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Downey Church Welcomes Yule With a Real Blast

December 24, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — According to Moravian lore, a Christmas trombone blast once scared off an Indian war party that was about to attack the sect's outpost at Bethlehem, Pa., in 1755.

Tonight's Christmas Eve service at the Downey Moravian Church won't be that alarming.

But the sonorous tones that can bring tears to the eyes of trombonists and worshipers alike will serve as a reminder of a musical and religious heritage that goes back to the first days of Protestant Christianity.

A medium-sized, mainline Protestant denomination mostly concentrated in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the Moravians brought their trombones with them when they first came to America from Germany to preach the Gospel to the Indians early in the 18th Century.

Their fascination with the sliding brass instruments went back to Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, where he chose the German word posaune, or trombone, to stand for the Hebrew shofar , or ram's horn.

But there were practical considerations as well. At the time, the trombone was the only brass instrument that could play all the notes on the chromatic scale, since trumpet valves had not been invented.

This made it ideal to accompany outdoor group singing, a frequent activity in the Moravian settlements.

Today, many Moravian churches have fallen away from the trombone tradition. Some of the 155 churches in the United States and Canada have brass choirs or wind ensembles, while others make do with singers only. The Downey trombone choir is one of three in North America, along with the original trombone choir in Bethlehem, Pa., and another in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Not that music is all that the Moravians have to offer. In fact, the Rev. Gary Straughn, pastor of the Downey congregation, says: "Music is an important element in the Moravian Church, but sometimes I think we get hung up on that heritage and use it as an excuse to get away from society's issues. But I'm one of the few pastors that has no musical talents."

Straughn, a fan of the choir, prefers to talk about the church's missionary work in Nicaragua, where there are 28,600 members (compared to 52,000 in the United States and Canada). The late Moravian bishop there was decorated by the Sandinista government for his work in health and education earlier this year.

Or he will tell of the Moravian Church in Tanzania, where there are more than 200,000 of the faithful in the only country where membership is growing in the 530-year-old church.

But there is no denying the uniqueness of trombones to the Moravian Church, whose first missionaries came to the colony of Georgia in the late 1730s.

A trombone choir has been the star of Christmas and Easter services in Bethlehem, Pa., for more than 200 years, but the Downey version goes back no further than 1965, when a 22-year-old music student named Jeffrey Reynolds was hired to direct the church choir.

Although a newcomer to the church, Reynolds had something in common with Moravian heritage--the trombone. He was soon hired to play in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he has been the one bass trombonist for the last 19 years.

But he also decided to establish a Downey version of the Bethlehem trombone choir, the first in California since around 1900, when a Moravian mission to the Morongo Indians in Banning established a trombone choir.

Starting as a quartet, the Moravian Trombone Choir has grown to about 40 players, ranging in age from 8 to 80, Reynolds said. Among the more than 500 players who have performed in the choir over the last 22 years are Reynolds' wife, Jean, a nurse, and their two children, Matthew and Julie.

Ninety-seven trombones played together one evening in 1976, outnumbering by far the choir in Bethlehem, where 25 members generally play in a circle surrounding the the bell in the cupola atop the Central Moravian Church in that Pennsylvania town.

Concert in Sanctuary

The church in Downey has a similar cupola, but it is too small to hold the trombone choir, which stages an annual Christmas concert in the ground-floor sanctuary and also plays at Bach festivals and other events of the Moravian Church, as well as other denominations.

The Christmas concert earlier this month lasted just over an hour, with a selection of religious and secular music ranging from Bach's Advent chorale, "Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland," to a potpourri of pop tunes put together by Stan Friedman, one of the group's soprano trombonists, and called "Holiday Glitz."

With trombones ranging in tone from the deep resonances of a rare British G bass, which has to be operated with a handle to extend the slide, to the peeps of a soprano, which needs the tight lips of a trumpeter to produce sound, the sound is overwhelming.

"It's a homogeneous effect, not like the variety of a brass choir," Reynolds said. "It's like a spinach salad with nothing in it but spinach. Or like a plate of potatoes. You get tired of it after a while," he admitted.

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