Firelands Symphony Orchestra director strives to connect with audience, orchestra members

Carl Topilow, musical director and conductor of Firelands Symphony Orchestra, has been with the ensemble since 2008, not long after he read an advertisement for a conductor from his home in the greater Cleveland area. 

“It’s within driving distance of Cleveland, and I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and see what would happen,” Topilow says. “I was one of four candidates.”

The hiring committee, it appears, made the correct choice. 

During his time as director, the collective has seen a dramatic improvement in quality, a significant rise in subscriptions and attendance, not to mention the appearance of world-class soloist guests at his request.

Firelands Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors President Nike Mendenhall said the board got lucky when hiring Topilow. It had previously interviewed Topilow, but thought he was too busy and they wouldn’t be able to afford him. They ended up posting the job again and Topilow reached out, as Mendenhall says, at the midnight hour. 

“They interviewed Carl and realized he was exactly what they wanted,” she says. “It was kind of a side gig for him as he was also teaching at the time. It just worked out and he’s been wonderful. Really helped us to what it is today.” 

His musical roots run deep, not only in Northwest Ohio and across the United States, but within his bloodline. 

Topilow’s wife, Shirley, is president and CEO of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra. Their daughter, Jenny, is a violinist with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Topilow’s other daughter, Emily, may not be in the music industry, but is impressive in her own right, working in marketing at the Cleveland Clinic after graduating with her master’s degree in communication from the University of Akron.

It's no coincidence Carl and Shirley were introduced via mutual musical ties. 

Carl Topilow is the conductor and musical director of Firelands Symphony Orchestra. (Photo/Kevin Lee)“I met my wife through a colleague of mine at the Cleveland Institute of Music,” Topilow says. 

When it came to raising their daughters, music obviously played a vital role.  

“My older daughter started violin at a very young age — loved it — and became a professional musician,” Topilow says. “My younger daughter enjoys playing as a hobby and performs with a local community orchestra.”

Topilow graduated with a degree in clarinet performance and a master’s degree in music education from Manhattan School of Music. He’s had conducting fellowships with the National Orchestral Association with Leon Barzin and the Aspen Music Festival under Jorge Mester. He began his professional career as Exxon Arts Endowment Conductor of the Denver Symphony Orchestra.

Before Topilow, the Firelands Symphony Orchestra had meager beginnings. In 1983, a group of musicians gathered to present a concert for friends at St. Mary’s Church in Sandusky. With support from the community, the group prospered. It was first known as The Fine Arts Chamber Orchestra until J. Santos Perez became music director and conductor in 1992 and the name was changed to The Firelands Symphony Orchestra.

When Toplilow came on board, he had one singular mission in mind. 

“To establish a standard of excellence for the orchestra and to program concerts which connect with the audience,” he says. “Create an atmosphere at rehearsals of teamwork and collaboration.”

 More than anything else, Topilow’s love of music revolves around connectivity. 

‘Connecting with the orchestra and audience to produce stimulating and exciting concerts,” he says.  

That’s also what drives him. 

“The challenge of programming concerts which are stimulating and engaging to the audience and the orchestra; a lot of thought goes into the process,” Topilow says. “With the outstanding support of the orchestra, board, staff, and the community, I’ve been able to present a special kind of concert experience for our audiences — user-friendly and entertaining which make them feel part of the experience.”

The stage is set for "A Serenade to Music." (Photo/Kevin Lee)In addition to his work with the Firelands Symphony Orchestra, Topilow is Founding Conductor of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra, is Music Advisor for the National Repertory Orchestra, a summer festival in Breckenridge, CO, and was named Faculty Emeritus at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has served as principal pops conductor of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra and the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra.

He has performed as guest conductor with 128 different orchestras in 37 states and 12 foreign countries. 

Outside of music, Topilow the performer likes to be entertained himself, indulging in numerous activities. 

“Family time, reading — historical fiction is my favorite genre— foreign languages, travel to Europe, golf, spectator sports of Cleveland teams,” he says. 

If he weren’t so heavily involved in music, Topilow says he would be a teacher. 

“I’d be a foreign language teacher,” he says. “Italian would be best, but as there’s not a lot of demand, Spanish.”

As is the case with most everyone in any field, the pandemic put things on hold for the orchestra. Soon, though, things will be back to a “new” normal. Mendenhall says the orchestra may not have survived COVID if it were not for Topilow. 

“I’m convinced we would not have survived COVID without the audience he helped to establish,” Mendenhall notes. 

During the lockdown, the orchestra created YouTube videos, outreach, and small ensembles of musicians that would play in parking lots or just outside the entrances to senior living facilities.

“We had multiple challenges, and we were fortunate; we did get some COVID money that helped keep staff employed and we continued to do education outreach,” Mendenhall says.  

One of those challenges was the collapse of part of the Sandusky State Theatre during a storm. The theater will soon be reopened. 
“I’m looking forward to our return to the renovated State Theatre, whose ambience and acoustics will allow the orchestra to shine as never before,” Topilow says. 

They will offer, “Innovative and exciting programs, outstanding performance from the orchestra and first-class guest soloists,” he says. 

If you’d like to learn more about Topilow and his love of music, The Orchestral Conductor’s Career Handbook, acclaimed by prominent conductors Leonard Slatkin, JoAnn Falletta, and Gerard Schwarz, and published by Rowman and Littlefield, is available through Topilow's website.