Civic Organist Raúl Prieto Ramirez has overcome the cessation of concert performance during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown with compelling programming and lively commentary streamed over the internet. Although the traditional Sunday afternoon recitals at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park have temporarily ceased, a new program is streamed at 2:00 every Sunday by the Spreckels Organ Society, a fresh program of organ music Raúl has recorded at an unannounced time during the preceding week.In this format, Raúl gives an introduction in both English and Spanish before each piece, providing some background about each work and alerting his virtual audience to important musical effects to listen for as he performs. These remarks are more extensive and include improvised musical demonstrations, an improvement over the customary sentence or two he has tended to dispense before launching into the next piece during a live recital. Since his listeners are sitting comfortably at home watching their computer screens—rather than sitting on the hard metal benches at a performance at the Organ Pavilion—the longer introductions fit the new format well.
Over the last few Sundays, Raúl has focused on larger works, rather than the customary Sunday afternoon potpourri of shorter pieces: the Franck “Pièce Héroïque,” J. S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564, his D Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 532, Buxtehude’s Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne in C Major, BuxWV 137, and the “Finale” from Alexandre Guilmant’s Second Sonata, Op. 50. His musical approach matches his confident, scrupulous account of the score with an exuberant sense of urgency, which I attribute to his Catalan character. You see this exuberance in the architecture of Antoni Gaudí and the paintings of Joan Miró, two of Catalonia’s most celebrated cultural icons, and I certainly hear it in Raúl’s flair in performance.
I am also impressed with the transparent textures and clean, linear definition his Baroque repertory displays, especially since the Spreckels Organ was designed in an era that saw the organ as a grand orchestral machine, and as a unique outdoor instrument, the requisite volume of sound for the setting makes the instrument ideal for grand French Romantic organ symphonies, but less suited to the architecture of the Baroque. Yet Raúl has tamed the beast to the requirements of Bach and Buxtehude with his masterful touch and rhythmic acuity.
Piano music does not easily transfer to the organ, in great part because each instrument sustains sounds in completely different ways. Yet Raúl’s own transcription of Claude Debussy’s evergreen piano solo “Claire de lune” floated gracefully from the mighty Spreckels instrument with the diaphanous shimmer a subtle pianist extracts from a concert grand. Some of the same colors that graced the Debussy worked well to accompany his jaunty arrangement of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,” from the 1977 motion picture of the same name.
An advantage of this virtual concert format is the chat line that scrolls down the right hand side of the computer screen. It engages listeners and the performer in a conversation about the music as it unfolds. People from the online audience ask Raúl questions and offer their observations, something that could never happen in a live performance. This gives the Civic Organist a level of approachability that will surely reap rewards for the Spreckels Organ Society
The chat line also offers humorous asides. Although the Civic Organist is a stylish dresser, last week his fans chided him for wearing dull grey socks, which were evident because the split screen provides a focus on the organ’s pedal clavier and Raúl’s elegant pedal technique. In response, this Sunday he sported bright red socks that contrasted well with his white slacks and shoes. His chat fans appeared both pleased and amused.
Access each Sunday organ recital at 2:00 p.m. online at spreckelsorgan.org.