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Sunday in the Park with Raúl proved to be a red-letter day for the Spreckels Organ Society. To an unusually large and enthusiastic crowd, Raúl Prieto Ramírez—San Diego’s newly minted Civic Organist—played a sensational opening recital. Musically he confidently touched all the necessary bases: flashy serious organ repertory by J. S. Bach and Alexandre Guilmant; a clever arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ evergreen orchestral tone poem “Danse Macabre,” and a cheeky adaptation of Freddie Mercury’s iconic pop anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Raúl Prieto Ramírez [photo courtesy of the artist]

Prieto Ramírez demonstrated his prowess by tailoring his technique to the differing stylistic roots of each type of music. In Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, his counterpoint sparkled with immaculate articulation, driven by a sure dramatic sense that easily unleashed the work’s explosive power without resorting to the wild exaggerations this poor piece too frequently receives. With the spooky “Danse Macabre,” he seamlessly fused his myriad registration changes and employed the organ’s vast array of actual percussion sounds to create a solidly integrated, authentic orchestral sonority, rather than sounding like a huge mechanical simulation of what an orchestra might sound like.

And I should mention that Prieto Ramírez gave the distinct impression he was gleefully enjoying putting the Spreckels Organ through its paces. Playing everything from memory, his eyes were not glued to the score, and from time to time he cast a smiling glance to his audience while soaring through the most daunting passages.

Although his arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody” had its clever moments, it did quite not pack the punch of the original. In his introductory remarks, Prieto Ramírez admitted that this piece was a work in progress—he arrived in San Diego late Thursday, which meant that he had only two days to prepare the program on the organ—and he promised he would keep at it until it arrived exactly where he wanted it.

Prieto Ramírez grew up playing on marvelous historic organs in his native Spain, so I was not surprised that he found all the perfect Spanish reed sounds on the Spreckels Organ to make an anonymous traditional 16th-century Spanish battle piece, “Batalla Famosa,” a rousing success. The battle piece is a curious, highly programmatic type of organ music from the late Renaissance that simulates two armies engaged in combat, using the brassy, most raucous sounds of the organ. The battle piece’s constantly repeated phrases, especially the trumpet calls, suggest that this musical type was an uncanny minimalist precursor to the fashionable minimalism of the 20th century.

Capping his opening recital with the Finale from Guilmant’s First Organ Sonata, Op. 42, Prieto Ramírez applied his ample virtuoso technique to a rousing rhapsodic showpiece that brought the crowd to its feet. From the evidence of this first date between the new Civic Organist and his adoring audience, I predict a smashing relationship well into the future.

The Spreckels Organ Society and the City of San Diego presented San Diego Civic Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez in recital Balboa Park’s Spreckels Organ Pavilion on Sunday, January 7, 2018. The Civic Organist is featured in a free organ recital on the Spreckels Organ every Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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