National Repertory Orchestra hires new music director |

National Repertory Orchestra hires new music director

Michael Stern is the third music director in the organization’s 61-year history

After 42 years as the conductor of the National Repertory Orchestra, Carl Topilow has stepped down. He will continue to work with the orchestra as a music adviser.
Photo by Susan Bestul / National Repertory Orchestra

When you’ve been on the job for over 40 years, finding your replacement isn’t taken lightly.

Music Director Carl Topilow was hired in 1972 as an assistant conductor for the National Repertory Orchestra by its founder and original music director, Walter Charles. In 1978, he took on the role of music director and conductor. Then a few years ago, he let the orchestra’s leadership team know he was ready to move on to other musical endeavors, and the search for a new director began.

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, the orchestra announced it had hired acclaimed conductor Michael Stern, the culmination of a two-year search.

“We are all so excited about the future of this orchestra,” board President Michael Massey said.

The selection process started with a list of almost 40 candidates, all of whom CEO David DePeters said could bring something new to the role.

After the initial list of interested candidates was compiled, the orchestra’s leadership team started doing extensive research. Massey said the focus was around five main qualifications: a conductor who had a national presence in the orchestral world, could spend plenty of time in Breckenridge, would bring new musical ideas to the role, had a high level of musicianship and had an ability to educate and mentor musicians.

“That was certainly the most important thing,” said Massey, speaking to the orchestra’s mission to educate and mentor the next generation of musicians.

Since 1960, the Breckenridge-based orchestra has been helping cultivate the next generation of orchestral musicians with its annual summer music festival. In recent years, the orchestra has attracted as many as 900 applicants who hope to spend eight weeks training and performing in Summit County.

“The public-facing aspect of the (orchestra) are the concerts,” DePeters said. “We play about 21 concerts in eight weeks … but the underlying mission of the organization is all about education.”

After researching the initial candidates, the list was narrowed to 10 before four finalists were identified. From there, the original plan was to invite each candidate to participate in the orchestra’s 2020 season for additional evaluation, but “that didn’t work out” amid the pandemic, Massey said.

Instead, each of the final candidates was invited to conduct a virtual seminar on a topic of their choice and they were able to interact with the orchestra’s fellows through the online meetings.

“We wanted to see as much as we could virtually, because we couldn’t have people here in Summit County,” DePeters said.

From there, the search committee made a final recommendation to the orchestra’s executive committee, which was not an easy task.

“Those four finalists were all, in their own right, more than capable and able to fulfill the position,” DePeters said. “It just happened that Michael is such a standout in every category and in every way. … But if we only had one of them to choose, we would’ve chosen that person, and we would’ve been very happy.”

Stern’s hiring was unanimously approved by the orchestra’s executive board.

Michael Stern conducting in 2016. Stern has recently been hired as the music director for the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg / National Repertory Orchestra

The educational mission of the orchestra is something that really resonates with Stern, who said he has a “strong pedagogical streak.” He said his previous opportunities to work as a guest conductor with the National Repertory Orchestra were special experiences for him.

“This is really a chance to work with young musicians of the highest level who are very focused,” Stern said. “They’re also very open, and that combination is very irresistible. You feel like you have a chance really to give the best of yourself and make it worthwhile for them. … Maybe they will be able to take this experience and turn it into something that will benefit them for the future, and that really is what we should be focused on always if we’re talking about the next generation.”

For the orchestra, the future of music is a huge part of its mission. It’s part of what brought DePeters to the orchestra after working as an orchestral musician for 35 years.

“For a musician, the performance is so much of your focus, but your No. 1 focus, I believe, is to be a mentor to the next generation,” DePeters said. “That is every single person’s job, is to make sure that the people who come after you are better suited and are better at what you did and to make sure that they are growing in a way that’s going to allow what you did to blossom.”

Beyond mentoring the rising generation of musicians, Stern also sees a need for the arts to broaden their reach beyond “a very narrow constituency.”

“I don’t believe in outreach; I believe in engagement,” Stern said. “Outreach implies that you are, in a one-way street direction, giving something — reaching out as opposed to inviting in. Engagement is actually making something matter, and that is the role of the arts.”

Stern sees a greater desire in young musicians to make a positive community impact, and that’s something Massey and DePeters hope to nurture as the orchestra works to train young musicians how to be, in Massey’s words, “citizen musicians.”

The National Repertory Orchestra has hired Michael Stern to be its third music director in the organization's 61-year history.
Photo by Jenny Cvek / National Repertory Orchestra

Outgoing Director Topilow has every confidence in Stern’s abilities and looks forward to seeing the changes he will bring to the orchestra.

“Michael is a brilliant conductor and innovative musician who I’m sure will continue to support our mission and bring new ideas and concepts to the orchestra and the organization,” Topilow wrote in an email.

During the next few years, Topilow has committed to provide his expertise, staying on in an advisory capacity, though he is also looking forward to expanding his role as the conductor of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra and the Firelands Symphony Orchestra based in Sandusky, Ohio.

Both Massey and DePeters are looking forward to continuing the orchestra’s outreach efforts and putting an emphasis on improving musical education opportunities in Summit County.

For his part, Stern isn’t looking to make any predictions for the orchestra in 2021, aside from “hoping we get through.” In the long term, he’s looking forward to continuing the organization’s tradition of excellence, opening new possibilities and starting a deeper conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts, which he said is long overdue.

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