Carol Williams — San Diego civic organist and artistic director of the Spreckels Organ Society — hates the heat. She also hates it when the wind blows her hair in her eyes and when June bugs fly past her nose. It’s fortunate, then, that the Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park faces north (which keeps the organ pipes, the console, and Williams out of the sun) and that assistant organ curator Dale Sorenson is always nearby.
During the Sunday, August 8, afternoon concert, Sorenson, in a blue shirt and khaki pants, stood next to the organ console while Williams played a little bit of everything — from French Baroque (Marchand) to Tin Pan Alley (Gershwin) on the 4500-pipe Spreckels organ.
“During the concert, I provide page-turning for her because of the wind,” said Sorenson. “She has much of her music under the Plexiglas music rack. And today there were bugs flying around, and she doesn’t like bugs. So I was out here for bug patrol.”
More bothersome, however, was the issue with a wireless microphone that refused to work at showtime, just as Sorenson began his introduction.
“Somebody said the Navy had just changed frequencies, so who knows what’s going on?” said Sorenson. “It worked before the concert. I tried it, and it worked. But when I go to introduce Carol? Nothing.”
So it was into a backup wired microphone that Sorenson finally introduced Carol Williams and the magnificent Spreckels organ...with his arms hanging limp at his sides and his eyes glazed over, as if he were asleep. Well, he has made this introduction hundreds of times.
“I did almost miss a page-turn today,” said Sorenson, later. “She nodded, and I wasn’t paying attention. She nodded again, and I went, ‘Oh, sorry!’”
One audience member, a self-professed “regular” named Steve — wearing a straw hat and reading his newspaper in the shade of a small tree — said he has heard Sorenson’s introductory remarks more than a few times. “I come every week,” he said.
The Summer Organ Festival on Monday evenings (June 21 through August 30) provides a more formal concert experience. “Not stuffy-stuffy,” said Sorenson. “I mean, it’s still San Diego. You’re dressed up if you wear socks.” On Sundays the lively park atmosphere encourages what Williams calls a more “transient” audience.
Transient, indeed. For the full hour of the concert, people wandered in and out of the seating area — on bikes or skateboards, pushing strollers or walking dogs, talking on cell phones or chitchatting over lunch on one of the back benches.
Sorenson suggests an attendance of 800 for the performance. The author would offer a more conservative estimate of 300, unless one counts the people passing by on the fringes who paused to look at their map while on the way to the Air and Space Museum or the Philippine Cultural Arts Festival happening down the way on Presidents Way Lawn.
Several members of a group of Sunday-school teachers visiting from Sacramento snapped pictures of each other in front of the organ building’s Greek Revival architecture while Williams played an excerpt from Gustav Holst’s outerspacey and aptly titled Jupiter Theme.
Michael and Gaynor, a couple visiting from Wales, had never heard of the Spreckels organ and were drawn to the concert by the sound of the music, which reminded them of “chapel music” from back home. They found the atmosphere charming.
“It’s a bit of a twist with the umbrellas in front there, isn’t it?” said Gaynor, referring to the multicolored umbrellas that audience members can rent from the Spreckels Organ Society for $2 each to shade themselves from the summer sun.
Longtime friends David and Martin also happened upon the concert but only stayed for ten or fifteen minutes.
“We’d stay longer,” said Martin, “except we’re broiling.” The music, they agreed, was wonderful, and Williams’s playing was “obviously very high level.” More than that, they were impressed with the accessibility of the concert itself.
“The fact that it’s available and it’s free is most unique,” said David, who’s visiting from Russia, where he teaches English and where “even though they were the people’s people, the people’s things are not free.”
San Diegans Jason and Cathy rode through on their bikes, stopping to listen just long enough to drink from their water bottles. While Jason was impressed by the fact that “the same chick” has been playing these concerts every Sunday afternoon since 1998, it wasn’t enough to make him want to stay.
“I mean, it’s cool,” he said, “but I don’t really dig that kind of organ. It’s just not something I would sit around and watch forever. But I do dig the umbrellas.”
Carol Williams is accustomed to all the coming and going. “You just play,” she said. “You just do your job.”
Dale Sorenson agrees: It goes with the territory. It’s a Sunday afternoon in the park, after all.
But, he added, there is “a certain amount of decorum that takes place on a Sunday. We like to be dignified. The core people that really want to hear the organ tend to sit in the middle in the front. If somebody’s being nasty, there’s peer pressure put on them — the look of death, that sort of thing.” ■