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A Musical Murder Mystery

New York
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium
03/07/2009 -  
Nathaniel Stookey: The Composer is Dead
Lemony Snicket (Story and Narration), Carson Ellis (Illustrations), Nathaniel Stookey (Composer and Host)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Rossen Milanov (Conductor)

(Drawing by Carson Ellis from Lemony Snickert’s book)

If Carnegie Hall's latest children's concert is anything to go by, the future of classical music looks very bright indeed. On Saturday afternoon, the large Stern Auditorium was packed with little people and their musically savvy parents. Before the concert began, there were the expected signs of high spirits, including one small child who managed to crawl onto the stage to have a better look. Once things got underway, however, the children were amazingly quiet, and they sat entranced by the music and the story presented onstage as a children's book was brought to life. They also giggled throughout the performance at the very funny monologue, delivered by author Daniel Handler a.k.a. Lemony Snickert.
Some of the humor went over the heads of the children, but their parents and the unaccompanied adults in the audience got the jokes and laughed with gusto.

The most important contribution of this work for the future of classical music was not the story, not the jokes, and not even the chance to hear what the instruments sound like. It was the chance to listen to excerpts of some of the masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire – works by Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and Berlioz. And that alone made The Composer is Dead an ingenious introduction to classical music, deserving to be in the company of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the baton of Rossen Milanov, played with passion and unfailing good humor. The instrumentalists seemed to enjoy the fun. Milanov was a particularly good sport, even after he became the focus of a murder investigation.

The Composer is Dead is a murder mystery with a musical twist. The victim is the composer, defined by the narrator (in language reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s characterization of a lexicographer) as "a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is going to play.” But last night, we were told, the composer was not composing; he was decomposing.

An inspector was called in to investigate. The suspects were the instruments of the orchestra, introduced to the children one by one as the narrator gave us their alibis. The violins maintained their innocence. “If we killed the composer,” they said, we would have to find work at square dances or in romantic restaurants.” The oboe professed his good moral character. “Everyone trusts me. After all, I tune up the entire orchestra by playing an A.” Suspicion fell on the foreigners in the orchestra – the French horns. But they couldn’t understand the inspector’s questions. The tuba and the harp backed up each other's alibis. The bachelor tuba and the landlady harp had played cards all night, sipping warm milk from little blue cups.

So who did it? In a delightful bit of irony for the adults in the audience, especially fans of contemporary music, the inspector accused the conductor who had, he said, been “murdering composers for years! In fact, wherever there’s a conductor, you’re sure to find a dead composer!” But the orchestra came to the conductor’s defense. All of the musicians, they said, had been “butchering composers for years….If you want to hear the work of the world’s greatest composers, you’re going to have to allow for a little murder here and there.”

The Composer is Dead is a collaborative enterprise of two childhood friends, composer Nathaniel Stookey and the stunningly successful author of children’s books, Daniel Handler (known by his many millions of fans as Lemony Snickert). Stookey, we were told by Handler, can’t wait to be dead so he can start to make a living. This clever work, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, premiered in 2006. It has since been performed by other major orchestras in the United States and, in Canada, by the Toronto Symphony. This performance coincided with the release of the book and an accompanying CD. Carson Ellis’ charming illustrations from the book were projected on a screen behind the orchestra. After the performance, composer and author set off for a seven city book tour that will conclude with two performances with the San Francisco Symphony. For those readers in San Francisco who do not have a child to bring along, borrow one and go and join the fun.

The site of the San Francisco Symphony

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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