Bermuda Triangle Player

Orchestrating trouble with the Torrance Symphony 

 

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      Being a triangle player in an orchestra is like being a stand-in on a movie set. You basically just stand there, the only way to get noticed is to screw up, and the real players laugh at your job.

      No sooner did my editor suggest the idea than I arranged a rehearsal with the Torrance Symphony Orchestra.

      I arrive at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center as conductor Frank Fetta -- who resembles the mayor in TV's "Spin City" -- leads 58 musicians through "The Blue Danube." I recognize the waltz because Daffy Duck skated to it in a "Bugs Bunny" cartoon once.

      I'll admit, my knowledge of classical music begins and ends with the movie "Amadeus." (I did not see "Immortal Beloved.") To expand my horizons, a girlfriend once bought me a CD called "Classical For People Who Hate Classical." 

      I hated it.

      "Can you please just move with me?" Fetta shouts at the performers, using his baton for emphasis. Later, he screeches them to a halt again.

      "No!" he says. "I said play the other ending!" The players grab for pens and furiously update their music sheets.

      I'm guessing these musicians wouldn't appreciate a triangle player who they would notice.

      Fetta says I can perform with the orchestra at Wilson Park in Torrance a week later, during the finale of "Stars and Stripes Forever." But he is too busy to deal with my questions, and rehearsing a song the orchestra already knows cold would be a complete waste of his time right now. 

      My classical music debut will be on the fly. (Cue "Psycho" strings.)

      "You do know how to read music, right?" Fetta asks.

      "I used to," I lie. (These adventures tend to go better when I do that.)

      I got up to the acronym "Every Good Boy Deserves French Fries" in eighth-grade music class before learning something even more important: The Beatles never learned to read music. That's all I needed to know to stop paying attention. 

      "Oh well, one triangle can't hurt much," Fetta tells me, patting my back. "The percussionists will help you out."

      Boy, the triangle is even lowlier than I imagined. Not only would Fetta write it off as harmless in a gorilla's hands, but the Torrance Symphony Orchestra doesn't even have a job dedicated to playing it. The three-sided steel rod is just one of many instruments tapped, banged or stomped by percussionists Tim Curle and Eric Mellencamp. (No relation, as far as Mellencamp knows. And he wasn't born in a small town, either. He's from Seal Beach. I did forget to ask, however, whether it was a pink house.) 

      Mellencamp's triangle sits on a portable shelf above two xylophones, next to a snare drum. He begins our lesson: You dangle it from a clip, which is cradled between the thumb and third finger with the index finger above. You tap it with a wand that resembles a cigarette holder.

      "Come at it from a 45 degree angle, somewhere about an inch away from the corner," Mellencamp says, producing a dinner-bell ding.

      When I attempt to repeat what I've been shown, the triangle thumps like a piano string with a dead body in the case. My fingers are accidentally touching the tip.

      Triangles and I have never gotten along. I avoid the one in Bermuda, never knew exactly what an isosceles was on geometry tests, and have never won a cent in the Luxor Casino.

      Curle, in particular, seems worried about this Faustian deal Fetta has struck for newspaper publicity.

      "You can make a triangle sound very bad if not played correctly," he warns me. "You have to let it hang free at all times. And there are different spots on the triangle -- places to hit it where it sounds good and places where it sounds bad."

      As Curle speaks, Mellencamp scribbles on a music sheet.

      "I'm just writing in X's on top of the notes where you play," he says. "You're just playing rhythm, so it's gonna be real easy for you."

      The result looks to me like the instruction manual for a clock radio imported directly from Taiwan.

      "I guess I'll just look at you for cues, then?" I ask.

      On the afternoon of the performance, my hair is greased back and my tuxedo shirt is pirate-puffy. (OK, maybe I want to be noticed in some way.) But that's all the preparation I have. More than 300 people have gathered at Wilson Park to hear music they don't expect to suck. And I'm not sure I can help them.

      An orchestra is only as strong as its weakest link, and in this case that link is dressed like a character from a "Seinfeld" episode. 

      During intermission in the three-hour program, I introduce myself to my fellow musicians and find surprising acceptance -- at first. Vocal soloist Stephen Plummer asks me to help with his bow-tie, while fellow soprano Lori Stinson (his duet partner on "Carmen") shares some New York memories and shows me two pieces of support wire she yanked out of her bra because of the pain. 

      Then I inform Danielle the horn player that I like her trombone. She's holding a French horn, unfortunately, and "blowing it" is something we now have in common. The French horn section of the Torrance Symphony Orchestra consists of four young women hidden in a back row, where they quietly giggle at notes they consider wrong during the performance, and questions they consider stupid during the intermission.

      Suffice to say, I never get to hear any of Danielle's band camp stories.

      I am also snubbed by Molly, a news reporter who interviews Plummer but breezes silently past me when I inquire why a triangle player can't also get some face time. (Would all 23 viewers really have minded the interruption in Torrance Citi Cable's busy programming schedule?)

      The last strains of Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien" (or so it says in the program) wend down as I mentally prepare for my cue from the wings. I have no idea how obvious it's about to be.

      "It isn't often that we get a triangle soloist," Fetta tells the audience. "But we have someone special to announce. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, in his frilly shirt, Mr. Corey Levitan."

      Either Fetta is suicidal, or he wants to make sure people perceive this as a joke, in case I'm in possession of Steve Martin's sense of rhythm from "The Jerk." Either way, the crowd applauds loudly enough so that I wish it could be heard by Monique McMahon, who in the third grade thought I was a loser who would amount to nothing.

      I take a bow and Fetta waves his arms to commence "Stars and Stripes Forever." But I don't look at him. I drink in my adoring fans instead, tapping purely by instinct (but consciously enough not to let my puffy sleeves deaden the triangle's ring). 

      It's relatively easy to keep time (kind of like drumming along to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on my dashboard). But I am apparently too loud, as the violinist in front of me turns around and glowers. 

      Fetta is more appreciative of my triangle artistry. 

      "Good job," he mouths me a personal message. So, of course, I get cocky. As a little tribute to Keith Moon of the Who, I insert a double beat before the second "three cheers for the red, white and blue" chorus. I make sure to lean forward so my new friend the violinist doesn't miss it. 

      In her review of the show, Daily Breeze writer Kari Sayers called it "wonderful" and "versatile." I believe she was referring to my performance. Afterward, the crowd erupted again as Fetta announced, "Corey Levitan and the Torrance Symphony Orchestra." (I'm not joking about this.) 

      Despite the odd laughing horn and glowering violin player, I could be onto something. Can you name one famous triangle player? 

      I didn't think so. The field is wide open for someone you notice, a Dennis Rodman of triangle playing.

      I even got a triangle groupie out of the deal. Remember Lori Stinson, the soprano without the support? After warmly congratulating me, she grabbed my business card and deposited it between her breasts.

      "This is where it belongs," she said.

      I wonder how much dues for the triangle union will be.

 

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