The voices sang in harmony, strangers and friends alike, rising in a cloud of sound. They ranged from baritone to second soprano, taking up an invitation to participate in an instant. The singer Caesar paused, allowing their voices to echo throughout the auditorium. When they had again fallen to a hush, he dipped back into history, and pulled out a standard from Nat King Cole.
This was the scene—and the sound—at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s “Unforgettable: The Music of Nat King Cole,” held at Hamden High School earlier this month. For over two hours, Caesar and NHSO musicians delighted the audience, bringing the music of Cole back to life.
It marked the symphony’s first pops concert of the 2022-2023 season. The NHSO’s next concert is “Awaken The Sleeper” on Oct. 23 at 3 p.m.. Tickets and more information are available here.
“Nat King Cole was an actor, a songwriter, a performer, and an activist,” said Chelsea Tipton II, principal pops conductor for the NHSO. “You have to be multidimensional if you want to make it as an artist. And I admire that about him. I think we share similar principles, of trying to make it in the arts.”
While it culminated in audience participation, the concert began quietly. Just a little past 3 p.m. the audience sat still, their eyes fixed on the performance unfolding on the auditorium’s stage. When Caesar walked on to applause, he had attendees spellbound, with a voice that was buttery and deep. Slowly, attendees began to join in, some bobbing their heads as others tapped their feet.
It didn’t stay quiet for long. During “I Remember You,” Caesar walked up the row snaking through two groups of audience members, singing as he went. A spotlight shone on him as he left the stage and entered the darkness of the theater. After he belted the last verse, he looked to the back of the theater, gestured in that direction and said, “My wife” with a theatrical flair.
During “Route 66,” only the rhythm section of the orchestra backed him, and he invited the audience to participate. They clapped their hands and bopped their heads to the familiar tune. Their sounds of clapping were in sync to the beat of the music. That sense of participation flowed over into “L-O-V-E,” as the singer crooned sweetly into the mic and keys danced behind him.
L is for the way you look at me! He sang. O is for the only one I see. V is ve-ry, ve-ry extra-or-di-nary! E is even more than an-y-one that you adore can!
For Tipton, there’s a kindred-spirit-ness with Nat King Cole that has always grabbed him. Born in Guthrie, Oklahoma and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, Tipton was surrounded by music from the time he was a young kid. Both of his parents were music educators: his mother with her master’s in music education in trumpet from Virginia State College, his father with his doctorate in music education from the same institution.
Initially, he studied clarinet at Eastman School of Music. But the conductors’ podium called to him.
“Once I went to college, things started to move from the clarinet to conducting," he said. "I had a number of mentors in that area, but my parents cultivated my love of music and instilled in me the importance of music education."
He often comes back to Cole when he thinks about what makes a great “classic” repertoire, he said. He doesn’t just admire the music, but the way Cole managed “to stitch together a career.”
“A lot of people think that a classic is something that’s old,” he said. “But really, a classic refers to quality. That’s why the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles—all of those artists’ music has sort of stood the test of time, because of the quality of the music. ”
This piece comes to the Arts Paper through an alumni continuation of the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI), a program of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. Read more about the program here or by checking out the"YAJI" tag. Makeda Murray is an alum of the 5th YAJI cohort and is a junior in New Haven, where she is homeschooled.