Flower Piano Returns Bigger and Bolder Than Ever
By Lou Fancher
Flower Piano, the annual five-day alfresco event presented by Sunset Piano and the San Francisco Botanical Garden, starts simple. It features flowers and plants of the summer season and a dozen pianos found in various locations throughout the 55-acre nature-made concert hall.
Building upon that foundation, musicians, writers, poets, and other performing artists are added. Then, audiences of every generation, race, ethnicity, and income level — every kind of person from music novices to professionals — are invited to join the action. People who might have never before touched a piano are able to step right up and find their inner Chopin. The shier among us can mingle in community performances or just enjoy the wonders of the Bay Area’s talented professional musicians.
The human creativity displayed during the event often matches and certainly complements the inventiveness and spontaneity of the natural world. Such is likely to be the case again in 2022, with musicians whose genres span jazz, classical, pop, hip-hop, and more joining the lineup, Sept. 16–20.
Flower Piano breaks new ground this year with an opening event on Sept. 14, prior to the official launch of the festival, featuring a commissioned piece created for 12 grand pianos arranged in the Garden’s Great Meadow. Fall and Fly is San Francisco-based composer Benjamin Gribble’s new 23-minute work in three movements to be performed by the piano “choir.”
In an interview, Gribble says the 12 grand pianos are arranged like a fermata. Mirroring the familiar musical marking that allows performers to draw out the length of a note or rest, the “eyebrow-shaped” arrangement will feature Stanford Symphony Orchestra Music Director Paul Phillips as the dot.
Gribble likens the arrangement to that of orchestras or choirs, with different instruments or singers clustered together and the entirety of the ensemble forming a half circle. “You can have whole string sections or large groups of singers of a certain range, but you rarely have multiple pianos together. The piece started to evolve as a project having to do with where we were during the pandemic. We were confined, with a lot happening, finding out positives and negatives about ourselves, losing people. The title is deliberate: Fall and Fly. It’s about picking up, finding renewal, and being better.”
The magic he finds in Flower Piano has to do with the way sound travels — or doesn’t — outdoors. “Inside a concert hall, the walls bounce sound back at you. With Flower Piano, if you’re 15 feet away from a piano, it’s almost inaudible. Proximity makes it difficult, so we had to mic the pianos. But also, you can walk around Flower Piano and hear a piano from far away, then it goes away, then you hear it again because of sound bouncing around off of trees. That’s the magic: hearing little snippets and colors and then following them.”
Less magical and more mechanical — except in its effect — is a device Gribble invented that is used in the work’s second movement. “I invented a device you put on the lowest register to make the piano sound like it’s in a cathedral. My father is an Episcopalian priest, and he played Gregorian chants when I was growing up. This was a perfect opportunity to make this piano choir do that because it reminded me of my childhood and it created an atmosphere of waiting — for news of COVID clearing up, in this case. It’s the aftereffect that’s the important part.”
The opening event will also feature special guest speakers: Writers Rebecca Solnit and Gary Kamiya and poet Agneta Falk will address similar themes of transformation, renewal, and regrowth.
Among the many other artists participating in Flower Piano when the festival gets rolling two days later is pianist Sarah Cahill. Asked to highlight one work, Cahill writes in an email, “Regina Myers and I are playing music for two pianos, including a brand-new, epic piece by Riley Nicholson. [But] if I have to choose one piece to feature, it’s Errollyn Wallen’s The Girl in My Alphabet for eight hands — four pianists at two pianos. We’ll be joined by Allegra Chapman and Monica Chew.
“Errollyn Wallen is a fascinating composer, born in Belize, now living in a remote lighthouse at the tip of Scotland. We’re having a great time with this clangorous, playful piece full of dance rhythms and quotes from popular songs. Errollyn Wallen is a brilliant pianist herself (she’s appeared twice in the Other Minds Festival), so she really knows how to write for the piano.”
Like Gribble, Cahill holds special reverence for Flower Piano. “One feature of Flower Piano I cherish is how these outdoor pianos bring the community together. Everyone gathers in the Botanical Garden — families, couples, birdwatchers, amateur pianists, plein air painters, people from all walks of life — all for Flower Piano.
“One other thing I love about Flower Piano is how two people, [founders] Dean Mermell and Mauro Ffortissimo, can have this nutty vision, which makes absolutely no sense, and not only pull it off but build a great following so that we all eagerly await Flower Piano each year. It’s also amazing that the Botanical Garden opens its gates each summer to welcome and collaborate with Flower Piano. I don’t think anyone ever imagined, when it started, that Flower Piano would be ‘safer’ than indoor concerts, but that’s certainly what has happened. It’s a perfect pandemic experience.”
Vietnamese musician Van-Anh Nguyen plans to play a mix of old and new repertoire, from favorite Chopin works to selections from her new album with Decca, The Princess & The Piano. The album presents arrangements of Disney classics, performed with Nguyen’s native Vietnamese instruments. It’s music she says is accessible and relatable for audiences of all ages.
About Flower Piano, Nguyen says, “Having been stuck in Australia for [all of the pandemic] lockdowns, and we know how severe the lockdowns were ‘down under,’ I am so grateful to be back.” Nguyen has participated in every Flower Piano since its inauguration in 2015. “What I cherish most about Flower Piano is it brings together friends and family. And it gives me an opportunity to be reunited, and keep up the picnic tradition, with my friends in San Francisco. The best thing is that it allows piano music of all genres to be shared and appreciated, regardless of whether you’re a beginner, a professional, or just playing as a hobby.”
Flower Piano is free for all San Francisco residents and for families receiving SNAP or CalFresh benefits. For all others, attendance requires a general admission fee between $3 and $25. The complete festival program and ticket links can be found on the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s website.