform for a packed house at Davies Symphony Hall.  I tell him I’m from San Francisco and ask him where he stays.

“Usually the Fairmont, but this time my wife and I were at the Mark Hopkins.”

Dan tells me about how he plays at the Top of the Mark whenever he visits the City by the Bay, where he goes at least twice a year. His very first visit to San Francisco was in 1949 with his family.  He was seven at the time.

“The piano at the Mark is exquisite.  It’s got some of the best sound of any piano I’ve played.  Did you know the one here,” he gestures to the Pfister’s lobby piano, “is at least 90 years old?  The brass plate on it says ‘Apollo’ and Apollo was sold to Wurlitzer in 1929.  Pianos show wear from their players and this one must have been played by a woman with long nails at some point in its history.  Come see.”

We go to the piano, he lifts the lid.  The first thing I notice are the burn marks on the keys at the far right: cigarettes, Dan tells me.  He points to the center of the piano – just above the keys are long scratches in the wood, gouges that span several inches, all layered on top of each other.

“How did that even happen?” I ask Dan.

He demonstrates, playing the start of a tune, leading to the right, then, with a flourish, brings his right hand back to meet the left.  As his hands float above the center keys on their journey leftwards, his fingers nearly graze the center wood, exactly where the gouges are.

“See that? When someone is playing, if they have long nails, the tips will scratch the paint or finish right off the wood here.”

He trails his fingers along a few keys.  “Do you know what the second most common request I get is?  Something from Phantom,” and he launches into a medley of his own design, replete with his own original arrangements of transitions between the title track, Music of the Night and All I Ask of You, through Masquerade and finishing up with Music of the Night again.  It’s beautiful.

A story follows, one about Beethoven and Gershwin meeting in heaven.  Beethoven challenges Gershwin to a piano duel.  Gershwin agrees, on the condition that they take turns at the same piano and each begin and end their turn with the same note: F# – Beethoven agrees.  It’s on.  Dan begins.  It’s Moonlight Sonata, which eventually drifts into Summertime, all the while Dan continues to narrate the story of these two great composers sharing time at some perfect piano in the sky.  Another trade-off, and then a third, with the triumphant Fifth Symphony leading into the finish: the final chords of It Ain’t Necessarily So.

He finishes, takes a sip of coffee.  “Pick any three notes.”  Dan sits back and waits, a slight grin tugging up one corner of his mouth.  “Original compositions are like writing.  You just need the right words to get started, and the rest will follow.  So, pick three notes,” he gestures to the center keys, “somewhere in here, black or white.”  I tentatively reach over and press three keys.

Dan pauses, thinking, taps the keys for confirmation, says “Alright, then” and begins to play.  What comes out is sounds like it could be the theme song from some delightfully charming, long-running, BBC romantic comedy sitcom like Last of the Summer Wine.  I can’t stop smiling, the tune is irresistible.  And it’s all mine.

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