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First Bass Man in Batter’s Box

Timothy Mangan is a trombonist and frequent contributor to Calendar

When bass trombonist Jeffrey Reynolds joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Beatles were still together, Nixon was in his first term and man had just landed on the moon. Ernest Fleischmann was the brand-new managing director. Esa-Pekka Salonen was 11.

Reynolds himself was only in his mid-20s and straight out of Cal State Long Beach when he won the audition for the spot over some 40 other applicants on Oct. 31, 1969. Since then, he has been a fixture in the back of the band. Even if you don’t know who he is, you’ve heard him--whenever there’s any heavy lifting to be done, there he is, in Bruckner, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, at their grandest moments, or at least their loudest.

“When you pull that bell up,” says the loquacious Reynolds, referring to the trombone’s flared end, “and you’re playing as broad and big and hairy as you can, or close to it, there’s no way to avoid it. It’s an elephant in the closet, you can’t close the door, it’s all over the place. It pervades the atmosphere.”

But playing the orchestra’s most powerful instrument has a down side. It’s definitely a supporting role. Ever since Beethoven introduced trombones into the symphonic world in the finale of his Fifth Symphony, poor trombonists have been sitting around--yawning, scratching, stretching--biding their time like field goal kickers at a football game. As Reynolds’ brother John, a studio horn player, says, “All you really need to play bass trombone in a symphony orchestra is a good magazine.”

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Reynolds won’t be doing much reading this week. For the first time in his 27 years with the orchestra, the 53-year-old musician is going to step out front and perform a concerto, “Harlequin,” written especially for him by Los Angeles native and UCLA alumnus Larry Lipkis.

Reynolds had recognized the “need to have a good bass trombone piece that had orchestral accompaniment, that was a nice musical something, and wasn’t just another fast, high, loud, gee-whiz-look-what-I-can-do-on-the-bass-trombone kind of piece.” Long active as music director of the Moravian Church of Downey (now retired), Reynolds enlisted Lipkis, a composer in residence at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., whose music he especially liked. Knowing Reynolds’ children were still in college, and with a Los Angeles Philharmonic performance in the offing, Lipkis waived his commission fee.

For the composer, both instrument and instrumentalist were sources of inspiration.

“I felt the Harlequin character could be personified nicely by the bass trombone,” Lipkis says. “Harlequin is one of the more physical, aggressive comedians of the commedia dell’arte, at least from the scenarios that I’ve read. He’s the one who is quite agile, leaps around, and he has a kind of in-your-face quality. It seemed like a lower-voiced instrument would be best. And Jeff is a particularly agile player. When I sat down to hear him play and to talk about the piece, I was just so impressed by some of the acrobatic lines that he could play that I really didn’t think were possible.”

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Coincidentally, Lipkis was also an admirer of Philharmonic oboist David Weiss in his guise as a virtuoso saw player. He couldn’t resist the idea of writing a part for the instrument, which in the concerto operates as a kind of alter ego to the trombone’s Harlequin. Reynolds has dubbed the character Slippery Stan, since Weiss plays a Stanley saw.

Reynolds’ own personality played a part too.

“Jeff is a very complex person,” Lipkis says. “He has a very serious spiritual side to him, but he is also a very whimsical person, a kind of tell-it-like-it-is populist, with an irreverent side to him.” That side, the composer says, is what he hoped to capture in “Harlequin.”

The result is a piece that requires Reynolds to play in a number of styles and moods in quick succession that reflect, he says, “this eruptive character who is kind of duped a lot; he’s kind of fun-loving, but he can be led astray rather easily.” During the cadenza, a musical battle of wills is waged between the saw and trombone.

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The theme from “Rocky” could with justice accompany Reynolds’ entrance for his solo appearances. He has trained hard. “I had to reinvent myself,” he says of the journey from team player to main attraction.

For “Harlequin"--"the hardest piece I’ve ever played,” he says--Reynolds fiddled with his equipment, experimenting with different-size slides in order to achieve optimum agility. He devised special exercises to give his lips maximum flexibility and responsiveness. “High register was another thing, but I conquered that in the last eight months. I’m a terror now.” The work has paid off with a “lighter and shinier and hotter” sound, a better one for a soloist.

“I was walking downstairs after a rehearsal the other day with Tom Stevens, who has sat a few feet from my bell for the last quarter-century,” Reynolds says, referring to the principal trumpeter of the Philharmonic. “And he says, ‘I’ll be glad when this is all over and you get back to that soggy tone I love.’ ”

And then there are his logistic and mental preparations. With Philharmonic tuba player Norm Pearson sitting in an empty Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he stood in the soloist’s spot--testing equipment and instrument angles--to find out what sounded best in the hall. He has given trial run-throughs, as he did earlier this month for a trombone class at USC. He has written orchestral cues in his part “so even if the orchestra gets lost, or the conductor gets lost, I’m ready for every eventuality.”

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For his presentation of the work on a children’s concert on Saturday, he has bought a Harlequin outfit. For the evening events, he hopes to wear a cummerbund and tie patterned with Harlequin diamonds.

Says Lipkis: “I was hoping he would kind of live with the score and get into the character, but he has done it with a vengeance.”

Reynolds’ many years on the orchestra’s audition committee have taught him the importance of “projecting musical style.” To that end, he has lately been paying close attention to the solo phrasing of Philharmonic members such as Weiss and cellist Ronald Leonard. He has been paying attention to Music Director Salonen too.

Watching him backstage before a concert, Reynolds noticed that Salonen “goes into almost a trance.”

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“I could see that everything else was washed out of his memory except the piece,” he says. “And he wasn’t just going to go out and conduct a piece. He became the piece! It was just uncanny. He was so focused that you could raise your hand to say hi as he was walking by and he wasn’t there. He’s already doing the piece and he’s just a blob of protoplasm going on the stage.”

Reynolds aims to do likewise. “I don’t want to be in the here and now when I do this,” he has decided. “I have two things that keep me rolling. Project the character and stay numb.”

Numb or not, Reynolds knows it’s probably going to be his only chance. Bass trombone concertos, at least ones that the Philharmonic and Salonen might consider performing, don’t come around often.

But he’ll take what he’s got.

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“The piece is 16 minutes,” Reynolds says. “Notice that’s one minute in excess of the Andy Warhol 15 minutes in the sun. So not only do I get my 15 minutes, I get a bonus minute.”

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“HARLEQUIN,” Jeffrey Reynolds and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. Dates: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Youth program: Saturday, 10:15 a.m. Prices: $8-$60; youth program, $6-$10. Phone: (213) 365-3000.


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