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Rebel with a Pipe Organ in Balboa Park

Droll and lively, San Diego’s civic organist bucks the stuffy stereotype


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Carol Williams’ feet have a following.

A rapt community of viewers on the organist’s YouTube channel rave about her pedaling prowess. And from under the brims of brightly hued umbrellas on sunny Sunday afternoons, audiences of several hundred anticipate Williams’ dazzling footwork.

Called the King of Instruments, the specimen Williams wrangles weekly is especially regal. The organ she plays is the near-century-old centerpiece of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, its 4,518 pipes launching sound into the air, sometimes for miles.

The pipe organ requires the coordination of left and right hands, like a piano, but adds another layer of complexity. The music’s bass line is covered by another set of keys played with the feet.

And Williams, a droll Brit with a penchant for posing, relishes the chance to dance with the monolith, to coax out its fun side each time she puts her feet to the pedals and her hands to the keys.

Organists wear specific shoes, narrow enough so their wearers don’t accidentally nick a nearby key and mess up the tune, and thin-soled enough to keep the foot attuned to the feel of the pedals.

But even the specialty shoes don’t give Williams the kind of precision she wants. So the fortysomething, the city’s official civic organist, tucks her toes into footwear meant for a different type of performance: dance.

The jazz shoes lend Williams, the queen of this pavilion, a nimble, noble air. But they also show her disdain for convention for convention’s sake. Williams is lively and entertaining, the apple of many a Sunday afternoon concertgoer’s eye, and she’ll play the organ her way—even if you think the instrument is for weddings and funerals only.

On a recent Sunday, flinging a red silk scarf over one shoulder, Williams prances out along a red carpet moments after 2 p.m. to begin her weekly concert. Minutes later, she finishes her third tune, a Bach arrangement of a Vivaldi piece, with her back to the crowd. She swings herself out from behind the organ bench, points her toes, and bounces upstage to greet the audience of shorts-wearing tourists and dog-toting locals.

“San Diego’s one of the last cities to carry on the American tradition of having an organist on staff, and Williams’ post and reputation is fiercely defended by a legion of diehard organ fans.”

As she gushes on a microphone about the weather and the intricacies of the organ repertoire, the spry Williams lifts up on tiptoe before returning to the bench for a piece by an Italian composer meant to test an organist’s lower extremities. Out of breath after that, Williams settles into the recognizable themes of Mendelssohn’s “The Wedding March.”

Many in the audience rent umbrellas and stay for the entire hour-long concert — kids dancing in aisles, young couples canoodling, elderly folks bobbing their heads in recognition. Some stop in for a few minutes, then get up and leave partway through.
“People only have so much time in the park,” Williams says. “I don’t get offended if people get up to go get an ice cream cone.”

The city of San Diego employs thousands of crime-fighters, grass-cutters, firefighters, and lifeguards, but for 10 years, the England-born Williams has been the town’s sole organist.

With a newly earned doctorate in performance, she beat out dozens of competitors in 2001 after a worldwide search. She became just the seventh person to hold the post since John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels gave the city the instrument and its hefty pavilion on New Year’s Eve, 1914.

The heirs to a sugar fortune, the benefactors said the concerts, using the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, should always be free. For decades, the city has retained an organist and organ curator, who manages and cares for the organ, turns the sheets of music, and keeps them from blowing away in the wind while Williams plays.

Williams loves this gargantuan organ building, presides over it, treats it like her home. She married her husband here, escorted down the aisle by a former city organist. She posed for a portrait on a Harley-Davidson here, just one of several spunky photographs plastered on her online fan page and the pavilion’s walls.

She defies a stuffy stereotype. Even her now-husband once harbored the thought that the Sunday concerts he’d seen a sign for were likely “a little old lady playing for about 10 people in the back.” But when he saw her—and heard her play—he was hooked.

“I don’t believe in being ‘as you should be,’” Williams says. “I just enjoy life, whether I’m an organist or not.”

Williams is the first woman to hold the job in the country. San Diego’s one of the last cities to carry on the American tradition of having an organist on staff, and Williams’ post and reputation is fiercely defended by a legion of diehard organ fans. In the face of a contentious discussion about whether the city’s embattled parks and recreation budget can squeeze out the $28,600 the city chips in for Williams’ salary, a community effort mobilized late this spring in her support.

But Williams has been trying not to pay much heed to the back-and-forth over her salary, turning her attention instead to planning concerts for Sunday afternoons and for the pavilion’s free Monday night summer concerts featuring heavy-hitting organists from all over the world, many of them pals of hers.

After the last strains of organ music dissipate in the afternoon sun, and the last of Williams’ admirers have drifted out of the pavilion, she retreats to a back room whose walls boast dozens of photographs of her predecessors and famous colleagues.
She swings her feet up, leans back, and unwraps her post-performance perk: a Milky Way.

Kelly Bennett covers the arts for voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit news organization that partners with San Diego Magazine.

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