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Piano Man

Give Louis Colaiannia a hand--he'll need one after his 24-hour marathon.

Yet as is often the way with such things, Colaiannia ended up playing "Tears for Dad" for a few admirers, then a few more. People told him he ought to record it. In 1996 he made it the lead track on a self-issued CD of his solo piano work, Corners of the Soul. (Titles aren't Colaiannia's strong point; he tends to favor thoroughly unhip and teeth-gritting phrases such as "Love's Own Way," "Forest Splendor" and "Dancing Snowflakes.") Now past forty, he figured any shot at commercial success was long gone, but at least he could distribute a few copies to his friends. But then a woman at the Media Play store in Littleton got ahold of a copy and asked him to perform at the store, and then the regional office put in an order, and Barnes & Noble followed suit, and people started playing "Tears for Dad" at their fathers' funerals and raving about it on the Internet. Colaiannia's private grieving space had become his signature song.

The response was particularly gratifying because of a momentous decision Colaiannia was facing concerning his hands. Although he'd kept up his dental practice only sporadically, years of close work in people's mouths had left him with chronic wrist pain from carpal tunnel syndrome. "I wasn't paying enough attention to my posture," Colaiannia says now. "If I would condense an amalgam or scale teeth, I was done for the day. I couldn't even grasp the handpiece."

Surgery might relieve some of the pressure on the median nerve, doctors told him, but it could also affect his dexterity playing the piano, which had never bothered his wrists. Confronted with a choice between early retirement from dentistry or jeopardizing his work as a musician, Colaiannia didn't hesitate. There were plenty of other ways to make a living.

"I'd been trying to get out of dentistry since I was a sophomore in dental school," he says. "Now I'm just trying to make enough money so I can pursue the music and not get my fingers wet anymore."

Now that his son is older and his career is taking off, Colaiannia has performed in dozens of venues for all sorts of people. He's played for sit-down crowds at the old Vogue Theater and the Denver Botanic Gardens, for the strolling hordes at the People's Fair and the Cherry Creeks Arts Festival, for passersby at shopping malls and bookstores in several states. No one has tried to bury him under his piano.

His music may be hard to categorize--CD stores can't seem to decide if it belongs in the classical, jazz, new-age or "contemporary" bins--but it has attracted a following in unlikely places. Colaiannia says that Salt Lake City loves him. Following in the footsteps of Liberace, he's currently in discussion with the entertainment moguls at the Belaggio Hotel in Las Vegas about late-summer dates in that toddling town. An Israeli television news program has contacted him about doing a segment on the piano-playing dentist.

And there are classically trained musicians in Kiev and Khabarovsk--a small, isolated city in far eastern Russia--who are hot for his program. The Russian connection arose out of Colaiannia's involvement with the Denver-based Joy of Music Marathon, which brings together musicians to perform simultaneous concerts in different countries to promote world peace and various music-oriented charities; that led to musicians in Khabarovsk performing Colaiannia's music and an invitation to debut his first symphony there this fall. In a short essay, Russian musicologist Elena Soloviova describes Colaiannia's work as "simple, harmonious and elevated" and "extraordinarily democratic," and suggests that it may be "the music of the third millennium."

Colaiannia says that he's been consciously attempting to develop his music in a more classical direction while keeping it accessible (and, for the most part, short--few of his pieces exceed a commercially viable five minutes). He added orchestration to his second CD, Sailing on a Dream, to bring out its richer harmonies. While his work shuns the dissonance and formalism of modern highbrow music, you can detect traces of his classical schooling in the melodies: echoes of a Chopin polonaise in one piece, of a Ravel toccata in another, the ghost of Rachmaninoff humming in the wings. The shameless emotionalism of it all seems to fall somewhere between the romantic tradition and the syrupy stylings of John Tesh, but Colaiannia resists talking about his "influences" and technique.

"I try to convey emotion," he says. "I don't want people to analyze it. I get a lot of mail, and people just open their hearts. They tell me terrible stories about being molested in childhood, how something in my music reminded them of that and helped them to heal. If they want to call it new age or classical, I don't care, as long as they feel something from it."

Next month Colaiannia plans to bathe the Park Meadows Mall with healing vibes for 24 hours, pausing only for a brief coffee break every hour or two. The marathon will begin on the evening of August 13, move inside the Sam Goody store after the rest of the mall closes and continue until the evening of August 14. Shoppers will have a chance to hear the entire Colaiannia oeuvre over and over, including the world premiere of a solo piano version of his 45-minute symphony Journey of the Soul. They'll also be encouraged to sign a banner the pianist will be taking to Khabarovsk in October and to make donations that will help fund medical care, music scholarships and other causes in the region.

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