Seattle Men’s Chorus to show its serious, emotional side

The Seattle Men’s Chorus — the world’s largest gay chorus — is known for its sense of humor almost as much as for its musicianship.

Recent example: The group’s holiday show was called “Our Gay Apparel.”

Saturday night in Olympia, though, the chorus has something serious to share: works in memory of Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after being cyberbullied, and Harvey Milk, an icon of the LGBTQ civil rights movement.

Both men died tragically — Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, was assassinated — and the concert will take audiences through a wide range of emotions.

“The first half of the concert is about Tyler, and it’s very deeply moving,” said Dennis Coleman, the chorus’s artistic director. “The second half is about Harvey Milk. It’s more uplifting and ends very powerfully. The audience leaps to its feet.

“When you leave this concert, you are going to be 3 feet in the air and happy and proud and moved.”

Audiences who responded to a post-concert survey loved the performances last month in Seattle.

“This concert rated among the highest of anything we’ve ever done,” he said, with responses including “the best concert I’ve ever seen you do” and “moved me to tears.”

Clementi was a freshman at Rutgers University when he killed himself in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him, invited others to do the same and posted about him on social media. He was also a talented violinist, and “Tyler’s Suite” includes pieces celebrating his life and his relationships with his family.

Academy Award-winner Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Wicked” and “Pippin,” led a group of eight composers to create the suite, which debuted last year in San Francisco. The Clementi Foundation, started by Clementi’s family to combat online bullying, commissioned the suite along with the Seattle Men’s Chorus and other gay choruses. Jane Clementi, Tyler’s mother, is attending many of the performances.

“Music speaks to my heart greatly,” Jane Clementi told The Advocate in January, when the piece was performed in Los Angeles. “There is no better way to change people’s attitudes and mindsets than to speak to their heart and share stories.”

“I Am Harvey Milk,” by respected Broadway composer Andrew Lippa, was also commissioned by a group of gay men’s choruses.

“I went to see the premiere and it was fantastic,” Coleman said.

In addition to the talent involved in composing the works, he said, this concert stands out because it includes an orchestra, made up of musicians from the Lake Union Civic Orchestra.

“There are 22 players, which is a lot for us,” he said. “We typically use five to eight.”

While he promises audiences will be uplifted, Coleman said the singers found the Clementi piece challenging.

“This concert was hard for the guys to sing because it brings up all these emotions and memories of being bullied when they were kids because they were gay,” he said. “Probably about 20 had to drop out. They couldn’t deal with it because it was too painful.”

“I Am Harvey Milk” presented challenges, too, he said.

“There’s a song called ‘Sticks and Stones’ in which we repeatedly sing offensive names,” he said — including racial and ethnic slurs as well as offensive terms for gay men. “Everybody gets hit. … When we sing those, it’s very powerful because we’re taking them back. The audience understands that it’s just one pejorative term among many. It’s extremely moving.”