Chelsea Tipton conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra of Gran Canaria in Las Palmas, Spain, with Sting (right) and members of Sting’s touring band, July 2011. Photo by Quique Curbelo

Sting’s Behind-the-Scenes Conductor

Rehearsing and conducting concerts is the central activity for an orchestra conductor, and one that doesn’t vary much, the world over. But Chelsea Tipton II, music director of the Symphony of Southeast Texas, has been spending his summer in an unusual role: rehearsing but rarely performing with a series of local orchestras during the Symphonicity tour of Europe by rock musician Sting.

Unlike Sting’s U.S. tour with orchestra in 2010—for which Sting and his band traveled with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra—this one features a local orchestra in each of the tour cities. And that means that in addition to Sarah Hicks (Minnesota Orchestra principal conductor of pops and presentations), who is conducting almost all the Symphonicity performances, the tour also needs a second conductor to prepare a different orchestra in each city. That’s where Chelsea Tipton comes in. Throughout the two-month tour to places like Romania, Austria, Poland, France, Russia, and Slovakia, Tipton has been traveling about two to three days ahead of Sting to lead three to four rehearsals. So, for instance, when Sting was performing live with the Dohnanyi Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary, Tipton was in Kiev, Ukraine, rehearsing the National Symphonic Orchestra of Ukraine for the next leg of the tour.

For three nights in July, Tipton finally got his moment in the spotlight, not only rehearsing but also leading three concerts in Spain. We caught up with Tipton from Kiev, where he chatted about his summer immersion in songs like “Roxanne” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” instead of Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, an experience he says has been fascinating and  a little surreal—both as a rehearsal conductor and “inside the bubble” with Sting.

Chelsea Tipton

Jennifer Melick: How did you first get involved with the Sting tour?
Chelsea Tipton: [Orchestra manager] Bill Reinert called me probably mid-March. He said that Sting is going to do this tour, and they’re looking to do it with all these different orchestras, and they need someone to rehearse the orchestras. The previous conductor, Steve Mercurio, was also on Bill’s roster, and Sarah Hicks is on Bill’s roster—that’s the connection. Sting and Sarah and I finally met in New York City in spring, at the Apollo Theater, where Sarah was leading a concert with Sting.

Melick: When was the first time you heard the show live?
Tipton: The same day at the Apollo Theater, where we met and I rehearsed the orchestra for three hours. Sarah took over from that point on. It was a really good connection—it’s been really easy working with Sarah over the course of the tour.

Melick: Since you’re never in the same place at the same time, how do you and Sarah communicate?
Tipton: We’re always two or three days ahead of the band. I do three or four rehearsals, depending on how much work the orchestra needs. At the end of my last rehearsal, I always write up a report of the orchestra, things that were good, things that were bad, things to look out for. We have three soloists we need from the orchestra, and I evaluate them, so they have some idea of what to expect. Throughout the course of the tour, Sting has asked for different things, different rhythms for certain pieces, certain types of instrumentation, and Sarah gets that info to me and I try to make those changes immediately. It’s certainly an experience where you have to be on your toes! There was one change where we had to have a group of instruments’ parts revised. We have a really good copyist—he made the changes almost as I was talking to him on the phone, then FedExed them to all the different orchestras. When I see the orchestras, I have to make sure they have the revised parts. We have our little routine: when I come into town, a half hour before rehearsal I look at the parts and make sure everything is in place. It is quite a logistical universe—so many moving parts that have to happen! This is the first time I’ve ever been involved with such a large event or large tour of this caliber. It’s huge. When you’re the conductor, you’re a central part of it, but here we’re one of the spokes in the wheel—an important spoke in the wheel, but still just a spoke.

Melick: The band and Sting are obviously miked; is the rest of the orchestra miked, too?
Tipton: Oh, everyone is miked. Every string player has his own individual microphone. The woodwinds and brass are heavily miked, but they don’t have them on their instruments. That’s really the only way you can balance things out so you can hear the different colors of the orchestra.

Melick: When working with classical symphony orchestras, how do you get them to adapt their playing for these orchestrations—is loosening them up part of the work you are doing?
Tipton: Yeah, I would say that. In rehearsal, one of the big things is getting across the proper style. In this type of music, it’s not about sustaining and being technically perfect; you want to let the notes die away. You need to know which notes you can kind of throw away, and not make every note so important, with such emphasis and such intensity. I chat with the orchestras about this, and once we laugh about it a little bit, within a few hours people usually loosen up.

Melick: You originally trained as a clarinetist. Has that training come in useful at any point during the tour?
Tipton: Not too much, but “Englishman in New York” has a huge, huge clarinet solo, so I can make suggestions to help with the execution of the solo. That’s one of the solos I use to evaluate whether the person [playing it] will come up front to play the solo, or stay by their seat. If they’re grooving and bopping, they’ll come up front and hang out with Sting.

 

Using a local orchestra “brings an immediate connection to the community, which sees, Hey, here’s our orchestra playing.”
—Chelsea Tipton

 

Melick: What are the most challenging aspects of being a rehearsal conductor on the Symphonicity tour?
Tipton: The style [discussed above] and language. Up to this point in my career, I have only worked with American orchestras, so everyone speaks English, and I can work efficiently. In Russia and several other countries, I had to use an interpreter. I have gotten better and better at rehearsing with an interpreter. And what I have found is to try to say less, and say what I have to say using the Italian terms that we have in music anyway. It is certainly helping right now in Kiev that the interpreter is the principal second violinist, so she not only knows how to interpret what I say but can also put it in total musical terms for the orchestra—in 15 seconds. Some interpreters would interpret everything that I said—if I sneezed they would interpret that in whatever language! That’s when I realized, I’ve got to say less.

Melick: You mentioned in your blog an incident in Bulgaria where you arrived at rehearsal, only to have the brass section get up and leave for 10 minutes.
Tipton: They were all talking in Bulgarian. The issue, I think, was mike use. No one was rude at all, but it was bizarre in the middle of a rehearsal. I’ve learned over the years as a guest conductor, Do Not Get Involved. Just let it happen and let the administration handle things. They came back, and they played wonderfully.

Melick: Will the routine in Spain be any different, when you are not only rehearsing but also performing in three concerts?
Tipton: I’ll do the same process for three to four rehearsals. The only difference is after the full rehearsal, I won’t be ending with my usual, “Great! Good luck on the concert!” That’s been so strange for me not to see the concert. There have been times during the tour where I really wish I could be there for the concert, because I could help them with certain things. But Sarah is a total pro, and I think all the concerts have been really fantastic to this point.

Melick: How does the whole media hoopla surrounding somebody with a profile like Sting affect you? When you come in ahead of the Sting and the band, are you insulated from that?
Tipton: We don’t really get the media hoopla. People treat us very nicely, because we are the Sting gig, of course. I did get an idea of the scene in Germany, where I got to see the show. I think I will get a sense of it in Spain, when I actually do the concerts. It’s this huge thing, with all these parts that have to work together, and so many people in the background, so this has been a great education for me. Oftentimes we see these great concerts, and we don’t realize how much goes into the process, the mechanics of how musical things are put together.

Melick: What are the most challenging songs on the tour?
Tipton: Without question, “Moon Over Bourbon Street” and “End of the Game.” “Moon Over Bourbon Street” because it has a lot of delicate textures, and the rhythm section doesn’t play with the group during that piece, so it’s all orchestral and Sting. If things aren’t in place, you really hear it. I have to spend a lot of time with the orchestra on details in that song. In “End of the Game,” the way the music is laid out is kind of awkward for the orchestra. It’s usually a mess the first time through. But then you kind of pull things apart, see how things line up, and bring the tempo up—I’ve definitely improved on preparing that song, as I have had to do it many times. That’s the one I spend the most time on.

Melick: In rehearsal, does somebody come in to sing the vocal lines ahead of Sting?
Tipton: No. No. No. But I’ll tell you, everywhere I go, when we do the third piece on the program in rehearsal, “Englishman in New York,” after we do the intro and get to the first chorus, every orchestra is humming it. I realized it doesn’t matter if it’s Tatarstan or Germany or Kiev, all people know this song. What’s been interesting for me is to see how broad an appeal Sting’s music has. Another difficult piece is “I Hung My Head,” which is in 9/8, and it takes awhile to get their heads around it. One interesting thing about this tour is that the music is very well-written for the orchestra. A lot of times when you have shows like this one featuring orchestra, the orchestra is playing whole notes, kind of in the background, and the musicians are bored. This music requires rehearsal in the orchestra parts. When I was hired to do the tour, and they said that I’d be doing four rehearsals per concert, I was like, “I’ll be doing four rehearsals? Really?” But four is usually what we need—the fastest you can do it is three, maybe three and a half rehearsals.

It’s not so much because of the difficulty of the music. The music is challenging, but it’s about learning so many songs. If we had half this much music, we could put it together in a rehearsal or a rehearsal and a half. I always tell the orchestra, this first rehearsal is about the mechanics, getting the music in place. The next day we work more on just beautifying the music—and getting them to play a little more edgy, that’s another thing that’s difficult. We work with some opera orchestras, with some orchestras that have a beautiful sound, and I say, “That’s much too beautiful! It needs to be more rock-like!”

Melick: For this tour, they made the decision to work with local orchestras—a major difference from the U.S. tour.
Tipton: I think that’s a wonderful thing. It brings an immediate connection to the community, which sees, “Hey, here’s our orchestra playing.” It’s great to use local bands and local orchestras and local people. It’s a business. Also, the way we do the tour here, it has more spontaneity. Because everyone has just learned the music, they have to be on their toes, and it’s a little bit more exciting, too.

Postscript: You can read Chelsea Tipton’s entertaining account of his tour experience in Spain—where he said he was “digging the orchestras”—at his blog.

Photos of Chelsea Tipton conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra of Gran Canaria in Las Palmas, Spain, with Sting and members of Sting’s touring band, by Quique Curbelo.

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