Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Pick: Finally, a Max Reger moment at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Arnold Boecklin’s “The Isle of the Dead”
“The Isle of the Dead” by the 19th century Swiss Symbolist painter.
Music Critic

Max Reger’s effusively early 20th century, late Romantic orchestral music is a hard sell in Los Angeles, or at least it is perceived that way, since no one has actually tried to sell it in recent memory.

When Gustavo Dudamel opens his weekend Los Angeles Philharmonic subscription concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Reger’s Four Tone Poems After Arnold Böcklin, it will be the first time anything other than a handful of the composer’s organ or chamber pieces will have been played locally in more than 30 years.

It has been, in fact, 45 years since the L.A. Phil last performed Reger. In 2003 Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded two big Reger orchestra works in Germany -- including an inventive, epic series of variations on a theme by Mozart -- but never dared to attempt them with the L.A. Phil, and the disc was not imported to the U.S. Long out-of-print, the recording is rare but not valuable. Two copies can be found on Amazon for under a quarter and a third, higher-priced one, for 26 cents.

Why such Reger-phobia in the States? Revered in Germany, the composer has had his advocates, including the pianist Rudolf Serkin. Plus Reger’s heavy organ music shows up every so often on a Disney organ recital (including a Reger version of Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue” last Sunday).


But Reger’s enjoyment of excessive counterpoint and heavy harmonies has the reputation for being box-office poison.

Perhaps Dudamel’s popularity will be able to change all that when he undertakes the colorful and characterful short Reger pieces from 1913 that take their tone from painting by the 19th century Swiss Symbolist. The third is based on Böcklin’s most famous work, “The Isle of the Dead.” In it a shrouded figure stands in front of a coffin in a small boat as it approaches a rocky island.

Four years before Reger wrote his gorgeously gloomy score, Rachmaninoff also composed a symphonic “Isle of the Dead,” which Dudamel has programmed next week along with Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” to conclude an intriguing two-program theme of painting and music and a chance for Reger to maybe get a little long overdo local respect.

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