CARL TOPILOW ON POPS CONCERTS

As founding conductor of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra in 1996, my goal has always been to present programs of first-rate music which is not only appealing to audiences, but also to orchestra members.  Included in this goal to be sure that the orchestra was never pushed into the background.  Concerts which featured soloists always have several selections featuring the orchestra on its own, and when accompanying vocalists or vocal groups, the orchestra plays quality arrangements for which its sound is always present, never buried by guest instrumentalists or excessively loud vocalists.

Over the years, the biggest challenge is to program engaging and inspiring concerts which capture the imagination of the audience.  Thematic programs are, of course, an integral part of any season, and most of our concerts are created with this thought in mind.  Here is a list of the themed concerts that we have done:

HOLIDAYS OR SEASONAL PROGRAMS

  • Christmas

  • Salute to the Armed Forces (Veterans Day and Memorial Day weekends)

  • Salute to the Oscars (February)

  • Mother’s Day

  • Valentine’s Day

  • Halloween

  • Spring Fling

COMPOSERS

  • Rodgers and Hammerstein

  • Bernstein and Robbins

  • Sondheim and Webber

  • Leroy Anderson

  • Jerry Herman

  • Marvin Hamlisch

COUNTRIES

  • A Mediterranean Cruise – music of Spain, France, Italy and Greece

  • The Music of Ireland

  • The Music of Spain and Italy

  • Now That’s Italian

  • Oblivion – The Music of Argentina

OTHER THEMES

  • Music of Champions – A sports program

  • The Music of Disney

  • A Space Spectacular – A Salute to NASA

  • Comedy Tonight

  • 007 - Music of James Bond

With the possible exceptions of pianist Peter Nero, who performed for in 10th anniversary season and vocalist Jack Jones, who performed on our opening concert in 1996 and is best known to a previous generation, I would say that none of the guest artists with whom we have collaborated are household names.  There are several reasons for this policy:

  • Known guest artists are generally very expensive

  • They have been known to cancel, as their concerts often contain a 30 day before the performance cancellation period

  • Our desire to focus on the orchestra.

  • Creating an entertaining and consistent persona was an important factor for our product.  My clarinet playing, colorful tuxedos, and engaging personality are featured in our concerts.

GUEST ARTISTS - INSTRUMENTALISTS

  • Nestor Torres - flute

  • Peter Nero - piano

  • Time For Three – 2 violins and bass

  • Esteban - guitar

  • Byron Stripling – trumpet and vocals

  • Tony DeSare – piano and vocals

  • Janice Martin – violin, piano, vocalists, aerialist

VOCALISTS

  • Steve Lippia – Sinatra style

  • Erich Bergen

  • Melinda Doolittle

  • Jack Jones

GROUPS

  • Classical Mystery Tour

  • Cleveland Jazz Orchestra

  • Cirque de la Symphony

  • Texas Tenors

  • Motown

  • Mambo Kings

  • Two or three performers for each of our Broadway concerts

We have built a solid subscription base of more than 1200 from a capacity of 1921 who come to hear our brand of music and our orchestra, and we have developed a trust in that whomever we put on the stage is going to provide a fun and entertaining evening. 

One of the challenges of any concert is not to over-program.  With the exception of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, for which we have one 2-hour rehearsal, our schedule is for two rehearsals, the first of which is 2 ½ hours and off-site, and the second is 2 hours at Severance Hall.  My job is be make sure that all music can be rehearsed in the amount of time that we have, that the concert is 2 hours, or perhaps a little more, and contains the instrumentation that works for our orchestra.  My middle name is “no overtime”, and I am very careful that whatever is programmed can be done in the proscribed amount of time. 

In order to make this scenario work, all parts must be bowed, all cuts must be marked in advance, and any aspects of the program that need to be looked at beforehand are taken care of, such as meeting with the soloists, making sure that light cues are clear, entrances and exits of soloists, chorus, and at times the orchestra.  With concerts involving chorus, they must be thoroughly rehearsed, and the conductor needs to spend time with the chorus far enough in advance of the concert to be sure that no extra time is taken during rehearsal.  Once rehearsal starts, “the meter is running”, and every moment counts. 

In general, I avoid programs in which the concert has a rock theme.  However, Our Beatles concert worked out nicely, and I did enjoy doing Bravo Broadway’s “Broadway Rocks” program; indeed, many of our concerts have included rock songs, but we have not done tribute concerts, such as the music of Journey, Boyz to Men, Lead Zeppelin, etc.  These concerts have been successful with many orchestras, but we have not gone in that direction.  

I have enjoyed my work with the Cleveland Pops as well as my Pops guest conducting concerts, and look forward to continuing to present quality Pops programs.