The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ends its season of family concerts this Sunday with Lemony Snicket’s “The Composer Is Dead,” based on a witty children’s picture book that introduces youngsters to the sections of the orchestra and provides hilarity for adults who know backstage politics.
The book comes with a CD of Mr. Snicket narrating the story, accompanied by an eclectic, clever score by San Francisco-based composer Nathaniel Stookey, a sort of update to Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” The ASO, conducted by Jere Flint, will perform the music and tell the story with actors from the Alliance Theatre and, intriguingly, with dancers from gloATL.
The composer, we learn at the start, is dead. The Inspector is called in the next morning to catch the murderer. He starts his questioning. “The Violins answered first, of course. The violin section is divided into First Violins, who have the trickier parts to play, and the Second Violins, who are more fun at parties.”
Ready to interrogate the woodwinds, he almost forgets the violas. “‘Everyone forgets about us,’ said the Violas, bitterly. ‘We play the notes in the chords that nobody cares about. We play crucial countermelodies nobody hears. We often have to stay late after performances and stack up all of the chairs. We spent last night feeling sorry for ourselves, as usual.’”
And so on, touching on the foibles and inside jokes that orchestral musicians make about themselves, until — spoiler alert — someone is heard rustling at the podium. “A strange noise caught the Inspector’s ear. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘The Conductor! You’ve been murdering composers for years! In fact, wherever there’s a conductor, you’re sure to find a dead composer!’
“Dead composers litter the musical world, and it’s all because of one man … and one little stick. Arrest him at once!” The orchestra sections come to their boss’ defense, leading to the story’s true purpose: to entice children to attend concerts. In the book, Carson Ellis’ drawings have that combination of earnestness and innocence seen in old-timey photographs.
In my house, the book has become a bedtime favorite. With actors and the dancers of gloATL — Atlanta’s most innovative and talked-about performance troupe — this kids’ show is among the most anticipated grown-up events of the month.