Jane Clementi would rather not be in San Francisco.
She's here for the final rehearsal of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' new suite of songs about her son, Tyler, the bullied gay Rutgers student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge in 2010. Clementi loves what the city is doing for her son's story, but that won't make the highly emotional performance any easier on her. "We're expecting a difficult evening," she says.
Tyler's Suite, an eight-movement composition from some of the world's most prominent stage composers, is the brainchild of SFGMC board member Peter Drake. Drake met Jane Clementi and her husband Joe at a 2012 fundraiser for the Tyler Clementi Foundation. Many people have pitched ideas about Tyler's story in the past: books, documentaries, even a stage show. The foundation passed on them all. "It just never seemed like the right time," says Jane Clementi. But Drake's idea gained their approval because the foundation considered Drake a friend and because Tyler, a violinist, had always loved music. As Drake says, "Music heals."
"In the beginning it was just supposed to be one song about Tyler," says SFGMC conductor Tim Seelig. Seelig recruited composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), who had just finished 2013's Testimony for the Chorus, to use his star power to attract talent to the project. No one anticipated the result: With so many noted songwriters drawn by the story, one piece turned into eight by composers such as John Corigliano (The Red Violin) and Ann Hampton Callaway (Swing!). "I've commissioned a lot of music in my life, but this was just spectacular," says Seelig.
Few know much about Tyler Clementi except the story of his suicide. The Chorus wanted affirming music that would evoke Tyler's life rather than melancholy songs about his death. But working on Tyler's Suite proved trying anyway. "The most difficult thing has been handling everyone's emotions," says Seelig. "We're 300 gay men and almost all of us know someone who has committed suicide. A lot of the singers admitted contemplating suicide themselves in the past. This has taught us that we need to take better care of these issues."
Still, SFGMC stresses that the music is inspiring, not mournful. That was the trust the family put into them when it all started. "We hear about such sad situations," Jane Clementi says. "People like that need to feel like they're not alone, and that if they reach out for help they'll get it."