The music stopped walkers in their tracks. The booming notes rarely echoed through Balboa Park at 7:30 in the morning.
“It’s really absolutely unique,” said the man making the music. “It’s the moment I can be absolutely myself.”
Raul Prieto Ramirez is happy behind the tiered keyboards and dozens of buttons that make up the organ sitting in front of the massive brass pipes at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
“Many people realized the importance of music, especially live music, when that was taken away from them,” he said as a smile slid away from his face.
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The pandemic didn’t just stop the live concerts performed by the San Diego Civic Organist. It practically halted life in Balboa Park.
“There were security not allowing people to even walk in Balboa Park,” said Ramirez.
Ramirez said he and the Spreckels Organ Society watched what was happening in Europe as the pandemic started locking down those countries. They anticipated it would happen in California, too. So, Ramirez said they prepared to shutter the pavilion and produced virtual concerts well before Zoom was an everyday word. Ramirez said they had their first online concert three days after California shut down.
“If the world is not allowed to come here, we need to actually go where they are,” he smiled. “Going online opened a window to a completely different audience we had never hit before.”
It was a hit. The Spreckels Organ Society nonprofit produced weekly concerts that were sent digitally around the world. It exposed Ramirez and the organ to a much larger audience.
“We didn’t lose membership [like many other nonprofits],” he said. “We actually increased revenue during the pandemic.”
Ramirez credited the reach of the digital world. He hoped it would mean even more people would travel to San Diego and Balboa Park.
“Actually, that surprised me,” said Ramirez’s wife and pianist Maria Teresa Sierra.
Sierra will share the pavilion stage with her husband Monday evening for a free concert featuring her on piano and Ramirez on the famous organ.
“We share the same passion for music,” she smiled. “I’m excited and I’m nervous at the same time, but that’s the feeling I always have when I have to perform.”
Ramirez hoped more people return to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, especially to experience the music in person.
“The challenge is to bring people back, to convince people that it is safe,” he said.