Two Minutes With the (Living) Composer of “The Composer Is Dead”

Nathaniel Stookey (right) composed the music for The Composer is Dead, with text by Lemony Snicket. Illustrations Copyright © 2009 by Carson Ellis, used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

The California Symphony recently caught up with Bay Area composer Nathaniel Stookey, who composed the music for The Composer is Dead, with text by Lemony Snicket, which tops the bill in our A LEMONY SNICKET HOLIDAY program this month.

Originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony in 2009, The Composer is Dead is a narrated orchestral whodunit that critics have compared to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, as it introduces the sounds of the orchestra to audiences of all ages in a way that is witty, memorable and fun. Two performances by the California Symphony featuring Broadway star and Tony nominee Manoel Felciano as the Inspector and narrator, are scheduled at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, on December 23, at 4PM and 8PM.

We asked Nathaniel about the piece, and about how he celebrates the holidays…

CSO: How did The Composer is Dead come about?

Stookey: Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) and I went to high school together in San Francisco and both moved home about the same time. We reconnected by chance at a neighborhood café and thought it would be fun to write a new guide to the orchestra that, thanks to him, would be a lot funnier than what was on offer at the time!

CSO: The Composer is Dead is intended as an introduction piece for people learning about the orchestra. What pieces of music do you remember first piqued your interest in classical music and orchestras?

Stookey: According to my mom, I heard a violin on the radio and wanted to play it — but I have no idea what the piece was. I went on to play in lots of orchestras, which was what made me want to write music. I played both Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, so I got to know the competition from the inside.

CSO: Beyond the OOVE (the new electro-acoustic instrument you played in YTTE: Yield To Total Elation in our season opener), do you play any musical instruments? Which instruments do you wish you could play?

Stookey: When I’m not playing the OOVE, I’m a violinist. I also play the viola and, when called upon (for a piece of mine called Junkestra), the saw. I wish I were a better pianist and love the cello, but who doesn’t?

[Junkestra is available on Amazon and also featured at the Kennedy Center this spring.]

CSO: Do you have any special holiday traditions? Do these traditions include music?

Stookey: I’ve always associated the holidays with murder and mayhem, which is why this all seems like such a fantastic idea!

CSO: What is on your holiday wishlist?

Stookey: Well, given the title of this piece, I mostly just wish for health, safety, and a low PSA. I could also really use a warm jacket!

Hear extracts from the piece and watch a short interview with Stookey and Handler (a.k.a. famed children’s author Lemony Snicket) talking about The Composer is Dead, and how Handler considers piece “a gateway drug” that he hopes will “lead to a lifelong addition to classical music.”


Saturday, December 23 at 4:00PM and 8:00PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek

California Symphony’s Holiday Concerts: A LEMONY SNICKET HOLIDAY

Donato Cabrera, conductor California Symphony

Manoel Felciano, narrator


Anderson — A Christmas Festival

Tchaikovsky — Selections from The Nutcracker: Overture Miniature, March, Russian Dance, Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Reed Flutes, Waltz of the Flowers, Waltz of the Snowflakes

Strauss, Sr. — Radetzky March, Opus 228

Stookey — The Composer is Dead, text by Lemony Snicket; Manoel Felciano, narrator

Various — Audience Sing-Along: Deck the Hall, Silent Night, Jingle Bells

Anderson — Sleigh Ride


Tickets start at $42 and $20 for students, subject to change. Tickets are available at or by calling the Lesher Center at 925–943–7469.

** UPDATE: The matinee program is almost sold out. For better availability and better prices, choose the evening performance.**

This program is also part of our new Saturday Night Series, with tickets from $33 when you choose all three concerts in the series, including:

A LEMONY SNICKET HOLIDAY — Saturday, December 23 at 8pm

PASTORAL BEETHOVEN — Saturday, January 20 at 8pm

MOZART REQUIEM — Saturday, March 17 at 8pm

For details, visit our website.


The California Symphony, now in its fifth season under the leadership of Music Director Donato Cabrera, is a world-class, professional orchestra based in Walnut Creek, in the heart of the San Francisco East Bay since 1990. Our vibrant concert series is renowned for featuring classics alongside American repertoire and works by living composers. The Orchestra is comprised of musicians who have performed with the orchestras of the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet, and others, and many of its musicians have been performing with the California Symphony for nearly all its existence.

Outside of the concert hall, the symphony actively supports music education for social change through its El Sistema-inspired, “Sound Minds” program at Downer Elementary School in San Pablo, CA, which brings intensive music instruction and academic enrichment to Contra Costa County schoolchildren for free, in an area where 94% of students qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.

We also host the highly competitive Young American Composer-in-Residence program, which this year welcomes its first female composer, Katherine Balch.

California Symphony has launched the careers of some of today’s most-performed soloists and composers, including violinists Sarah Chang and Anne Akiko Meyers, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and composers such as Mason Bates, Christopher Theofanidis, and Kevin Puts. The Orchestra performs at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

For more information, please visit


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