Carol Williams and Raul Prieto Ramirez are two exceptional organists who will each make their debuts in recitals this weekend. What makes their appearances uniquely coincidental is that one organist was and the other now is San Diego’s civic organist — one of only two such positions in this country.
“Civic organists were big in the 19th century in England, where people would go to outdoor concerts,” said Welsh organist Williams, who will perform Friday at Albany’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. “But San Diego is one of those rare places where the organ is outdoors in Balboa Park. The weekly concerts are a real tourist attraction. And the organ is a jewel.”
The organ is not itself outdoors, but the venue and the audience are. Weather is mild in San Diego, although desert heat and cold can affect the instrument, she said. Portland, Maine, is where the other civic organist position is located. But the job is complicated, since unlike church organists, a civic organist performs weekly one-hour concerts.
“San Diego is the most demanding job in the world and the most challenging, maybe even the most difficult … because I must play more than 52 different programs a year, which I’m doing all from memory so far,” said Spanish organist Ramirez, who will perform Sunday at Schenectady’s First United Methodist Church. “That’s a titanic job.”
Williams held the San Diego job from 2001 to 2016. Ramirez has held the job since January, after the city held a 15-month search.
Both came to the position after establishing international careers. Williams is famous for her eclectic programs that include playing jazz, rock and pop on the organ, as well as playing host for two ongoing documentary video series: “Tour Bus” and “On the Bench with Dr. Carol.” Her stop in Albany includes recording an episode with church organist/composer Al Fedak for the “Bench” series. These are available for purchase through her website or Amazon Prime. She’s also famous for her “Flight of the Bumblebee” YouTube video.
Williams will give a free organ workshop at 1 p.m. Saturday for area organists.
Ramirez is also all over YouTube, showing off his electrifying performances of some of the great organ standards. His reviews often comment on his fiery, sizzling technique and agile footwork. He founded the Mataro-Barcelona International Summer Academy and the Sursa American Organ Competition. And for this interview, he kindly emailed answers to questions in between adjudicating at the Moscow International Organ Competition.
Each came to organ in a different way. Williams was a child prodigy growing up in a family of organists and started playing organ by the time she was 7.
“I loved its sounds, its power, its subtleties,” she said.
Ramirez discovered organ by accident at 11 when he tuned into a Spanish radio station and heard an organ with orchestra. Impressed with the sound, he said, he listened and recorded the organ radio shows over the next two years, gradually learning much of the organ repertoire. At 13, his parents bought him a keyboard and he taught himself how to play well enough that within three years he was taking lessons at a conservatory. What thrills him now is playing on the world stage.
“My San Diego job is extremely rewarding. I have an audience to share my music with every single week,” he said. “But my big responsibility is to promote the city and the park, so it’s important to travel to prestigious venues.”
To that end, Ramirez is lined up to perform this fall in France, New Zealand and Australia.
Williams’ program includes Bach, Widor, some Celtic selections and some jazz. Ramirez will play Bach and Saint Saens, among others.