SFGMC's must-hear premiere
by Jason Victor Serinus
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus is about to premiere a project equally audacious and vital. In Luster, its forthcoming spring concert in Davies Symphony Hall, it will augment classics of the 20th-century American Songbook – the great popular tunes of Gershwin, Porter, Ellington, and Berlin, here sung by Ann Hampton Callaway and a chorus of 300 – with the premiere of Tyler's Suite. A multi-movement work curated by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show ) in collaboration with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Tyler's Suite tells the story of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge three days after two cyberbullies hijacked his computer to film and post video of him kissing another man.
Overseen by SFGMC Artistic Director Timothy Seelig, Tyler's Suite consists of eight movements. Set to lyrics by Pamela Stewart, the sections by John Bucchino, Ann Hampton Callaway, Craig Carnelia, John Corigliano, Nolan Gasser, Jake Heggie, Lance Horne, and Schwartz will ideally add eight new songs to the American Songbook of the 21st century.
This is Schwartz's second collaboration with the gay men's chorus. The first, Testimony [www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XZRNL9ZnyM or www.sfgmc.org/single/testimony-download-ipoditunes/], based on interviews that gay men around the country gave to the It Gets Better project, premiered in March 2012, and has since received multiple performances around the country.
"It was such a good experience that Tim Seelig and I have stayed in touch," Schwartz told the Bay Area Reporter. "About a year ago, we got together for breakfast in NYC, and spoke about putting together a piece about Tyler Clementi, in cooperation with the Tyler Clementi Foundation. We thought it might be a good idea to do a suite where different songwriters and composers contributed individual sections. I made some suggestions about possible composers whose work I admire and whom I happen to know, and said I would be happy to get in touch with them. Pretty much everyone enthusiastically signed on. Then, in the course of development, the decision was made to expand it a bit and add a couple of sections, one of which I volunteered to write."
Asked what he had done to ensure the suite flows from one different compositional style and key to the other, Schwartz declared, "Absolutely nothing. That was part of the fun. I have no idea how it will all fit together, and I'm looking very forward to finding out for myself. All I did was write my piece and send it out. Besides sharing my section with my close friend John Bucchino, and hearing his, I have no idea what the other writers have done. There really were no instructions or limits. I simply have to feel that all of us were conscious of the fact that we were contributing to a larger work, and kept each section relatively concise."
While that may sound like compositional anarchy, San Francisco-based contributor Jake Heggie, the world's third most performed contemporary American composer, remains sanguine about the adventure.
"Stephen chose the composers, but Tim has to make the piece work," he explained by phone. "For example, Tim got back to me and said, 'Given the pacing of the piece, is there any way we could make this section move more?' He was aware of the structure, and he knows how to work with the chorus and the different soloists we've asked for. I implicitly believe in and trust him. I think he is a brilliant, brilliant man and an excellent musician who has a sense of balance and what needs to go where to make it really flow and work."
Schwartz acknowledges that after Stewart gave him lyrics for his section, based on interviews with Clementi's brothers about their response to his death and what has transpired since, he departed a fair amount from the text. "I used some of what Pamela did as a starting point," he says. "I went back and forth with her, and made sure that she was happy with what I had done. I also took suggestions that she made, because we'll share lyric credit. Some of it is funny, because I think some of what the brothers said is funny, and some of it is emotional, but I don't think it's overly sentimental."
Heggie's section is called "The Narrow Bridge." "It's literally about when someone feels they can't make it to the other side of the bridge, just as Tyler did," he reports. "There is room for all of us on the bridge, and we can walk together to the other side." The section has extreme personal resonance for a gay man whose father committed suicide, and who also briefly considered taking his own life.
"I don't really talk about it much," he acknowledges. "I was 24, and deeply conflicted over my sexuality. It was friends that helped me not feel alone. That's another reason I wanted to be part of the project. Too many gay youth feel suicide is their only option. Luckily that is changing a lot. The whole It Gets Better campaign has made a huge difference. It's very important that people know they're not alone."
Will it work? Heggie stresses that Schwartz was very canny in choosing storytellers whose immense talents have led to successful careers. He is convinced that everyone is devoted to telling the story of Tyler Clementi, and to the purpose of the piece.
"It's about setting your ego aside and really working on the actual work itself," he says. "I think that unites us in a very special way."
While the proof is in the pudding, as they say, the recipe can always be changed. The list of composers, especially opera composers, who heavily revised their most memorable works after their premieres is as long as it is distinguished. After the premiere, there will be time for tweaking Tyler's Suite before it continues its journey around the country and, hopefully, the world. The stories must be told.
SFGMC premieres Tyler's Suite on Tues., March 25, and Wed., March 26, 8 p.m., in Davies Symphony Hall. For tickets, see www.sfgmc.org or call (415) 392-4400.