Piano devotees or deniers, birds and critters, tree huggers and bush embracers, players of Chopin or chopsticks, underage appreciators of Mendelssohn or overage fans of Metallica, botanically curious people and creatures — even distant, appreciative whales in San Francisco Bay — are called to Flower Piano’s magical kingdom.
Returning to the San Francisco Botanical Garden for a third year, the annual event features intimate performances by invited professional musicians and the opportunity at other times for anyone to sit down at one of 12 pianos embedded in the Garden's 55 acres to play. New this year are two ticketed events: NightGarden Piano, an evening of all-star performers designed to enchant visitors while raising funds to support the 12-day festival, and a screening of filmmaker Dean Mermell's documentary, Twelve Pianos, about the mighty force that is behind Flower Piano.
Mermell and Mauro ffortissimo of Sunset Piano founded, curate and present Flower Piano, which is further hosted by the Garden Society and supported by private, corporate and media sponsors. The festival is free to San Francisco residents and free to nonresidents with general admission to the gardens.
“I’m looking at a huge chart with 12 different locations and names on sticky notes. I guess I do curate it, in that sense,” says Mermell in a phone interview. “I know the style of music and the audience that would exist most happily in a cactus garden, or an open field, or amongst trees.” Occasionally, he adds, a musician will request a specific place. “I try to follow that: I don’t want to wield too much control. As long as it can be performed on acoustic piano and instruments, we try not to influence the content at all.”
A reluctant organizer who is more comfortable playing renegade cowboy and dragging abandoned pianos like stubborn mules across impromptu plywood bridges on rough paths leading to the San Mateo Coast, Mermell follows instinct above all.
Which is what led him in 2013 to know that his friend and co-founder ffortissimo’s equally instinct-driven urge to haul pianos out of living rooms to the bluffs above Half Moon Bay or urban streets and state parks was perfect fodder for film. “When we first did this with a pretty worthless piano a woman had given to Mauro, a crowd developed and social media just blew up the story,” Mermell recalls. “Then we had the idea to do 12 pianos. We looked into doing it legally, but neither of us had the patience for approvals. People loved it, but the Park Rangers didn’t.”
And all along, Mermell listened to little voices in his head that argued, “Film this,” and, opposing, “This might take over your life.” Using a Canon C100 mounted with stabilizing lenses and later color graded by Jesse Spencer for optimal impact, the roughly 60-minute documentary is culled from over 400 hours of footage. It’s an action film more than talking heads: dramatic scenes of clandestine piano moving and storage; gorgeous panoramas in no way diminished by the absurdity of pianos in sand; tragic episodes when an instrument is destroyed by vandals or techie culture threatens to smother San Francisco’s rich music history. Like monuments, arresting performances by professional pianists — ffortissimo, Lara Downes, and others — bear witness to talent and devotion to craft. “It shows that culture, music, art, have to be kept alive,” says Mermell. “It’s a statement about keeping the good things in addition to technology and modern conveniences. There are things, like music, that are timeless.”
At Flower Piano, Mermell and ffortissimo are legitimate. “We miss being bad boys, but the legal permits make it easier. Now, we use the content for being radical. We have diverse composers and performers who are amazing and push piano music in all its forms.”
First among them is arguably ffortissimo, whose “liberated” piano (harp) is played with his open hand, a mallet, fishing lines, and exuberance. Or Benjamin Gribble, whose range is too broad to be called minimalist as he improvises on a prepared acoustic piano to produce sounds expected from an electronic instrument. Antony Ty was discovered by Mermell and ffortissimo while he was playing Chopin that broke into a wild punk performance with outrageous shouting. “He’ll do beat in the middle of classical, and we just stumbled on[to] him,” Mermell recounts, exclaiming with long-lingering amazement in his voice. Some performances include poetry, spoken word, or live painting, but there are also classical artists like Van-Anh Nguyen, an Australian musician with phenomenal chops, according to Mermell. Chamber ensembles are an increasing element and presentations include pop, rock, jazz, tangos, sing-alongs, punk, classical, new, and world music.
Of course, the most unexpected performances come from the community. “Everyday people become performers. There’s something exciting when piano playing is mixing with urban sounds and leaves and trees absorb the sound. It’s not bouncing off walls: with the sky overhead, it takes the lid off literally and figuratively.”
Which might be why no matter the number of times a person has heard Chopin’s Polonaise, it sounds new under a redwood tree. And people return with stories of how they took lessons when they were young, then abandoned them. After sitting down to play at Flower Piano, they’ve begun to compose, take lessons, or play for fun and connection. Their stories represent the spirit of San Francisco: adventurous, quirky, smart enough to recognize a treasure in the trees before it vanishes forever.
Their stories are also reward for Mermell, ffortissimo, Garden Society members, and the many other people involved in producing the event. It takes generous performers, anonymous and named donors and sponsorships, the brawn and know-how of the Accurate Piano Movers company — “They understand our eccentricities,” interjects Mermell — and year-round fundraising to raise $200,000, the festival’s approximate budget. “Each year, it’s a struggle, but we’re committed to doing it,” says Mermell. And each year, thousands of people will find something rare: an invitation to play piano for whales, for themselves — or for anyone who will but listen.
Corrections: As originally published, this article incorrectly identified the color-grading expert. It should be Jesse Spencer, not Jeffrey Spencer. Also, the overall annual budget is closer to $200,000 rather than the $100,000 originally mentioned.