January 25, 2015 The Ahwahnee Pianos



For a thousandth night, as two heavy plank doors swing open and reveal the great dining hall of The Ahwahnee, a sweet sound greets the ear – and with the sound comes a story.

Every night (and every Sunday Brunch), the pleasant legacy of live music, made on one very special piano, accompanies the culinary offerings like a fine wine.

Music has animated Yosemite Valley since the first people camped here thousands of years ago, most likely, and the stream of that ancient cultural tradition continues, from campgrounds to The Ahwahnee, from hikers wearing earphones to hold-music on the telephones.

The story goes that in 1927, decorators working out last details for the interior of a brand new hotel called The Ahwahnee were familiar with a talented young man who’d been spending his summers in Yosemite, dividing his time between practicing the piano and wandering around the park taking pictures. He was clearly a short step away from becoming a fine concert pianist, and perhaps that’s why it’s said he was recruited to find a piano suitable for the world-class hotel.

The pianist’s name was Ansel Adams, who was just then deciding whether to change his career path. Meanwhile, in New York, the Steinway factory had boxed up their four month-old flagship Model “D” concert grand piano, Number 247305; it shipped out on April 11, destined for the Sherman Clay piano store in San Francisco.

The so-far unsubstantiated but very plausible story puts Adams at Sherman Clay, three months out from the grand opening of The Ahwahnee, picking out the best new piano in the store. It’s the same piano, lovingly preserved, and played nightly by The Ahwahnee’s professional musicians. That same year Ansel Adams made a crucial decision to abandon his ambition to become a concert pianist and instead try out photography. He never abandoned music, though, and years later at The Ahwahnee Bar commiserated with one-time Ahwahnee pianist Dudley Kendall (also a visual artist) about the challenges of “having two arts.”

Inside the Steinway a massive and intricately designed metal plate supports the several tons of tension created by the strings; on that plate, near the music rack, is preserved the signature of Frederick T. Steinway (1860 – 1927), inscribed by him in the last year of his life, probably at the New York factory.

Pianist Marion Prevost (pronounced “pree-voh”), who appears on concert-programs at Camp Curry in the nineteen-teens, playing the new Steinway in the Great Hall (now the Great Lounge) at The Ahwahnee, 1927. The piano measures 8’11¾” (274 cm), and retains its original ivory keyboard.

Two other fine pianos grace The Ahwahnee. Currently in the Great Lounge is the ornate tiger-mahogany 1902 Steinway Model “C” measuring 7’4” (Number 102266). It was shipped from Steinway in New York to the M. Steinert & Sons store in Boston on July 26, 1902; a piano resembling it appears in a fuzzy photo of the Camp Curry evening outdoor concert circa 1918, but its provenance remains undiscovered.

The other piano, Mason & Hamlin Number 32500 dates to 1924 and measures 6'2". It is remembered to have lived in The Ahwahnee Bar (formerly “The Indian Room”) as early as the 1960s (Dudley Kendall remembers jazz pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi dropping in to play on it one night).

All three pianos have been restored at least twice over the decades, and are all regularly played by The Ahwahnee staff musicians Christer Norden and Dr. Ted Long, and by myself every winter since 1985.

For some history on the Wawona Hotel piano, see http://yosemitemusic.com/piano.html.

- Tom Bopp

P.S. One afternoon in 1985 in The Ahwahnee Great Lounge, as I was playing the 1927 Steinway I noticed Jack Hicks watching from across the room. Jack had worked at the hotel for many years, and had sung in the Yosemite Park & Curry Company’s employee chorus, “The Valley Singers.” He had an odd look in his eyes as he walked across the room to the piano and asked, “What was that you were playing?” I answered that it was the slow movement of Beethoven’s C minor Sonata, the “Pathetique.” He said with a tear in his eye, “The last time I heard that piece it was played by Ansel Adams on that very piano.” Adams had died just one year before.  

P.P.S. A persistent story that Adams played regularly on the piano at The Ahwahnee is refuted by his son, Michael Adams, who explains that Ansel played on the Steinway "now and then" when visiting the hotel - but not professionally or on a regular basis. Another legend is that the Ahwahnee 1927 Steinway is one of a very few that survived either a catastrophic train wreck or fire, depending on who's telling the story, which remains unsubstantiated.