Coming off the escalator and into the boarding gate area at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, you hear Beniamin Hakobyan before you see him.
There’s a few trilling notes of warmup before he begins playing in earnest – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Hakobyan is at the end of the gate in front of a massive window overlooking the airport runway. He’s tapping at the keys of a seven-foot Steinway grand piano, his suit jacket a shimmering shade of red that somehow matches the ornaments on the Christmas tree nearby.
Passengers stop to take cell-phone video of the performance.
Several $5 bills lay on the piano – tips for Hakobyan’s service.
He is one of five local pianists playing to departing and arriving passengers through Dec. 31 as part of the airport’s holiday music program.
“A lot of people still get stressed when flying,” says Claudia Arguelles-Miller, marketing and public relations officer for the airport. Hakobyan and the others bring an atmosphere of holiday cheer and hospitality to an otherwise hectic travel season.
This weekend, many of the carriers are reporting that they will be operating at or near capacity, according to the airport.
The idea for the program was born out of a casual conversation with friends, Arguelles-Miller says. Not that it was easy to make happen. This is a $100,000 concert piano that had just been used at the Aspen Music Festival. The Steinway Piano Gallery coordinated with the airport to secure the instrument for the month and worked on the logistics of moving it. That was compounded by the security clearances needed to set up beyond the checkpoints.
There were background checks for the pianists.
The airport’s IT department fit the piano with a mic and set up a video feed so the mini concerts could be live-streamed onto the wall of screens in the central lobby.
“We put it together like a jigsaw puzzle,” Arguelles-Miller says.
The pianists play during peak travel times in the early and late afternoon and a 9 p.m. to midnight slot, for those departing on one of the airports’ four international flights.
The music is mostly seasonal, though other songs do make it in the mix. Hakobyan plays “Deck the Halls” and “Silent Night” (his favorites to play) and also a bopping version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” He also plays requests when asked and even had a passing traveler stop to sing along one night.
They played the Beatles.
“We did a live concert, right here,” Hakobyan says.
On Friday afternoon, Beverly Flint watches the pianist from her seat nearby.
She’s flying to Arizona to visit her daughter and came to the airport early. Earlier than she needed, perhaps. She, for one, was delighted to hear Hakobyan playing while she waits.
“It was unusual to come to the airport and hear such beautiful music.”