Six years ago, on a foggy coastal evening, local artist and musician Mauro ffortisimo hauled a grand piano to the ocean bluffs at the end of Kelly Street. It was an artistic experiment.
His idea was to play the same piece, Robert Schumann’s “Arabesque in C Major,” every evening at sunset for a month, as the changing temperature and open air slowly caused the instrument to decay — an artistic representation of the impermanence of all things.
This was the start of Sunset Piano, a movement that grew from one piano on the bluffs to 12 pianos across the San Mateo County coast to piano installations on the streets of San Francisco. It lives on in Flower Piano, a 12-day outdoor extravaganza which transforms the San Francisco Botanical Gardens into an alfresco concert hall. Flower Piano will celebrate its fifth anniversary this summer, July 11 through 22.
On Friday, the Half Moon Bay Odd Fellows screened the film “Twelve Pianos,” which documents the beginnings of Sunset Piano. This film is also streaming on Amazon Prime.
The 64-minute film, directed by ffortissimo’s partner, Dean Mermell, follows the first year of the artistic endeavor, with footage of the crew hauling pianos up Montara Mountain and into coastal fields, forests and blufftops. It captures the moments as people, from professional pianists to surprised trail walkers, interact with these instruments unexpectedly discovered in nature. The undercover installment of pianos on the coast was soon shut down by authorities, but the publicity opened doors for legitimate art installations elsewhere. Ffortisimo and Mermell were invited by the mayor’s office to take their 12 pianos to San Francisco for concerts in the city’s downtown. In 2014, the crew wheeled grand pianos down Market Street and set up installations in the Tenderloin.
Ffortisimo said that the gritty reality of the big city was a real shock after the natural beauty of the San Mateo County coast.
“In the Tenderloin, we had people ODing right next to us,” he said. The documentary ends with the pianos in San Francisco’s downtown, but the adventures for Sunset Piano’s ffortissimo and Mermell were just getting started. The pair was approached by San Francisco Recreation and Parks about hiding pianos in Golden Gate Park. At the same time, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens was looking for something special to help celebrate its 75th anniversary. And Flower Piano was born.
“The first year, we made no money,” said ffortisimo. “Everything was decided with a handshake. Now it is a 40-page contract.”
Ffortisimo and Mermell are now busy full time coordinating the annual Flower Piano event. Ffortisimo has an army of union piano movers and tuners at his disposal. The pianos may still be donated, but they are all high-quality instruments valued at thousands of dollars, and donors can get a tax write-off through a partner nonprofit.
The pair collaborates with an untold number of artists and organizations for the event. They are toying with future collaborations in other areas — Santa Barbara, New York’s Central Park, New Zealand or Australia.
Ffortisimo has come a long way from clandestine concerts at the beach, dodging county code enforcers.
“I almost feel too legit these days,” he said. “One year they are trying to put me in jail, the next year they are paying me.”
He said locals often ask if he’ll do another installation on the Coastside, but he says his paying work up in San Francisco is keeping him too busy.
But maybe, if you are lucky, you may still catch a glimpse of ffortisimo tickling the ivories on a coastal bluff. He says he has a piano on wheels that he will sometimes take out for a personal concert for a day or a weekend.
“I still do that,” he said. “It’s just beautiful to play there by the ocean.”