San Francisco Botanical Garden blooms with local talent for Flower Piano project

Carragh McErlean/Staff

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Spearheading the movement to bring 12 pianos into the San Francisco Botanical Garden for 12 days, artists Dean Mermell and Mauro ffortisimo are no strangers to the marriage between music and nature.

“The garden is a setting for the pianos and the pianos are a setting for the garden,” explained Mermell. “They really have this symbiotic relationship.”

The crowd of San Franciscans flooding the garden’s 55 acres seemed to agree. In its second year, the magic of Flower Piano has only grown — more visitors and a greater array of scheduled performances graced the garden this year from July 7 to 18.

Last Saturday, a whole host of incredible performances awaited visitors, but in the hours before noon, the pianos were open to anyone. Tiny toddlers plinked out “Ode to Joy” while their mothers looked on. A grandmother gracefully eased into a twinkling classical piece, reading from sheet music she had placed before her. A teenage brother and sister accompanied each other in a sweet rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Herein lies the beauty of Flower Piano, aside from its obvious aesthetic appeal. It’s a celebration of talented performances from professional pianists, but it’s also about putting the spotlight on members of the greater community, from our neighbors to our grandmothers. The carefully placed pianos give a stage to the unexpected talents of ordinary people. In a casual yet stunning setting, strangers can surprise each other: The girl next door shows herself in a new light as a talented jazz pianist, an unassuming little boy is illuminated as a classical prodigy.

And their talents don’t go unnoticed — Mermell and ffortisimo are always on the lookout for fresh faces within the community. “Probably over a third of our programming this year was from people that we discovered just in the course of walking around last year,” Mermell said.

Take Francisco Rosales, for example — a phenomenal Afro-Cuban pianist who sat down at a piano last year and wowed the founders into offering him a spot on the program this year. On Saturday, he regaled listeners in the garden’s Great Meadow on a pristine white piano, accompanied by bass, percussion, flute and vocals from a medley of Cuban singers.   

From 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, 12 different pianists, including Rosales, played simultaneous performances on 12 different pianos. “That’s part of the glory of this thing,” Mermell said. “If you can walk fast, in two hours you can see 12 different amazing musicians.”

Performances stretched all across the vast garden, with different varieties of music juxtaposed with different idyllic settings. Sarah Cahill tickled the ivories in the serene Zellerbach Garden, playing Ravel and Debussy among pastel perennials. In the Moon Viewing Garden, filled with beautiful plants and stone pagodas from Japan, Benjamin Gribble performed Bach, Shostakovich, Satie and Glass. In the Redwood Grove, Suzanne Ramsey (who performs under the moniker Kitten on the Keys) delighted visitors with showtunes, cabaret and punk, popping blueberries into her mouth and giggling between spunky covers of David Bowie and Sex Pistols.

“It started out being just kind of a classical vision, but now there’s jazz and rock and kinds of music I can’t even really describe,” Mermell said.  

At the end of the two hours of simultaneous piano performances, a few featured performances rounded out the day. Saturday’s main event was Awesöme Orchestra, the brainchild of conductor David Möschler. Instead of the traditional rehearsed orchestra concert, Awesöme Orchestra is more of an open rehearsal session.

“It’s kind of a flash mob, pick-up, pop-up, drop-in orchestra concert,” Möschler explained.

Accompanied by concert pianist Allison Lovejoy, Möschler led a roughly 100-piece orchestra in a reading and work through of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.” Later, along with flamenco pianist Alex Conde, the orchestra read through and performed Conde’s piano concerto “Barrio Del Carmen.”

Möschler’s special brand of orchestra concert, with none of the usual stuffiness and inaccessibility, fit perfectly with Mermell and ffortisimo’s vision for Flower Piano: music, heard by everyone, played by anyone. And behind a lush backdrop, the melodies floating out from the soaring orchestra and tinkling piano keys were nothing less than spellbinding.

Madeline Wells is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].