Nathaniel Stookey's "The Composer Is Dead," making its riotously successful
world premiere in Davies Hall this afternoon, is just as frightfully
droll as you'd expect its harrowing text to be, flowing, as it is, from
the dark pen of Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler, marinated in
tragic operas in his rather prehistoric childhood).
Britten's "Guide" may be more thorough, "Peter and the Wolf" wins in the
cuddly-cute department, "The Carnival of the Animals" is more melodic,
but "The Composer Is Dead" is the undeniable champion of dry humor in
the genre of explaining music to children... while creating benign
convulsions among musicians on the stage and the more age-handicapped
in the audience. Several - if not many - children were observed enjoying
The mood was set by the (live) composer as Stookey explained that "most
of us try to avoid the subject of death, but composers are different
because they know that with death comes higher record sales."
As to the musicians, the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Edwin
Outwater were having a belated Fourth of July party and fireworks,
concertmaster Nadya Tichman playing brilliant flourishes, regardless
of what composer and conductor had in mind at any one time.
Little wonder then that when Snicket made his entrance - in a conservative
suit, albeit with a floral lining, wearing a dour expression as well -
he eschewed the customary handshake with the concertmaster, greeting
instead Mark Volkert, in the second chair, effusively (if still dourly).
Tichman, one of the most pleasant people in the business, seemed to take
no offense, but who knows of the turmoil the snub might have created
As a few heavy, pretentious chords opened the work, Snicket outlined the
situation succinctly: "A composer is a man, who sits in a room, muttering
and humming. This is called composing. Then, this man was not muttering
and humming anymore. This is called decomposing." The composer is dead.
Who did it?
Enemies of composers, Snicket posited, lurk in every orchestra. And so,
impersonating the inspector ("just as handsome and intelligent as the
narrator"), he searched for the miscreant (or reprobates, in the plural)
among the strings, the brass, the woodwinds, the percussion section,
spewing vindictive remarks in the process. (Example: the brass "a violent
lot," forgetting about the violas, "as does everyone," suspecting the
foreigner *French* horns, etc.
Only after checking all parts of the orchestra did a likely solution
dawn on the inspector/narrator. Turning suddenly to Outwater, Snicket
exclaimed: "Of course! The conductor! You've been murdering composers
for years..." Outwater had some lame excuse, and the search continued,
but this report will contain no spoiler, especially as I am not sure
how the ending "we all kill composers, but they couldn't do without us"
addressed the specific question of responsibility.
The work itself runs 30 minutes, supposedly tailored to children's
attention span (if not of the ones in my vicinity), but the performance
takes place after intermission, another half hour at the beginning spent
with Stookey and Outwater introducing "funeral and sad" music from
Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Berlioz, works borrowed
from by Stookey in the Marche Funebre of the "The Composer Is Dead." The
concert opened with a rousing (and loud) performance of the Prelude to
Act 3 of "Lohengrin," quite without any connection to the rest of the
After the entertaining 30-minute documentation of the 20-second Marche,
one would have wished for more explanation for all the other borrowed
material making up Stookey's work. Also, when it comes to the purpose
of the work, it's questionable if most children will appreciate the
in-jokes and hangdog humor of it all. At any rate, the kids were
completely caught up in the ovation that followed the performance,
clapping and shouting their approval of whatever it was that had
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