‘Magic’ at San Francisco Botanical Garden: Flower Piano brings joy, musical appreciation to the Bay

Kavya Narendra Babu/Staff
Kavya Narendra Babu / Staff

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At the entrance to the San Francisco Botanical Garden, 9-year old Damian Wilson played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a tilted piano-sculpture. Sticking his tongue out slightly in concentration, Wilson finished up the 19th-century piece. As the small crowd gathering applauded in approval, Wilson moved aside for another member of the public to demonstrate their musical prowess.

Prior to this performance, Wilson had only ever played the piano for an audience at a summer camp talent show, he said. Nonetheless, the chance to play at the garden proved a highlight of his visit that day.

Wilson was not alone in his appreciation for the public pianos scattered throughout the botanical garden as part of Flower Piano, the two-week event that brought the instruments to the park. Even when not scheduled for a professional performance, the 12 pianos scattered throughout the garden’s 55 acres seldom stood unplayed. Onlookers clustered around each instrument to lounge and watch, reveling in the music with eyes closed or munching on their picnic lunches.

“It’s really sweet. It’s really sweet,” beamed event co-founder Dean Mermell as we clapped for a pianist within the park. Mermell had good reason to feel proud — since first implementing the public concert in 2015 with his partner in creating the event, Mauro ffortisimo, Mermell has watched the celebration grow in size and attendance each year. On this particular Saturday, the line for entry extended past the garden gates. The breathtakingly gorgeous flora, paired with equally stunning music, made it difficult to feel glum.

But it wasn’t always so obvious that the event would be a hit. “Dean asked me to do this four years ago, and I thought it was a stupid idea,” chuckled pianist Joshua Raoul Brody after his set, “With or Without Friends,” at a piano near the Garden of Fragrance. Upon playing at Flower Piano, though, and realizing the genius of the setup, Brody changed his mind. His delight to perform again this year spoke plainly in his warm, soft smile and eagerness to engage viewers during his performance: “I will stop what I’m doing and accompany you on the Beatles song of your choice,” read a page posted on his piano.

Christopher Gray and his 4-year-old son Sam were among the brave handful of attendees who eagerly took Brody up on his offer. Spectators clapped and laughed as father and son joined Brody in an endearing rendition of “I’m Only Sleeping,” dancing goofily as they did so. “(It’s) a little magical,” the elder Gray said of the event.

On the opposite side of the botanical garden, in Zellerbach Garden, viewers settled in for a winsome and serene performance from members of the San Francisco Symphony. Many stayed for the full two hours of the symphony’s appearance, with a majority closing their eyes to relish the decadent music. Carla Ernst was one such dedicated fan, having even shown up the weekend before to appreciate the event — especially the appearances of such seasoned performers. Like Gray, Ernst described Flower Piano as “magical.” “This in particular,” she said, motioning to the symphony musicians. “Getting a nice spot here in the shade, on a perfect day, and just being so close to the performers.”

In many ways, Flower Piano brilliantly illustrated the capabilities of music as a community-builder, a transcender of everyday experiences and simply a pleasure. Free to San Francisco residents, Flower Piano proved an accessible way for those in the city to access beautiful music while at the same time experiencing the vast faunal offerings of the botanical garden. It makes sense, therefore, that while the event is scheduled for coming years, Mermell considers his goals for Flower Piano already largely attained.

“We have accomplished the mission,” he said when asked about his aim for the concert. “People are here, people are enjoying the music, and people are learning of incredible musicians that live here in this town that maybe they’d never heard of before. And that’s all we really wanted to do.” He laughed, then pumped his fist in the air. “Mission accomplished!”

Ryan Tuozzolo covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.