Interview with Conductor Carl Topilow

Music Director & Conductor of Cleveland POPS, National Repertory Orchestra, & the Firelands Symphony and Faculty Emeritus at the Cleveland Institute of Music

It’s rare to meet an orchestral musician in the US who hasn’t worked with Carl Topilow thanks to his long tenures at CIM and the popular National Repertory Orchestra (NRO) summer festival, not to mention the professional orchestras he conducts regularly in the Cleveland Area or has worked with as a guest. His wide range of roles provides him with a unique view of the current state of classical music. This week he shared with us how he has been spending his time since the pandemic started and what his various ensembles have been doing to continue reaching their audiences and serving their musicians. 

Before this past March, Carl’s various duties kept him busy and on the move:

The main activities of pre-pandemic life consisted of studying scores, marking parts, the myriad administrative and organizational duties involved with my orchestras and guest conducting appearances, practicing the clarinet, and conducting rehearsals and concerts.

Since performances began being cancelled due to COVID, he has stayed dedicated to his ensembles, but in different ways:

I’m working in various ways with the Cleveland Pops, the National Repertory Orchestra and the Firelands Symphony to assist in fundraising activities and keeping our orchestras in the public eye…We are planning a virtual gala for the Cleveland Pops with live music played by the Cleveland Pops Jazz Ensemble in my backyard. 

He is also finding time for more personal work:

 I’m writing a book for the emerging young conductor and playing the piano and clarinet daily.  

Like most summer festivals, NRO was forced to cancel their 2020 season, but they have continued to hold educational activities and connect with their community.

The NRO has been hosting a series of master classes with prominent musicians, most of whom are NRO alumni.  A quartet of alumni have been performing live programs throughout Summit County, and a virtual fundraiser was held on August 8, for which I’m the honoree.

Heads up for percussionists – on August 26 & 27, NRO is hosting a two-part masterclass with Christopher Lamb, an NRO Alumnus and Principal Percussionist for the NY Philharmonic. Register for free here!

Carl also gave a master class on auditioning and will be reviewing auditions for 4 members of the orchestra, which may be viewed by all. 

The Cleveland Pops Orchestra has put their Severance Hall series on pause until 2021, but that does not mean they have gone silent. 

I have been spending my time at the Cleveland Pops searching for ways to live stream music and will soon be presenting plans for our outdoor Pop Up concerts throughout the community.  I continued to work with The Cleveland Pops Youth Orchestra via Zoom and even taught recorder lessons to interested children and patrons.

We are planning to celebrate our 25th anniversary, starting a little later than planned, but with a fabulous season of Gershwin, Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein and a lot more.  

We are also dedicated to bringing music to children where instruction is not available.  Music and all the arts are so important not only in and of themselves, but also to teach young people respect for others, socialization, discipline, teamwork, and structure. I am dedicated to helping students of diversity by creating opportunities for them to improve their skills as instrumentalists. 

The Firelands Symphony has also postponed their schedule programming, but is getting creative within their community. 

We have moved our season intact from 2020-2021 to 2021-2022.  We have done some small ensemble programs: brass quintet, string quartet, flute quartet, and samba percussion group outside various nursing homes.  I’ll play a couple of tunes with the samba group next week.  We will be ready to assemble impromptu concerts as soon as it is safe to do so.  

Looking ahead, Carl shares:

We are hoping to get back to normal as soon as possible and look forward to that great day when we’re performing again. I am grateful and most appreciative to all the people with the Cleveland Pops, NRO, and Firelands Symphony who are working nonstop, rallying around our orchestras to assure that they will return.

This time has solidified his view that young musicians must work to diversify their skills:

I feel that all young musicians must continue to work hard, taking advantage of the extra time to find new repertoire and improve on their instrument. However, I have always felt even before the pandemic that every musician needs to have a plan B and perhaps even a Plan C should they be unable to survive as musicians, and unfortunately the situation is more tenuous during these uncertain times.  

Finally, he shares how he has been using his extra free time: 

I’m giving Spanish lessons to my 8-year-old granddaughter 3 days a week and playing golf.  

For more from Carl, please visit him at