Music blooms at Botanical Garden


Alana Wacker

Kymry Esainko performs under the pohutukawa tree while Flower Piano attendees watch.

By Alana Wacker and Gabrielle Shore

If one listened in closely, they would hear 12 different melodies dance through the air of the San Francisco Botanical Garden last week during Flower Piano.

Flower Piano is a collaboration between Sunset Piano and the San Francisco Botanical Garden that brings 12 grand pianos to the garden for five days. Anyone is welcome to play the pianos, and many professional musicians are invited to showcase their talents and inspire others to create music.

Since its debut six years ago, the garden has hosted the yearly event, with a pause in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon its 2021 return, Flower Piano emphasized the ability of music to bring people together.

“Music has a way of disintegrating barriers between people and creating an atmosphere of humanness,” said Dean Mermell, one of the two founders of Sunset Piano.

The organization was founded by Mermell and Mauro ffortissimo in 2013 when they hauled a piano onto a beach in Half Moon Bay.

“A lot of people came,” ffortissimo said. “TVs and newspapers – it became this big thing.”

Music has a way of disintegrating barriers between people and creating an atmosphere of humanness.

— Dean Mermell

One became 12, and a company approached Mermell and ffortissimo about relocating to San Francisco. For the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s 75th anniversary in 2015, Mermell and ffortissimo were invited to place pianos throughout the garden. Thus was born Flower Piano.

In the years following, attending Flower Piano had become a tradition to community members of all ages.

“I come to this event every year. I discovered it one time when I was just walking through the park, and I thought it was so magical,” said 26-year-old Jenny Umhoefer, who was viewing a violin trio accompanied by a piano. “I was sad they didn’t have it last year.”

Like all avid attendees, Umhoefer could not attend the event last year as it was canceled due to COVID-19.

Its return sparked an audience of thousands, circulating throughout the garden. But Flower Piano did not come back to the community precisely the same way as to how it had left.

“The idea of 12 pianos had to do with the chromatic scale of the keyboard,” ffortissimo said. “We came up with 12 pianos for 12 days.”

This year, however, Sunset Piano resorted to 12 pianos for five days. While COVID-19 may have altered its length and general organization, Flower Piano remained an occasion of unification for the Bay Area community.

“Two of my favorite things are music and nature, and it’s great to bring them together. I think nature a lot of times is a very solo experience, so it’s cool to bring the community along,” Umhoefer said.

The community is further engaged with the addition of new elements to Flower Piano.

“Two years ago, we started having a corner with poetry,” ffortissimo said. “We call it the Beat Corner.”

The Beat Corner was active last Friday and diversified the entertainment provided at Flower Piano.

New elements such as the Beat Corner are made possible by funding that comes from the Botanical Garden itself. However, profits are not the goal for ffortissimo, Mermell, or anyone involved.

“It’s not really a moneymaker for anybody. At the end of the day, we’ve got it done. We’ve survived. And we can do it again the next year, and that’s all any of us cares about,” Mermell said.

While Flower Piano is an event unique to the Bay Area, the use of music to build community is a worldwide experience.

“Anywhere you go, as you travel, you need to speak the language,” ffortissimo said. “When you’re playing [music], you’ll be welcome anywhere in the world, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

This story was originally published on Scot Scoop News on September 25, 2021.