San Francisco

Pianos and Nature Team Up in San Francisco's Botanical Gardens

The bougainvilleas and hydrangeas of San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens are getting serenaded to the tune of Bach and Hayden as the Flower Piano event begins its fourth year — a dozen or so pianos scattered throughout the gardens as players of all skill-levels seem to emerge from the bushes to play them.

“It’s really becoming a venue where pretty much anything that can be played on a piano that’s a form of music can be played here,” said Dean Mermell of Sunset Piano, which organizes Flower Piano.

The 12-day event culminates with two weekends of concerts by a range of artists from Cuban artist Chuchito Valdés to Bay Area pianist and composer Allison Lovejoy. But the event’s charm may draw its deepest breath from the surprising mix of the regular piano-playing public who slip onto the benches at any time and bang out everything from Chopin to Tom Waits.

“Some of the people who end-up here with a little audience around them,” Mermell said, “have never played the piano outside their living room.”

A stroll through the garden’s verdant abundance will divine the tinkling of ivories from every direction — from young children(and some adults) pounding an old upright with abandon, to the sounds of a Scott Joplin classic played on a grand piano tucked beneath a tree.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had and I’ve played quite a few places,” said eighty-eight year old Bob Hearn who coaxed a ragtime gem out of a grand piano. As he slid off the bench, Neil Stadtmore immediately took over, setting a stack of sheet music down and launching into a classical song.

“I only have a little electric keyboard,” Stadtmore said, “so it’s a treat to play on a grand piano.”

The mix of music and nature seem natural bedfellows the in the serene setting, surrounded by the chaos of city life.

“It’s just a great feeling of being surrounded by plants and flowers and birds and squirrels,” said Mauro ffortissimo, Co-founder of Sunset Piano, “and people having a really good positive vibe.”

For some, the annual event has sewn the seeds of musicality as it did for elementary school student Aiden Gettys who plunked out a convincing version of Clair de Lune to the applause of a small audience.

“We learned about this piano thing last year,” Gettys said. “I was like excited but I couldn’t play, and this year I can play because I started taking lessons.”

The sounds of jazz, classical and… well anything else… have a sort-of pied piper effect, drawing visitors to explore the terrain and playing of whoever decides to take the keys.

“Beside the sounds of nature and birds you hear a piano playing in the woods,” said visitor Jenny LeBlanc, “it’s kind of something from a fairy tale.”

LeBlanc and a friend followed the sounds of pianos around the gardens, settling in as a young boy played a modern piece as his grandmother took video of him.

“Honestly I think it’s good for the soul,” LeBlanc said, “it’s a little bit of magic and we’re missing that nowadays.”

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