By Clarisse Kim
For several days in late summer, a special magic returned to Golden Gate Park’s Botanical Garden.
From Sept. 8 to 12, Flower Piano came back for its eighth annual appearance. Hosted by the Gardens of Golden Gate Park (GGGP) and organized by Sunset Piano, the event celebrated the diversity of music in all its forms.
During the festival, a dozen pianos are planted around the 55-acre garden. Each location balanced scheduled mini-concerts with open playtime, encouraging both professional players and attendees to play at each whimsical site. Concerts showcased a wide variety of genres, ages, and cultures; performers ranged from local bands to Grammy-winning artists to talented youth performers. This year, a record-breaking total of 65,000 people attended the celebration.
This tradition dates back to 2015, when Sunset Piano co-founders Mauro ffortissimo and Dean Mermell reached out to the Recreation and Park Department to coordinate a musical event. At the time, the duo was known for their ambitious “Sunset Piano” project: placing pianos along the California coast as an act of preserving music.
“Dean and I were looking for another beautiful place to host a similar event, so we met with the Recreation and Park Department,” ffortissimo said.
“Rec. and Park referred us to the Botanical Garden, who were looking to celebrate the garden’s 75th anniversary,” Mermell said. “We did the event three months after the meeting. It was an exhilarating experience.”
Every year since then, ffortissimo and Mermell have collaborated with GGGP to organize annual iterations of Flower Piano – a process that takes around six months to plan and execute. According to the duo, a lot has changed since its first celebration, from a more diversified musical program to the addition of a new piano lounge.
What hasn’t changed throughout the years, however, is the significant impact the festival has on artists and attendees alike. This is partially due to the Botanical Garden’s uniqueness as a performance hall.
“The Botanical Garden is by far the most beautiful venue you can possibly think of,” Karina Deniké, swing-band vocalist of the Cottontails said. “The whole concept of putting pianos throughout the gardens is such a brilliant idea – there’s nothing like it anywhere else.”
According to Jamie Chan, the GGGP’s director of Programs and Partnerships, the Botanical Garden is the biggest public garden in San Francisco. She states that walking through the garden is like traveling around the globe; each section represents a different part of the world. The change in plants and layouts make each part of the garden seem like an entirely different venue.
“From the New Zealand trees to the Moon Viewing Gardens, we’re giving people a chance to really enjoy music in all kinds of natural settings,” Chan said. “The event is magical because everyone can find their own musical experience.”
In some cases, like with the youth performers from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), this event allows artists to play in an open-air concert for the first time.
“Our students rarely have an opportunity to perform outdoors in such natural beauty,” said Justin Sun, the associate dean and executive director for SFCM’s pre-college program. “Giving them an opportunity to showcase their passion and talent with the public is truly empowering.”
Performers have also noted that the Botanical Garden’s atmosphere emphasizes their music in unconventional, yet beautiful, ways.
“There’s something about the open air that makes the music sound better,” Francisco Rosales, pianist of the Musica Cubana Quintet, said. “It’s like you’re playing in the biggest concert hall in the world.”
The laid-back, natural setting of each mini-concert helped grow deeper connections between performers and their audiences.
“I love how all the audience members were able to relax on the grass while enjoying our music,” Anju Goto, violinist of the Sixth Station Trio, said. “Our concert definitely felt more intimate than a traditional concert hall.”
Finally, this magic holds true even for the casual piano-players; impromptu community performances remain a Flower Piano favorite to this day.
“Mothers have told us that their children were inspired to play after Flower Piano,” ffortissimo said. “Giving people a stage to get outside and play is one of the most rewarding parts of the event.”
Chan, ffortissimo and Mermell have big plans for upcoming Flower Pianos.
“At GGGP, we often talk about the power of awe,” Chan said. “That’s what Flower Piano is all about. Our goal is to encourage people to be awestruck by the beauty and joy of music.”
“We want to create more environments that open people up to the idea of wonder,” Mermell said. “Here’s to year nine!”
To learn more about the Flower Piano event, go to sfbg.org/flowerpiano. To learn more about Sunset Piano, go to sunsetpiano.com.