Chelsea Tipton II isn’t your typical maestro.
“There aren’t many black conductors,” said the three-year conductor of the Symphony of Southeast Texas.
In a classical music industry dominated by Anglo-Saxon composers such as Mozart, Handel, and Bach, Tipton is breaking the mold and interpreting humankind’s most important musical masterpieces in a way everyone can appreciate.
“It’s hard to turn the music off,” he said. “There are historians who study the fabric of music and there are performers. I kind of fall in that (latter) category.”
As a young clarinetist whose parents were both music teachers, Tipton’s experience in North Carolina shaped who he’d become later in life.
Tipton made first chair in the ninth grade and immediately began his rise in a profession that takes pride in perfection. Tipton later attended the Eastman School of Music and received his Masters in conducting at Northern Illinois University.
But the hulking and energetic man of 48 said he never let the color of his skin get in the way of success in music.
“When I was in high school … we were about to do a concert and we were at the dress rehearsal. And I had a little solo that I was supposed to play with the band,” he said. “The band director at the dress rehearsal took the solo away from me.”
At first Tipton thought nothing of the last-minute change, but after telling his father of the director’s change, his father was incensed. The seasoned music teacher and father picked up the phone and called his son’s band director.
“I said, ‘No, you don’t need to do that.’ He called him up and said, ‘I don’t think you’re treating my son correctly. I think you’re a racist. I think this was racially motivated, and that’s not fair,’” Tipton said. “And I was very embarrassed because it wasn’t such a big deal to me.”
It seems the call worked. As the audience waited patiently for the performance to start, the band director changed his mind.
“At the concert that night a few hours later, we get to that piece and (the band director) leans over to me before we played that piece and says, ‘Let’s get Chelsea to play that piece by himself.’ The audience is in the hall. We were literally about to play the piece,” he said.
“Even to this day I’m not sure if it was racially motivated. But in my dad’s eyes, he felt he needed to stand up and say something on our behalf,” he said. “And that taught me a lesson that you need to stand up for what you believe is right. Life is complicated. You can’t fight every battle. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned you need to pick your battles.”
The performer-turned-maestro has since played on a much bigger stage. In the summer of 2011, Tipton was asked to tour with Sting, preparing orchestras for the concerts and performed with the legendary rocker.
“I went on tour with Sting for two and half months in Europe,” he said. “We worked with 19 different orchestras in 15 different countries for two and a half months. It was my first time conducting European orchestras, and 19 of them at that.”
While in Europe, Tipton said he learned to work with countless musicians from varying walks of life, bringing the best possible performance to his audience. Now that he’s here in Beaumont, Tipton is trying to bring Europe’s love of the classics to Southeast Texans, regardless of color or creed. But such an undertaking might prove to be challenging.
“The wonderful thing about music is it really is kind of a universal language. I mean, if you don’t like people from other countries, classical music is not the place to be. So I think there is an openness in orchestras. And what I’ve found in orchestras is they don’t care so much if you’re a woman, or if you’re Asian, or if you’re black. What they care about is if you waste their time. What they care about is if they sound better at the end of rehearsal than at the beginning of the rehearsal,” he said. “If you can help them to really excite an audience, that’s what they care about. And that you can bring the music alive. Now, at least in my fantasy world, my romantic fantasy world, I like to think that people see me based on just my ability. That’s a fantasy.”
Tipton said he’s proud to conduct the Symphony of Southeast Texas, now celebrating its 60th year of music. The last concert of the season will be April 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Julie Rogers Theatre, and Tipton said the show will be one to remember. The concert will continue Tipton’s vision of bringing people from all walks of life together to enjoy our most treasured classical music.
“I’m hoping that we together can make the most impact on this region,” he said. “It’s not just about Beaumont, but Orange, Nederland, Silsbee, Port Neches — all these areas, that they feel a sense of ownership about their orchestra.”
Tipton is hoping to sell the show out and asked children and adults alike to attend.
“Education is the key. And exposure is the key,” he said. “That’s why I keep saying if we can get people into the hall, I think they’ll have a surprising experience with the orchestra.”
Starting children in music at an early age is also important to Tipton. He said his own upbringing has taught him how kids can cultivate a love of music early on.
“First of all, play an instrument,” he said. “If you don’t like that instrument, change instruments. You don’t have to stick with that instrument. You don’t have to play something you hate. Go to concerts. Listen to all types of music — as many types of music as possible.”
If there were ever a more important issue for today’s children, it would be education in the arts, Tipton said.
“Music education is very important to me. And that’s simply because my parents were music teachers. I’m very grateful for the upbringing of my parents. Was it the highest level of music-making? No. But it was a lot of different experiences, and what it’s given me is I feel very comfortable walking into a predominantly black school or a white school, a rough school or an Ivy League school. My goal as a conductor has been I want to be comfortable working with any level group – elementary, high school, college, professional and every level in between – to make the deepest impact on society. Music is my vehicle and I can’t do anything else,” he said.