The Composer Is Dead is more than just the title of the Cleveland Orchestra's family concert this weekend. It's also the starting point.
"Wherever there's a conductor, you're sure to find a dead composer," says the show's narrator, stating a basic truth about most classical music. "Beethoven — dead! Bach — dead! Brahms — dead! Mozart — dead!"
The words are the haughty and macabre work of Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Daniel Handler, who's written several bestselling children's books, including the popular A Series of Unfortunate Events collection. The music is by composer Nathaniel Stookey, who — despite what Snicket says — is not dead.
"I knew Daniel personally, but I didn't know there was a Lemony Snicket," says the San Francisco-based Stookey. "We were high-school friends for one year, then [lost] touch for 20 years. When I was working with the San Francisco Symphony, I ran into him on a street corner. We exchanged some chitchat, swapped numbers, and he caught the streetcar."
The next day, Stookey received a phone call from conductor Edwin Atwater, asking if he'd seen the paper. Stookey was mentioned in an article about Handler. Atwater asked Stookey if he could get his famous author pal to narrate the orchestra's upcoming performance of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Handler accepted the gig, adding "more death, mayhem, and misery" says Stookey.
This got the old friends thinking about collaborating on another piece, but this one would be original and would introduce kids to the different sections of the orchestra.
Handler, who's also a musician, came up with The Composer Is Dead's title and concept, but the pair worked out the rest of the program together. The story — wrapped in a murder mystery about a deceased composer — jokes around with musician stereotypes: The concert master was too busy showing off to have murdered him, the violins were too busy dancing, the flutes were too busy imitating birds — and besides, they're too wimpy to kill someone.
Handler, as Snicket, narrated the original piece. But Stookey will narrate this weekend's performance with the Cleveland Orchestra, which James Feddeck conducts.
Playing Cleveland is a homecoming of sorts for Stookey, who, at 17, was the youngest composer ever commissioned to write for the San Francisco Symphony's New and Unusual Music Series. In 1989, when he was 19, he studied composition with Donald Erb at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He lived in the Murray Hill neighborhood, working as a waiter at La Dolce Vita. Stookey says he wasn't cut out for conservatory life, so he left Cleveland and eventually graduated from the University of California at Berkeley.
The Composer is Dead is aimed at kids, but Stookey realizes it's not just little ones who can use an introduction to classical music these days. "We were thinking of our generation, as much as our kids' generation," he says. "Even our parents' generation is barely conversant with orchestral music." His two children play and study music. "I don't necessarily expect them to be musicians," he says. "But I expected them to learn it ... like long division."
Still, Stookey thinks it's easier to introduce kids to orchestral music today than it was back in the day. "Classical music was old, and synthesizers and electric guitars were the new thing," he says. "But now those instruments are old too. It's all old. In a way, that's liberating."