Celebrating the ‘King of Instruments’

Dr. Carol Williams | Civic Organist News

Editor’s Note: This is an introductory piece from Dr. Williams who, based on her advocacy as our Civic Organist, will be contributing a column on a rotational basis to San Diego Uptown News throughout 2015. 

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Dr. Carol Williams

As my dad drove me home one rainy night from one of my hundreds of organ performances in the U.K., I looked out the car window at Stonehenge and wondered where I’d be in 20 years with my chosen career path. At the time, I was a teenage organ scholar who first began performing concerts at eight years old.

Many years later, I was again gazing out through a rainy window thinking of that night. I was on an aircraft preparing to land in San Diego. I could see the Spreckels Organ Pavilion all lit up. I was an international concert organist with a doctorate in music wondering how my audition for the San Diego’s Civic Organist job would go.

It went well. The plaque in the pavilion now reads, Carol Williams, Civic Organist, 2001 – present.

San Diego has had a Civic Organist perform organ concerts once a week for the past 100 years. A city organist is a comparatively rare breed in the world today, probably even an endangered species.

I am often busily engaged composing, transcribing and arranging music to play on the organ. Very little repertoire that can be tolerated by the masses is composed for the “King of Instruments.” These tasks, along with programming and planning, can be challenging on a weekly basis, but I’ve got it down to an art. The repertoire needs to be varied, yet enticing, sophisticated and popular. Otherwise you may end up with only 10 people left in the audience and they’ll all be texting.

I love to collaborate with other musicians of all genres and ages to provide our audience with a well-rounded musical experience. The pipe organ has had a kind of stigma attached to it and part of my passion is to educate and broaden people’s awareness. I love and play all kinds of music and even though I was classically trained, as a youngster I would be scolded for playing jazz on the church organ.

This job is, of course, far more than just programming and playing. It is essential to establish a fun relationship and connect with the audience. This is a major part of a successful performer and something I really enjoy. I want the audience to have a new respect for the pipe organ and be glad they attended the open-air concert in Balboa Park.

I am also artistic director of the Spreckels Organ Society, and in that role, I work hard with volunteers from the Spreckels Organ Society, musicians, composers, park institutions and others in producing all the ongoing efforts to bring a special festive atmosphere to our organ and Balboa Park, including the Centennial Celebration Concert this past Dec. 31.

My ambassadorship also extends internationally, as I always introduce or remind my audiences of San Diego’s great Spreckels Organ. I was recently selected as one of eight artists to perform at the 10th anniversary concert for the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ, and as is usually done at my “away concerts,” I was introduced as San Diego’s Civic Organist.

Our great instrument was talked about to that audience; Russian, European and the Far East audiences all have been informed of our majestic beast. This very large box of whistles is a part of me now and I am honored and blessed to be a part of San Diego’s history — both its past and future. Those of us privileged to serve in this civic position today, around the world, are the heirs of a rich inheritance.

I am always open to cultural and musical explorations that involve the pipe organ and look forward to opportunities to bring it to new audiences. I hope to see some new faces at our Sunday concerts at 2 p.m.

Please stop by the Organ Pavilion and say hello to me after a concert if you have a chance.

—Civic Organist Carol Williams is proud to serve as an ambassador of San Diego’s arts and culture arena. Through her concert performances at home and abroad, Carol offers a fresh take on the classical organ concert. She is committed to illuminating San Diego’s colorful romance with the “King of Instruments,” always seeking to bring the organ to new audiences. For more information visit

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