Chorus show celebratesTyler Clementi's life
by Matthew S. Bajko
One song is centered on riding a unicycle; another is derived from the rivalry of siblings. A third harkens back to nursery school rhymes and the innocence of youth.
"I wish I were a child again, when everything were simple," goes one snippet of the lyrics.
A fourth song is a mother's lament, asking if her deceased son realized he was "perfect in my eyes."
The hauntingly beautiful lyrics and music celebrate the life of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University student whose suicide in 2010 captured worldwide media attention. Distraught after his college roommate posted video of him kissing another man online, Clementi leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
His childhood and family memories have now inspired the eight songs that make up Tyler's Suite, a new commissioned work the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will premiere next week as part of its spring concert "Luster – An American Songbook."
Lyricist and librettist Pamela Stewart, who wrote the lyrics for the entire work, met with the Clementi family at their home in New Jersey over a year ago to draw inspiration for the songs.
"It was a real painful topic, but it has been a good process for myself," Jane Clementi, Tyler's mother, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent phone interview. "I want Tyler to be known by other people."
At first, she was reluctant to publicly share her memories of her son, especially when the story first broke.
"Initially, his story was just a media sensation. At that point, I kind of wanted to keep him to myself a little bit. He was mine," she recalled. "As time has moved on, I am a little more freer to let him go. I need his story to go out and for him to be known as the person he is, not just the media sensation."
The genesis for the chorale work was sparked through a friendship the Clementis had formed with Peter Drake, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus board. He suggested honoring Tyler and his passion for music – he was an accomplished violinist and played piano – by collaborating with the chorus on a new production.
"We agreed that was Tyler's passion. Music he held near and dear to him in his heart," said Jane Clementi. "Actually, at one point in time, I thought he would major in music maybe in college."
The family had never heard the gay men's chorus perform but felt comfortable entrusting it with Tyler's story.
"It just seemed like they would understand and present it in a respectful, dignified way," said Jane Clementi, who has yet to see the chorus perform Tyler's Suite.
Drake joined the chorus' board in 2011 and also sits on the board of the Tyler Clementi Foundation. Through his COIL Foundation, which stands for Coming Out Into Light, Drake donated $10,000 to the chorus for the new work and is covering the cost to buy 500 tickets for Bay Area youth to attend the production next week.
"I do believe in the power of music to change hearts and minds. I am hoping this will contribute in that way," said Drake, 57, who came out as gay four years ago and has a gay son and lesbian daughter with the woman he was married to for 28 years.
For the music, the chorus turned to a composer it had previously worked with, Stephen Schwartz, who had met the Clementi family through mutual friends. He in turn recruited other composers to assist with the songs, including John Bucchino, Craig Carnelia, John Corigliano, and Jake Heggie. [See story in arts section.]
The chorus purposefully decided to create a suite, or song cycle, linked by the same lyricist, said Timothy Seelig, the chorus' artistic director.
"It is a double entendre with Tyler's being in a suite at Rutgers," he explained.
The resulting work is "very intimate and very vulnerable," added Seelig.
The show features a single violinist, Kevin Rogers, accompanied by a piano performing the music for Tyler's Suite .
"He looks like Tyler; it is just frightening," said Seelig. "He is tall with strawberry blonde hair and about the same age Tyler would be."
Particularly striking are references to bridges throughout the production. An accompanying multi-media slideshow of Clementi family photos includes one of Jane Clementi and her three sons in front of the Golden Gate Bridge during a family vacation.
The second song in the show refers to "London Bridge is falling down," while the finale is titled "The Narrow Bridge."
"It comes from a speech Pam heard a rabbi give and says the world is a narrow bridge if we walk it alone. But if we walk it together, it is plenty wide," explained Seelig. "It is so beautiful and hopeful. The whole suite ends on this powerful image."
The Clementis formed the Tyler Clementi Foundation to combat anti-gay bullying and harassment in schools, workplaces, and faith-based environments. They see the chorale production as an extension of that work.
"It is not Tyler's complete story; it is just aspects of who he was and glimmers into parts of him with a strong message of hope. That is what we want to put out there,' said Jane Clementi. "We are making sure no one else feels and gets placed in the place Tyler was placed. We want to make sure it doesn't happen again."
It cost the chorus less than $25,000 to commission the piece. Six other choruses signed on as co-commissioning choruses and will perform it next spring in Chicago, New York, San Diego, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
"I just really want to offer up the fact that, ultimately, this is a piece about hope and getting others help and to a place where they are comfortable," said Jane Clementi. "It is not a piece to bring people down."
A video of the chorus and singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway rehearsing the song "I Love You More," which she composed for Tyler's Suite and will perform during the concerts, can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/pc7zzft.
Sunday, March 23 Jane Clementi and Timothy Seelig will be talking with the Very Reverend Dr. Jane Shaw at Grace Cathedral Church, 1100 California Street, San Francisco. The free event takes place from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.
The chorus will perform its new show "Luster – An American Songbook" at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 25 and Wednesday, March 26 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and can be purchased online at http://tinyurl.com/qho2peg.
A fundraiser for the Tyler Clementi Foundation featuring a sneak peak performance of the show will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, March 24. There is a suggested donation of $125; to RSVP email Michael Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org.