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It's been four and a half years since the world mourned the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers College freshman who took his own life after being cyberbullied during his first few weeks at college.
This Saturday in Los Angeles, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles and all-male string quartet Well-Strung, in partnership with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, unite to pay tribute to Clementi with a one-night only performance of Tyler's Suite, an eight-movement choral piece that takes listeners on a journey through Clementi's brief life. Saturday's show marks the second stop in a six-city tour of the work, which debuted last year in San Francisco.
The project came together under the musical leadership of Broadway giant Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist behind the smash hits Wicked and Pippin. Schwartz selected the work's composers and had a hand in every step of its development. He also composed one of the movements. With its message of hope and dignity for LGBT youth, Tyler's Suite moves beyond the headlines-only perspective of Clementi's story to get to who he really was. Lyricist Pamela Stewart spent time with Clementi's family to get a fuller picture.
Clementi's mother, Jane, thinks Tyler's Suite captures her son's big personality beautifully. "What's good is there are so many different parts to the pieces and different parts bring up different emotions and memories for me, and that reminds me of Tyler because he was filled with lots of different sides to him," Jane says by telephone from her home in New Jersey. "He was so passionate about different things and so compassionate, very thoughtful, and yet he had a great sense of humor."
Jane and her oldest son, James, who is also gay, will be at Saturday's concert.
All those strings should sound familiar. Tyler Clementi was himself a trained violinist. "We had concerts at home every night as he practiced," Jane says. She recalls her son enjoyed playing pieces by Mendelssohn, Bruch, Bach, and Mozart. He also adored show tunes, she says, especially songs from Wicked, which makes composer Schwartz's involvement in Tyler's Suite especially poignant.
Several movements are written from the family's perspective, including "Just a Boy," which features a poem Tyler's father, Joseph, wrote shortly his son's death. Another movement, "I Love You More," tells the story of a game Clementi and his mother played when he was a young boy.
Was Tyler ever bullied as a child?
"To my knowledge and to my other son's knowledge, we were never aware of Tyler ever being bullied," she says. "Which makes me think maybe that's why he wasn't able to handle it at the time in his life, when he had so many other stressors. Being in a new place. Transitioning to college. Just coming out. So many other factors. And it just snowballed. It rolled out of control."
Is it bittersweet for Jane to witness the sweeping changes around marriage equality in the United States? The current atmosphere for LGBT people in the U.S. is so different than it was just five years ago. "Yes," she says after a pause. "I have met so many people that have dealt with loss over the past four and half years. One woman, whose son also died by suicide, had this thought that if it hadn't happened at that point, it would have been another point [in her son's life]. When I heard that I just cringed inside. My heart just broke. Because I knew that if Tyler didn't make that decision when he did, he would be here today. If he had just held on and reached out for help at that point, I know he would be here. That hurts greatly."
Jane acknowledges that the healing happens gradually. This Saturday's show, she says, won't be as hard as last year's San Francisco debut, which, she says, was very painful. "I was in a very different place. It's been a long journey. Even the last six months, it's been improving greatly," she says. "But [the show] was very touching. There are parts that have some whimsical pieces to it, and that was good to see."
Through her family's tireless work with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Jane says she meets too many people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Her hope is that Tyler's Suite will be another force to compel people to reach out to those in pain. "I hope that it will create a resolve in people and trigger the emotions that we need to help other people and make sure that other young people don't have to ever suffer again," she says. "We have to take that sadness and move it forward."
Jane believes there is no greater way to do that than through music. She says her own healing has involved a lot of Christian contemporary music. "Music speaks to my heart greatly," she says. There is no better way to change people's attitudes and mindsets than to speak to their heart and share stories."
The bottom line, says Jane, is that anyone can help, even if it's just by taking the Tyler Clementi Foundation's Upstander Pledge. "The backstory is we kept finding that there are lots and lots of witnesses that saw what was happening and chiming in on the web-camming and then Twittering about it and posting on Facebook," Jane says. "Tyler was seeing all those posts and going back to them. That really struck us. That was really hard for us to see. All these other people were being bystanders. Then we learned that it's true of nearly 85 percent of bullying situations. We just think that if you can change those bystanders and make them Upstanders -- somebody that will speak up to the situation, speak out to the person being targeted, and helping to create a safe space around them, it will make a big difference. In any situation. Not just in schools, but in the workplace, in faith communities, anywhere. Just making sure that people are safe."
It's very simple, Jane says. "Almost like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's something Tyler didn't receive, but we want to make sure everyone else receives it."
Tyler's Suite has upcoming performances in Chicago, Seattle, San Diego, Dallas, and New York. More details are available on the Tyler Clementi Foundation's website.