In today’s workplace, it is rare to find a married couple who successfully start a business together, raise children and remain no worse for the wear. But that fits Shirley Morgenstern and Carl Topilow, who founded the Cleveland Pops Orchestra in 1996.
Back in the 1990s, Maestro and Music Director Topilow wanted a new pops orchestra dedicated to lighter fare “pop” music — light classics, Broadway music, jazz and some rock.
“Carl said, Cleveland is missing a pops orchestra — so we did it,” jokes Morgenstern. Over the years, the parents of two daughters — and now two grandchildren — made it all work.
Today, the 65-piece orchestra performs five subscription concerts a year at Severance Hall, an annual holiday matinee show at Playhouse Square and a New Year’s Eve concert, also at Severance Hall.
“We have gained a following over the years, and we have such a great family of musicians here,” says Topilow.
Morgenstern credits much of their success to Topilow and the way he makes the shows fun to listen to and watch, whether he is holding his conductor’s baton or his trademark colorful clarinet, on which he performs a solo at almost every show.
“That and our wonderful core of musicians who give a lot of themselves,” she adds, saying the unique mix helps them deliver lively and engaging shows.
She refers to Topilow’s dry New York humor — or “Catskills humor,” as he calls it — to engage with audiences.
It is not unusual for him to turn to the audience and say, “I just want to make sure you are listening.”
The Pops’ upcoming annual tribute to the Armed Forces, “An American Salute,” will kick off Memorial Day weekend on May 25 at Severance Hall. The orchestra will perform military-inspired music along with the Cleveland Pops Chorus and the U.S. Army Field Band. Check clevelandpops.com for more summer shows. Most are free and open to the public.
Last December, Cleveland Pops Chorus performed with beloved Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We have built a good reputation, and we were very proud to have been selected to back the Andre Bocelli show,” Morgenstern says.
They were part of a nationally televised “Smuckers on Ice” show and performed with the singer Jewel at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights. The Pops also arranged and recorded the theme song Cleveland Rocks for former Clevelander Drew Carey’s television comedy, The Drew Carey Show.
Additionally, Morgenstern works with younger audiences through Actual Music, a K-3 program she created. The six-week program teaches a basic music lesson, vocal instruction and movement. The Cleveland Pops team works alongside the teachers and presents each school with a curriculum, workbook and mini-keyboards.
Now she is working on a video for the schools and is collaborating with Ideastream to develop a distance-learning program with Bedford City Schools. She hopes to extend the curriculum soon to include fourth grade.
“It has been proven the difference music and all arts make for children,” she says. “We wanted to offer something that continued after the six-week program.”
The Pops completed a strategic plan and a study for the next five years. “Ninety-eight percent of our patrons reported that their concert experience exceeded the value of the ticket,” says Morgenstern.
The Pops is funded by ticket sales. She says 68 percent of ticket sales for each show are purchased by season subscribers. In addition, the orchestra relies on corporate sponsors, foundations and individual donations.
Cleveland Pops will hold its annual fundraiser Aug. 17 at the Intercontinental Hotel. The event will honor Brendon Ring, owner of Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, who is a music enthusiast known for bringing jazz shows into Cleveland.