Audition season in full swing for conductor Carl Topilow |

Audition season in full swing for conductor Carl Topilow

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Conductor Carl Topilow is hitting the road at an unusually busy pace these days.

As founder and director of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra and director of the orchestral program at the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music, Topilow’s musical plate is already full.

But for the past 28 years, he has also served as the music director and conductor of the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, of which he is a founding director.

And to add more work to the conductor’s busy schedule ” it’s audition season.

“I’ve just heard 96 auditions in New York,” said Topilow, while en route to another afternoon of auditions. “And there would have been more, but for the snowstorm.”

The National Repertory Orchestra (NRO) performs an eight-week season annually in Breckenridge between late June and mid-August.

Auditions for the NRO are held in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Houston, Baltimore and Boulder.

Because of the numbers of high-quality instrumentalists in proportion to the few orchestral openings, the NRO has a policy of allowing most of its musicians to spend just one season playing with the orchestra. Only string players are allowed to return for one more season, provided they pass another audition.

Topilow said that the policy is a good one, since the demand for a spot in the orchestra is so high.

“We’ll have 60 or 70 French horn players audition for five positions,” he said.

This season, 700 musicians are scheduled to audition for the 86-member NRO. And this Friday morning, around 25 instrumentalists will audition for Topilow as he

conducts another round of auditions in Boulder.

Topilow comes to Colorado this week not only to conduct auditions, but also to conduct the popular Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time.

This weekend’s concert, “When Swing Was King,” features everything from New Orleans jazz to swing music from the big band era. In addition to the talents of vocalist Susan Hesse, the concert will also showcase conductor Topilow on the clarinet.

Topilow has gained a reputation for his entertaining pops concerts, not only with the Cleveland Pops but also with other major orchestras throughout the country. And at a time when orchestra subscription sales are dwindling nationwide, many orchestras, including the Boulder Philharmonic, are taking a closer look at programming more pops concerts in order to bring in a more diverse audience.

But today’s conductors are finding that treading the fine line between bringing in a new crowd and keeping the classical loyalists happy can be tricky. For Topilow, the secret is all in the programming.

“Programming the right pieces

is the most important thing there is,” said Topilow. “With pops programs you need a lot of variety and audience participation, as well as the right music presented in the

right order.”

And quality ” not only of performance but also of presentation ” can create a big boost, not only in ticket sales, but in an orchestra’s reputation and following. Topilow feels that this attention to quality is just as important for a pops orchestra as it is for a classical-repertory orchestra such as the NRO.

“When symphonic pops are presented well, it’s really like American classical music,” he said. “The film music and the pieces that we do are lighter, but they’re still an important part of the American culture.

“Swing, jazz, light classical ” it’s all significant music,” he continued. “The important thing is that it has to be done well and strike a chord with the listeners so they can hear it done in a way that they can identify with. It may be music from their own instrumental backgrounds, or music from their childhood; everyone has their own way of being touched by it.”

Because of this, Topilow’s concerts feature listener-friendly devices such as program guides to the orchestra and its repertoire, and conversational chats onstage about the music in between pieces. Typical of Topilow’s pops concerts is his “Salute to the Oscars” program, where he not only conducts the orchestra in movie themes ranging from classics like “The Wizard of Oz” to “Harry Potter,” but also emcees movie trivia contests from the podium.

“I’m interested in the audience becoming active rather than passive listeners,” Topilow said. “With more understanding, all of a sudden the music comes alive.”

Carl Topilow will conduct the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra in “When Swing Was King,” featuring vocal soloist Susan Hesse, today at 7:30 p.m. The concert will feature the music of Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey and others of the Big Band era.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m. Carl Topilow will conduct the Boulder Youth Symphony in a family concert, “And All That Jazz,” featuring Puff the Magic Dragon.

Both performances will be at Macky Auditorium, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. For ticket information, please call (303) 449-1343, ext. 2, or go online at

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