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December 8, 2023

Larger-Than-Life Composer Celebrated at St. Paul’s

Max Reger’s 150th birthday the occasion for ongoing series of recitals

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the 123-year-old redwood church on the corner of Matheson and East streets, is hosting an informal music festival to recognize one of the most colorful characters in classical music, Max Reger, on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1873.

While most people associate a church organ with a liturgical concert with Bach or Mozart, Reger is something else. “It’s very much an acquired taste,” said David Hatt of Alexander Valley, one of the festival’s organizers. “As far as Western concert classical music goes, it’s dense and complex. But it also has a strong melodic element and tension that is borrowed from the influence of Ricard Wagner,” the celebrated composer of the Ring des Nibelungen operas.

COMPOSER Max Reger (1873-1916) is being recognized for his organ works during several recitals at Healdsburg’s St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Going his mentor one better, Reger was a man of oversized appetites as well as talent: He was addicted to alcohol, food and tobacco in equal excess, and died at the age of 43, in 1916.

“He was most active between 1895 and right up until the time he died,” said Hatt. Though he had been a successful composer and pianist, said Hatt, Reger came to focus on composition. “He would go to the bar and get a bunch of food and start drinking and smoking, then go home and write and write.”

On Friday, organist Samuel Lee, of McGill University, will perform an hour-long recital of works on St. Paul’s Bigelow pipe organ, including three by Reger. The university in Montreal, Canada, is the home of a woman Hatt calls “the best organist in the world right now,” Isabelle Demers. 

Lee is the latest of several McGill graduate students to come to Healdsburg to play the Bigelow at St. Paul’s. The organ, completely refurbished in 2021, is perfectly suited to the scale of St. Paul’s small chapel, which cozily holds up to 100 people. 

On the Sunday following the Friday organ concerts in Healdsburg, the McGill students perform the Reger works at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, also participating in the Reger anniversary.

“It’s a very interesting instrument in that it’s quite small and yet it’s perfectly balanced for the room,” said Hatt, an organist himself who has performed in this year’s festival. “It’s not ever too loud, and yet it projects right to the back row and has a just wonderful warm, velvety tone.”

The concert is one of 10 in the months-long sesquicentennial celebration of Reger’s birth. The last two are scheduled for Nov. 19 and Dec. 10 at St. Paul’s in Healdsburg.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Matheson Street, Healdsburg. (Photo by Christian Kallen)

Though no admission is charged, donations are welcomed for the church’s building fund, an ongoing effort to raise $200,000 for repairs, upgrades and maintenance.

The church and parish hall were repainted last month, but the hall still needs a new roof, the largest single expense faced by the congregation.

St. Paul’s parish hall is the site of the Sunday Community Meal, served at 4pm every Sunday. The hall is also the place where anyone is welcome to take a refreshing shower three days per week; a light meal is provided to anyone taking a shower.

It is also the site of Healdsburg’s warming- and cooling-shelters during very cold, very wet or very hot days and nights. It saw frequent use during the past year of atmospheric rivers.

With so many people using the facilities, normal wear and tear is to be expected, said Jane Tevis Wood, the office administrator.

“We had thought the opening of the former L&M Motel at the south end of town, as housing for the homeless, would ease the stress on our facilities,” Tevis Wood said, “but there has been no drop in the need. The number of people we serve increases every year.”

The free organ concert begins at 6pm on Friday, Nov, 3, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 209 Matheson St.


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