The triangle is perhaps the most sneered-at instrument in the orchestral family. It’s a hunk of metal that you hit with a beater. How hard can it be to play?
Bangor Symphony Orchestra percussionist Billy Miller begs to differ. He loves the triangle, and its singing, bell-like tones, which aren’t quite as easy to coax from the instrument as one might think.
Miller, who for 55 years ran Miller Drug on State Street in Bangor with his wife, Gloria, until they both retired in 2012, loves music, period. That’s why he’s played with the BSO for the past 60 years, even though he’s not a trained musician.
“I’m a drummer. They call me a percussionist, but I’m a drummer,” said Miller, 83, who shares the BSO percussion section with Cindy Bastide, Mark Fredericks and John Mehrmann, as well as timpanist Nancy Rowe. “The other players, they’re the percussionists.”
That’s also why he loves “The Nutcracker,” Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which the BSO and the Robinson Ballet will perform together for the 34th consecutive year this weekend at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. The triangle is featured prominently in the beloved holiday chestnut, as well as other less-heard percussion instruments like the tambourine, castanets, rattles, tam-tam and more.
For Miller, this weekend marks his 100th performance of “The Nutcracker” with the BSO and Robinson. He may have heard the familiar refrains countless times, but it’s never gotten old for him. He’s happily banged a bass drum, shaken a rattle and, yes, tinkled a triangle for every “Nutcracker” the ballet and the orchestra have ever performed, and has yet to lose an ounce of enthusiasm.
“I never get tired of seeing all the kids, both the dancers and in the audience,” said Miller. “Why would I retire? I still love doing it.”
One of those kids in the early days of Bangor-area “The Nutcracker” was Stevie Dunham, who is now Robinson Ballet’s artistic director. When Dunham was a young dancer, she watched ballet co-founder Maureen Robinson dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This weekend, Dunham will dance that part herself.
“I have very fond memories of watching from the wings as Maureen performed the role when I was young, and now that I’m dancing it, I’m still in love with it,” said Dunham. “As a director, there are so many small details to pay attention to between the choreography, the sets and costumes. I always have a list of elements that we can improve that’ll keep the production fresh and relevant for years to come.”
Miller’s memories go well beyond “The Nutcracker,” though he’s got many a story to tell about various performances. He remembers driving to Boston to pick up a huge bass drum for the BSO’s long-ago performance of Verdi’s Requiem. He recalls storing instruments at Miller Drug while they weren’t in use during various seasons. He’s got endless tales of famous former BSO conductors like Werner Torkanowsky and Peter Re.
He remembers a time when all the members of the BSO were local volunteers — a remarkable difference from today, as all members are now professional or semi-professional musicians. That’s what it was like when he took the stage for the very first time in 1957, at the BSO’s old home in the long-demolished Bangor City Hall auditorium on Columbia Street.
His instrument back then? The triangle.
“It was a bunch of old ladies in the audience. My family laughed at me,” said Miller. “But here I am, 60 years later.”
“The Nutcracker” will be performed by Robinson Ballet and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra at 12:30 and 5 p.m. Dec. 16 and 3 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono, conducted by Maestro Lucas Richman. Tickets start at $22 for adults and $12 for youth.
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