Pianos flower in the San Francisco Botanical Garden

Beginning Thursday and continuing through July 20, visitors are invited to tinker on pianos throughout the San Francisco Botanical Garden. (Courtesy Kathryn Rummel)
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What better place to sit down, breathe and bask in the vibrations of good music than among the blossoming flowers and trees in the San Francisco Botanical Garden?

Such thoughts undoubtedly crossed the minds of piano ninjas Mauro ffortissimo and Dean Mermell of Sunset Piano, who are taking advantage of a grant from Burning Man Arts to place 12 pianos in various locations of the 55-acre garden for anyone to play — from Thursday through July 20.

“We’re about preserving good cultural things from the past,” Mermell says, describing the duo’s Flower Piano experiment, which is part of a Botanical Garden-Sunset Piano program also featuring some three dozen performances by professional and expert pianists.

“A piano is kind of emblematic of what is going on now. A cell phone does about 10,000 things. A piano, by contrast, weighs about 800 pounds, is made of thousands of parts that vibrate, takes up half your living room, and does only one thing. But that thing is not really replaceable by a digital equivalent. It’s a very different experience to sit down at a physical instrument and create an organic sound, as opposed to playing a digital device. That’s why we love pianos. They represent something from the past that we should keep while we rush headlong into the digital future.”

Flower Piano isn’t ffortissimo and Mermell’s first unorthodox piano adventure.

In 2013, they launched Sunset Piano when ffortissimo rolled an old grand piano onto the bluffs over Half Moon Bay for anyone to play. Since then, the self-appointed piano guerrillas have temporarily placed pianos in a variety of unexpected settings.

Ffortissimo also has his Piano Liberado art project, in which he takes old, not-playable pianos apart, refashions them, and then plays the reconstructed instruments on tour with Mermell, who plays percussion.

“The piano opens a different door,” says ffortissimo.

For the next few weeks, that door will be open wide in the Botanical Garden, where visitors will be free to play and doodle as they wish on the pianos during garden hours. Meanwhile, on Saturday and July 18, Sunset Piano musicians including Mermel, ffortissimo and Steinway recording artist Lara Downes perform on multiple pianos throughout the day.

Performances also are scheduled in the garden’s Redwood Grove on Sunday and July 19.

Sue Ann Schiff, executive director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, is all for the experiment: “Filling the garden with music for 12 days will be a moving way to celebrate this special place of beauty, conservation and inspiration,” she says. “Music and nature are both powerful motivators to leave distractions behind and get lost in the surroundings.”

IF YOU GO
Flower Piano
Where: San Francisco Botanical Garden, Golden Gate Park, entrances at Ninth Avenue at Lincoln Way, and at Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive off the Music Concourse, S.F.
When: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 9-20
Tickets: Free to San Francisco residents; $7 for non-residents
Contact: (415) 661-1316, www.sfbotanicalgarden.org

Select Saturday shows
Performances – free after admission – occur simultaneously throughout the garden from noon to 2 p.m. unless noted. For the full schedule, visit www.sunsetpiano.com.

Great Meadow
Mauro ffortissimo: Bach, Beethoven & Brahms (Saturday and July 18)

Exhibition Garden, Thomas Church Pavilion
Martha Cooper: Bach, Bartok, Vocal Surprises (Saturday and July 18)

Rhododendron Pavilion
Freddi Price: Nilsson, Newman, Russell, Carmichael & more (Saturday)

Mediterranean Garden at Heidelberg Hill
Joshua Raoul Brody: Beatles, tango, standards (Saturday and July 18)

Waterfowl Pond
Esther Aeschbach: Debussy, Schubert, Bach & more (Saturday)
Rupa: Original Compositions (July 18)

Zellerbach Garden
Allison Lovejoy: Ravel, Chopin, Rachmaninov & New Nocturnes (Saturday)
Lara Downes (11 a.m. July 18)
Benjamin Gribble: Satie, Milhaud, Beethoven & prepared piano (July 18)

Moon Viewing Garden

Serene: Ravel, Gershwin, Chopin & Liszt (Saturday)
Sarah Cahill: Redwood Shrine by Pauline Oliveros and Garden Music by Danny Clay (July 18)

Redwood Grove
Eric Chase: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert & more (Saturday)
Tom Jonesing (Dean Mermell & Steffanos X): Rock Interpretations (July 18)

California Native Garden Stone Circle
Kitten on the Keys: Flapper, Cabaret, Standards & Punk Rock (Saturday and July 18)

Mesoamerican Cloud Forest
Ander Meyer: Cocktail Classics (Saturday and July 18)

South Africa Garden

Joe Magdalena: Standards/Pop, Sinatra & Happy Stuff (Saturday)
Gerry Basserman: Joni M, Mozart, Mingus & Monk (July 18)

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