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Composer Stephen Schwartz talks 'Tyler’s Suite' and the fight against bullying in the USA

On Sunday, June 4, 2017, the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus at the world famous Lincoln Center in a special presentation of “Tyler’s Suite."
Photo credit:
Stephen Schwartz

On Sunday, June 4, 2017, the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus will join a host of choral groups from around the globe at the world famous Lincoln Center in a special presentation of “Tyler’s Suite” presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York.

The nine part choral suite, a passion project spearheaded by composer Stephen Schwartz and famed choral director Dr. Timothy Seelig, was written in memory of Tyler Clementi, a young gay musician who took his own life in response to the brutal, homophobic bullying he was experiencing.

SDGLN recently spoke with Schwartz about how this special work developed and the talented composers that came together to remember this special young man.

It all started when Schwartz became aware of the “It Gets Better” project started by Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller in response to a rash of young people killing themselves in response to bullying.

The composer, famous for legendary Broadway shows like Wicked and Pippin, was deeply moved, and in response, composed a choral piece titled “Testimony” based on interviews for the project.

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus debuted “Testimony” to a rapt audience and around a year later, SFGMC’s artistic director, Dr. Timothy Seelig, who was working with the Clementi family on a piece in memory of Tyler.

“As Tim and I discussed it,” Schwartz explains, “the idea of a suite with contributions from multiple composers arose.  As the suite began to come together, I found myself kind of the ‘curator’, as well as contributing one of the individual pieces myself.”

In life, Tyler was a promising violinist and it seemed only right when Schwartz and Seelig approached the great violin composer, John Corigliano, to compose what would eventually become the opening sequence of “Tyler’s Suite” and over time, threads of solo violin were added to each of the individual song in the suite, adding a feeling of Tyler’s presence throughout the work.

Each of the individual composers took on the part of the suite that meant the most to them.

The individual songs offer glimpses into Tyler’s life that presented a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. 

“The Unicycle Song”, for example, is a light hearted, whimsical portrait of Tyler playing the violin as he rode a unicycle, something the young man prided himself at accomplishing.  In contrast, “I Love You More”, written from the point of view of Tyler’s mother is beautiful and haunting in its portrayal of the magnitude of her love for her son.  Schwartz and Seelig spent many hours of rehearsal and performance refining the structure and order to tell Tyler’s story.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been, for want of a better word the curator for a piece,” Schwartz says.  “There was a kind of excitement as the individual songs came in, and a lovely feeling of collaboration as the suite began to take shape as a whole.”

Throughout the process, the composer has repeatedly found inspiration in Tyler’s family and their commitment to anti-bullying campaigns and the fight against homophobia when it would have been all too easy for them to retreat into their own grief.

And, he notes, he has seen firsthand the positive reaction of audiences to the family’s story.

“It’s especially gratifying that, in addition to most audience members being very moved by the Suite, it seems to inspire a kind of activism for many to find a way to join these efforts of the Clementi family.”

As the date approaches for the upcoming performance at Lincoln Center, Schwartz is excited at the prospect of hearing the suite performed by such a large and varied chorus of voices.  It is his continued hope that “Tyler’s Suite” will inspire hope and change to its listeners.

“I can only hope that the ‘It Gets Better’ message is getting to as many young people as possible,” he says, “and that those concerned parents and others not swept along by the tide of hate and ignorance that seems to have inundated our country will re-double their efforts to combat bullying, homophobia, and intolerance of any kind.  It’s not an easy fight, particularly in these discouraging times, but we really have no choice to persevere.”

“Tyler’s Suite” will see its Lincoln Center debut on Sunday, June 4, 2017 at 2 pm.  You can visit the Distinguished Concert International New York website HERE for further details.