At the end of a paragraph-long greeting on his website, Chelsea Tipton II offers this succinct but highly expressive summation of the three-plus seasons he has spent as conductor and music director of the Symphony of Southeast Texas: "I am so digging the journey."
The remark might just as readily apply to the breadth of Tipton's career, which stretches from a seven-year association as resident conductor of the Toledo Symphony in Ohio to a European orchestral tour with pop impresario Sting to a lengthy list of guest- conducting performances that teams him Friday with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra for a program that bridges Europe with South America.
"It's a difficult profession, at best," Tipton said last week from Connecticut, where he was conducting a weekend's worth of concerts with the New Haven Symphony. "And it's a lonely profession. Even though you're surrounded by people, there are times I'm on the p odium when I would kind of wish somebody would come up to me and say, 'You know, Chelsea, you're really talking too much' or 'You're really conducting too big' ... you know, to give me some guidance. You're generating the guidance for all these people, so if you don't love it, if you don't appreciate it, this is really not a good business to be in.
"What I also try to retain as part of my spirit is that I am here to serve. I'm here to serve the music, serve the musicians and serve the community. It's not about me being over people. It's about me helping people. The thing that I hope people sense about me is that I care about what I do. Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I get it wrong. But I always care. I think that's got to be the central focus."
The focus of his work with the Symphony of Southeast Texas in Beaumont has turned into something of a mission, with Tipton spending considerable time off the podium taking music into schools and communities. It's an outreach shared by many orchestra leaders around the country, including Lexington Philharmonic conductor and music director Scott Terrell.
"The role of a music director — and Maestro Terrell is certainly of the same ilk that I am — is that we have to get out into the community and get to know the community," Tipton said. "That is absolutely paramount. When you look at it as a business model, you must know your customers. What do they appreciate? What do they need? You have to be there, both feet on the ground, to make those types of assessments.
"One of the best models that I try to emulate is Wynton Marsalis. I'm a big fan of his. I got to meet him when I was younger, and he has kind of mentored me on occasion. He is a big proponent of music education. When he goes on tour with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he makes a point of going out into the schools and meeting the young people. He may be tired and worn out from being on the road for weeks at a time, but that's still a priority, to reach out to the community.
"It's just not enough for us to say to patrons and potential audience members, 'You need to come out and see us.' We also need to reach out and see them. Then maybe they might be a little curious and come to see us in our musical home."
This weekend, a branch of that musical home opens in Central Kentucky with Tipton conducting a Terrell-designed program for the Philharmonic that matches Bach's Brandenburg Concerto, No. 6 and Handel's Royal Fireworks Music with Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 1 and Argentine Alberto Ginastera's comparatively contemporary Variaciones Concertantes.
"The Ginastera is just a blast to perform," Tipton said. "It's 11 movements long, and each movement features a different instrument or a different group of instruments. So it's kind of a little concerto for the orchestra and a bit of a musical showcase that's got this wonderful Latin American vibe to it."
A very different cultural and geographic challenge was presented to Tipton in 2011, when he spent the summer touring Europe as part of Sting's Symphoncity Tour, a series of concerts that had 19 orchestras from 15 countries interpreting the pop star's many decidedly non-classical hits. Tipton served largely as a rehearsal conductor but conducted several performances in Spain.
"I worked and rehearsed with all these orchestras from different countries and different languages that had no real understanding of how to play rock music," he said. "So one of the challenges was trying to get them to understand a style of music that required them to play with a certain heaviness they were not accustomed to. But the orchestras were all very enthusiastic.
"The other thing is in the orchestra world, whether it's in Europe or in the United States, we may have 1,000 people at a concert. If we have 1,500, that's a great night. So when you have 15,000 people at a concert with Sting ... I mean, we're just not used to being in that kind of setting. But what a great opportunity it was for us to showcase the orchestras in each region we performed in and put them in front of so many people."
IF YOU GO
What: Guest conductor Chelsea Tipton II directs the orchestra in Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 5; Alberto Ginastera's Variaciones Concertantes; Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6; and Handel's Royal Fireworks. The program will include guest soprano Adrienne Danrich.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 22
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $25-$60; available by calling (859) 233-4226 or at Lexphil.org.
Also: Kicked-Back Classics event "Orchestra Stars" will feature Tipton and members of the Philharmonic. 7 p.m. March 21. Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St. $15. (859) 233-4226.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.