Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Balboa Park Organist Carol Williams Steps Down

Spreckels Organ Society
Carol Williams is pictured in this undated photo.
Balboa Park Organist Carol Williams Steps Down
Balboa Park Organist Carol Williams Steps Down
Balboa Park Organist Carol Williams Steps Down GUEST: Carol Williams, civic organist, city of San Diego

The city of San Diego's official organist is giving up her post. [ MUSIC ] Carol Williams has been the Civic Organist since 2001, playing the Spreckels Organ and Balboa Park, the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. She is moving to Virginia with her husband and said there is a search underway for her replacement. Michael Lipkin spoke with Williams on what she's leaving behind. The Civic Organist is a unique role, there aren't too many in the country. There are only a few dozen cities their own organs like this. What attracted you to the position? The position itself attracted me, doing weekly concerts and playing such a wonderful instrument has been incredible. Tell me about the history of city organs, they were a much larger part of the community 75 years ago. You are right about 100 years ago, particularly in the United Kingdom there was one in every major city, as there was here and they were used to play concerts. People would go and get the latest music. Here in San Diego, it's remained unusual because it has stayed in not time capsule, where we play popular music of the day. There are very few civic organs left in the country. San Diego has remained, thanks to the city and the Spreckels Organ Society. Did you grow up listening to organ music? Yes. I started off with a dance class and I wanted to play the piano. My aunt played the organ, it was always in the family. What makes the Spreckels Organ special? A number of things make it special, the first is where it is. It's in one of the most beautiful parks in the world. It's in a venue that's not a church, people don't feel limited. This venue has attracted anybody wants to go and listen to organ music, which just organ music. There are all sorts of reasons why this venue is so unusual. It's not in a church, that means you don't get the acoustics of a church. Does that present a challenge? It does. You've got the biggest acoustics in the world and sometimes we get a reverberation. You play differently here. Most organs are different, you treat this one very differently from any other instrument. To have any favorite moments, as you look back? So many. Think, I've always loved animals. This year was the 10th anniversary of bark in Balboa Park. That has been a lovely collaboration. I've done two marathons, one for 12 hours for operation rebound. I've done all sorts of events and I've had my own band. It's one of those venues, where you can do anything. It's hard to pick one. [ MUSIC ] People associate organ music as slow and somber and religious, you have teamed up with punk bands, you tribute did David Bowie. You can play it so quietly that you have to struggle to hear it or you can knock someone out with the volume. It's got the largest extremes of sound. Why not just stick to the standards? Why? I like composing all types of music. You said once, people may not sit do a 20 minute fugue and musically you needed to move on as one of the reasons you're leaving the position. I have a lot of music inside me that I wish to write. That takes time. Last night, I performed my organ Symphony and I've written a lot of music, I just released my first album. I love to write. I like doing freelance concert work and it frees me up to play more around the world. I'm playing in Korea and Notre Dame in Paris, there are plenty of places I want to go and see other great organs of the world. To compose on piano or organ? I can compose in my head. I always have a notebook in my purse and if a melody comes I write it down. I might work at the organ or the piano, depending on the environment. What's the composition process like for an organ, it can emulate so many instruments. It is a very orchestral instrument, you can write it in a pure Baroque style. You can write in every idiom. I like writing romantic melodies with good rhythms. I want people to remember a melody that I have written. Your last Sunday concert will be September 25. To have anything special plant? I'm thinking about it. It will be a fun filled afternoon., If you can. [ MUSIC ]

Civic Organist Carol Williams announced she's leaving San Diego and giving up her post as the city's official organist.


The musician said her husband, Kerry Bell, accepted a job offer in Virginia, and she'll be moving there with him. Going to the East Coast also puts the British native closer to family.

"It's a unique job and I loved it for 15 plus years," she said. "It's been absolutely great, but musically, I need to move on."

Williams said she will be doing more composing, as well as performing shows and giving master classes around the world.

Williams has served as the San Diego Civic Organist since 2001 and is known for her free Sunday performances at Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. Often, she plays the world's largest outdoor pipe organ in an evening gown.

She will continue serving as the Spreckels Organ Society's artistic director, helping the organization find a replacement. And making sure the popular Sunday organ concerts continue.


"There's an international search to find somebody," she said. "We're looking for someone with a lot of energy and with an open-mindedness to work with the people of San Diego. The organist is part of the city."

Williams, the first woman to hold the title of civic organist, took the Balboa Park job in 2001. Along with traditional organ concerts, she's also teamed up with punk rock bands and composed tributes to David Bowie. She is planning a return to San Diego in the summer of 2017 to perform a tribute to the organ-centric 1960s band, The Doors.

Williams' last concert will be Sept. 25.

Centennial Spreckels Fanfare, Op.14 by Carol Williams

Corrected: January 27, 2023 at 5:23 PM PST
KPBS producer Michael Lipkin, Evening Edition anchor Ebone Monet and video journalist Guillermo Sevilla contributed to this report.