If he could have started earlier, Carl Topilow would have begun piano lessons at an early age. The well-known conductor and musician, by this time already an accomplished clarinetist, began to practice the piano frantically and fiendishly.
“I pity my poor neighbors who lived in the apartment below us,” Topilow said.
Carl fueled his interest in music as a teen, when he attended the Indian Hill Arts Camp in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. The group attended performances at Tanglewood Music Center, Jacob’s Pillow, and more.
“For the first time, I was surrounded by young people with the same interests and aspirations as my own,” he said.
His trip to Italy with the North Carolina School of the Arts’ summer program inspired his love of language and opera, and led to his first conducting experiences with the Ruffino Opera. This is why he loves to travel to Italy, for business and pleasure, as he enjoys the people, music, history, and food, as well as studying and speaking Italian.
Though his work as a dance band saxophone player helped him pay for his college tuition, it laid the groundwork for who he is today – the founding conductor of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra and a pops guest conductor.
Most cherished accomplishment
Creating the Cleveland Pops Orchestra is his most cherished accomplishment. He has seen it grow from modest beginnings to performing for large and enthusiastic audiences at Severance Hall. He is also proud of his tenure at Firelands Symphony in Sandusky, Ohio, developing it into a well-respected regional orchestra.
What has been most rewarding is working with young musicians and conductors with the National Repertory Orchestra and at the Cleveland Institute of Music. One such musician happens to be his daughter Jenny, a violinist with the Charlotte Symphony. He said he is most proud when he observes the success of his students and encounters them whenever he appears as a guest conductor.
He said he is actually surprised to discover he really enjoys working with college-age musicians.
“I appreciate their enthusiasm and excitement for performing; they aren’t jaded and are often playing important repertoire for the first time,” he said. “I derive a lot of pleasure in making a positive impact in their careers and lives.”
He finds the rehearsal process to be vital in creating a positive atmosphere, and he loves seeing the improvement of the musicians not only during the process of concert preparation, but also in their individual growth. His advice for young musicians is to “study with outstanding teachers, participate in a variety of classes, including those focusing on business, and be impeccably prepared when opportunity presents itself.”
Value of arts and music education
He said the value of arts in daily life has been proven through countless studies, and boards of education need to understand the value of including music in their curriculum. Orchestra, band, and chorus are all ensembles that cultivate hard work, discipline, teamwork, respect, and cooperation, which are valuable lessons as a child goes through life.
“STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — needs to become STEAM — Science, Technology, Arts, Engineering, and Math,” Topilow asserted.
To fund education for the arts, Carl believes there needs to be communication with donors to show the value of the arts in communities and for them to get to know the leaders of the arts organizations, which allows for a more intimate and hands-on look to the groups that they are being asked to support.
Celebrating the audience
Outside of the classroom and within the larger audience, there needs to be a strong connection between the performers and the audience, so that the audience feels that they are a part of the experience. He said for example, inclusion of a couple of selections from film scores could supply a better-balanced program for audiences of all ages, or concise and well-delivered explanations, including musical examples, can inspire active listening for audiences.
These are the reasons why it is most important to Carl to be totally organized: working out well-balanced and engaging programs, engaging in detailed study, and leading comprehensive rehearsals.
“I am thankful for the opportunity to present great music, and am grateful for the support supplied by staff, board of directors, donors and musicians who have laid the foundation for a successful performance,” he said. “Our audiences, at no small expense (tickets, parking, dinner, babysitter) have chosen to spend an evening of their lives with me, and it is my job to deliver a top-notch product.”
At the end of the day, Carl understands what it’s like to sit in an orchestra and be proud to belong to an ensemble that works well together.
“Understanding the instruments of the orchestra is a really important aspect of conducting which I believe is overlooked, and comprehending the orchestra musicians’ needs is integral to success,” he said. “I want people to understand that connecting with the audience is vital to any performance.”
Not slowing down anytime soon
Carl’s latest projects include a constant search for innovative and interesting pops programs. He said the Cleveland Pops is starting a Cleveland Pops Youth Orchestra, and the concert series is expanding and is looking to touring nationally and abroad.
He also has written and continues to write conducting-related articles for his website about pieces that he has conducted often, giving practical suggestions for conductors. He just published a piece about Strauss’ Don Juan, which he has conducted many times. He has also begun to write a version for clarinet and orchestra of the Hungarian composer Rezso Kokai’s Four Hungarian Dances, which Carl calls “a terrific work for clarinet and piano.” He is happy to pass along his experiences to conductors, some of whom may be conducting these pieces for the first time.
In addition, he has also written several arrangements for orchestra and for brass ensemble, all of which have been performed. “I still get a big kick out of hearing my transcriptions played,” he chuckled.
Looking to the future, Carl wants to enthusiastically continue his career in guest conducting, performing, and teaching, as well as doing transcriptions for orchestra and writing educational articles.