San Diego civic organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez says he’s working on programs that will make organ music more accessible to a wider swath of people. / Photo by Kinsee Morlan
San Diego civic organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez says he’s working on programs that will make organ music more accessible to a wider swath of people. / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

There aren’t many barriers to entry when it comes to the organ concerts in Balboa Park. They’re free, they happen every week and the causal outdoor venue makes it easy for audiences of all ages to enjoy the shows.

But the city’s new civic organist who puts on those free weekly concerts isn’t completely satisfied with the audiences yet. He wants more people to hear the huge outdoor pipe organ. The young musician is already working on new programs to make organ music more accessible to more people, especially kids.

“That’s actually the job of the civic organists, is to reach as many people as we can,” said Raúl Prieto Ramírez, who was hired for the partially city-funded gig in December.

San Diego civic organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Every Sunday at 2 p.m., 39-year-old Ramírez has been keeping up the tradition of free organ concerts. His programs range from advanced classical music to more popular tunes, like “The Simpsons” theme song or Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He almost always sets aside time to play recognizable songs from popular movies.

Ramírez said creating weekly programs, then practicing and perfecting the concerts is grueling, and takes up most of his time. He’s also been busy curating this year’s International Summer Organ Festival, which opens June 25 and continues every Monday at 7:30 p.m. through Sept. 3 with free weekly performances by musicians from around the world. 

In what little spare time he does have, Ramírez said he’s been working on audience engagement efforts similar to a program he had success with in Spain. At 27, he was appointed the first organist-in-residence of the biggest music hall in Madrid. Within the first few months there, he said he quickly increased attendance at the hall’s organ recitals. When he started, he said only about 20 to 30 people showed up for the concerts. Six months later, he said the crowd was closer to 800. Much of the increase, he said, was due to an educational program he started. He worked with nearly all the high schools in Madrid, teaching music and music appreciation, and the kids then brought their families to enjoy the shows.

“I have always been developing this kind of idea,” he said. “From one side, I like to play music and have my feet up on the stage, but on the other side, I’m always trying to make it easier for people to get into the music.”

The audiences who show up for the weekly organ concerts in San Diego are already fairly large and diverse – Ramírez said people who assume the seats are filled by people with gray hair are wrong. The Spreckels Organ Society, the arts organization that pays most of his $78,600 salary (the city pays the rest), is already hipper and younger than what most people expect, he said. The organization’s vice president, for example, is Dang Nguyen, who’s also a co-owner of Bar Pink, a hipster enclave in North Park.

Building on the Organ Society’s success in reaching wider audiences, Ramírez said he’s working to establish more partnerships with arts organizations across the county, he’s launching a new Organ Society board committee of people in their 20s who will help steer programming and events and he’s working with his board of directors to establish a new educational program like the one he started in Madrid.

“I really want to reach more kids, he said. “I want to open the door even wider.”

You’re reading the Culture ReportVoice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news.

Making Room for Comic-Con Crowds, Fringe Acts Descend on San Diego and More Arts and Culture News

• Harbor Drive will be closed to cars for most of the four-day Comic-Con International event starting July 19. The street closure will make room for the large crowds outside the Convention Center, and the new plan is the result of a joint effort by the city, Convention Center Corp., the Port of San Diego and Comic-Con. (Union-Tribune)

San Diego Comic-Con
Comic-Con attendees gather around the entrance to San Diego Convention Center’s Hall H. / Photo by Tristan Loper
Comic-Con attendees gather around the entrance to San Diego Convention Center’s Hall H. / Photo by Tristan Loper

• The annual San Diego International Fringe Festival opens Thursday and includes nearly 60 artists and arts groups performing dance, theater, acrobatics, comedy and other shows. Both local and international artists are part of this year’s lineup. (Times of San Diego)

• As part of an arts engagement program that works to make theater matter to more people, the Old Globe in Balboa Park is presenting a new original play this week called “Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste.” The play is the result of a collaboration with the George L. Stevens Senior Center and was written by Claudia Thompson, a local retired psychiatrist, former educator and current activist. Speaking of the Old Globe, the opener for its annual summer Shakespeare Festival is “The Tempest,” which opens in previews June 23. (Union-Tribune)

• San Diego County is cutting the ribbon on its new crime lab Wednesday. The new facility includes county-funded public art – a sculpture by Ann Gardner and the group Forensic Arts, and an artifact display installation by Jay Johnson and Karen Morrison.

san diego jay johnson
A new artifact display by San Diego artist Jay Johnson / Photo courtesy of Jay Johnson

• UC San Diego’s ArtPower announced its 15th anniversary season. The Union-Tribune calls it “one of the most diverse lineups in the history of this proudly diverse music, dance, spoken-word and multimedia performance series.”

The California Center for the Arts, Escondido also announced its 2018-2019 season. The lineup includes violin legend Itzhak Perlman, actor Alan Cumming, Mexican-American singer Lila Downs and more. (Union-Tribune)

• A few organizations in San Diego are taking part in Make Music Day, a celebration of music that happens every year on June 21.

The Kinsee Report: Here’s Where I Want to Be This Week

• I can’t stop reading reviews of La Jolla Playhouse’s new play “The Squirrels.” It sounds weird (it’s about a family of talking squirrels), but the Union-Tribune also describes it as an “apocalyptic tale of America’s cultural divide,” so it also sounds timely and poignant.

• I’m a big fan of Natalie Bessell’s work. The painter has a little solo show opening up this week. She’s an emerging art star. Keep an eye on her.

Natalie Bessell
Artist Natalie Bessell / Photo by Ryan Benot

• The Ocean Beach Street Fair & Chili Cook-Off Festival is happening Saturday. Street fairs can be crowded and hot with just mildly good live entertainment offerings, but the homemade chili at this one makes it worth the hassles.

Food, Cannabis, Beer and Booze News

 San Diego food writer Caron Golden is urging gals to get their grill on this summer. (KPBS)

 VOSD Podcast Network show Beer Talk Radio talks to several of the movers and shakers behind the craft beer boom in the South Bay, often called the #SouthBayUprising. Here’s a primer on the South Bay beer scene.

Mario Maldonado has a beer at La Bella Pizza Garden in Chula Vista. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

• Here are some thoughts and observations about the food industry’s plastic problem from some folks in the local restaurant scene. (San Diego Magazine)

• CityBeat’s special Drink Issue is out.

For the first time ever, the San Diego Night Market event that celebrates Asian food and culture will close down Convoy Street between Dagget and Opportunity.

• The Taste of Adams Avenue is happening Sunday.

Kinsee Morlan is engagement editor at Voice of San Diego. Email her at with arts and culture news and tips. Want to recommend this culture newsletter to someone? Share this sign-up link. Subscribe to Voice of San Diego podcasts

Kinsee Morlan

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture...

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