Civic Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez: Spicing Up the Staid Organ Recital in Balboa Park

When the Spanish organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez became San Diego Civic Organist at the beginning of 2018, he made it clear that he intended to bring a fresh approach to programming at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. His program Saturday evening, April 14, displayed some of his ideas for revitalizing that staid convention of the organ recital.

Raúl Prieto Ramírez [photo courtesy of the artist]

He built his program around the extra-musical theme of moving from the realm of diabolical darkness to the bright truth of beauty, and he used spoken poetry recited by actor Walter Ritter before each work to set the psychological mood. Opening with the Edwin Lemare transcription of Camille Saint-Saëns’ daemonic “Danse Macabre”—a piece he played on his opening Spreckels recital in January—he concluded his progression with Richard Wagner’s expansive Prelude to his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. I can imagine a few culture vultures questioning how Wagner became custodian of the bright truth of beauty, but his Prelude certainly suggests an aura of triumphant confidence.

Lighting or lack thereof played an important part in this program, with Prieto Ramírez dressed in black and barely visible on the dim stage and darkened organ console for the “Danse Macabre.” Ominous red light surrounded the console, and fog poured forth from a concealed source from below the console. To transition into Prieto Ramírez’s own transcription of Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto” Waltz No. 1, Ritter read the short quotation from Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust (that Liszt had included in the work’s printed score) to set the scene. Although Prieto Ramírez performed the Waltz with an edgy theater organ style of constant changes of registration, i.e. the sounds and colors of the instrument, he did not save the lengthy piece from overstaying its welcome.

How Ritter’s dramatic reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” related to Maurice Duruflé’s Suite, Op. 5, never became clear to me, but it was consoling to hear Prieto Ramírez tackle a substantial work written expressly for the organ on a program otherwise devoted to transcriptions. He subdued with finesse every technical challenge of the brilliant toccata that concludes the Suite, drawing on the instrument’s ample firepower to send the mighty double pedal theme out over Mission Valley.

Before playing his transcription of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de lune,” several assistants enclosed the organ console with a curtain of white sheets to conceal the organist. With clever illumination, the audience only saw the shadow of Prieto Ramírez playing Debussy, although given this special effect, perhaps he should have been playing a transcription of Cat Steven’s once popular “Moon Shadow.”

I thought Prieto Ramírez’s arrangement of the mighty Wagner Prelude made the best use of the

Ramirez performing on the Spreckels Organ [photo (c.)]

Spreckels Organ’s vast resources, and his vigorous, slightly detached articulation of the blistering chordal sections brought structural clarity to the massive sound he drew from the organ. By the time he arrived at the Wagner, all the lights of the pavilion and the organ console were back on in full force—the journey from darkness to light completed.

This Inaugural Evening Concert featuring Civic Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez was presented on Saturday, April 14, 20018, by the Spreckels Organ Society at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego’s Balboa Park. The Civic Organist can be heard every Sunday at 2:00 p.m. in this venue.

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