Firelands Symphony looks to extend its appeal

SANDUSKY The Firelands Symphony isn't just searching for a new conductor. The Sandusky-based classical music ensemble
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010



The Firelands Symphony isn't just searching for a new conductor.

The Sandusky-based classical music ensemble is also looking for ways to remake itself into an important regional orchestra and to triple the size of its concert audience.

"This is the all-new Firelands Symphony Orchestra," said the group's new interim executive director, Jamie R. Steinemann. "The whole level of the orchestra is being brought up."

Steinemann said the orchestra has taken several steps as it reaches out for a larger audience:

n The size of the orchestra has been boosted from 35-40 to 55-60 musicians. "That's a good-sized regional orchestra," she said.

n Rehearsals for each concert have been increased from two to four.

n An international search was launched to find a new permanent conductor.

Orchestra leaders sifted through 120 applications for the job. It picked four finalists, focusing on candidates with a track record of building up struggling orchestras, and also picked an alternate.

The symphony's new concert season essentially will serve as a tryout for the four, with each candidate conducting one concert and meeting with people in the community.

Cleveland Pops Orchestra conductor Carl Topilow is the first candidate coming to town.

Topilow will lead the orchestra at the inaugural concert, scheduled for 8 p.m. Oct. 6 at the Sandusky State Theatre.

The orchestra will perform Sibelius' "Finlandia," Mozart's Fourth Violin Concerto and Elgar's "Enigma Variations."

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $7 for students. Patrons who buy two sets of season tickets can get two other sets free.

The Oct. 6 show will feature Texas violinist Celeste Golden, a semifinalist for the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition in Auckland, New Zealand and a bronze medalist in the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. The orchestra has committed to having a top soloist for each of its concerts during the current season, Steinemann said.

Topilow frequently leads the Cleveland Pops in holiday concerts, including a New Year's Eve show.

He said he was interested in the Firelands job because it allows him to work in the Cleveland area and said Firelands staffers such as Steinemann have been good to work with.

Golden, a Cleveland Institute of Music graduate, was "astounding" as she won a Cleveland Institute of Music competition, Topilow said. He said the two worked together on a Dvorak concerto.

The other conductors leading concerts during the 2007-08 season are Brenda Leach, Allan Scott and Nan Washburn.

All have strong track records. Scott, for example, took over an orchestra in Helena, Mont., that averaged 135 attendees per concert and raised the size of the audience to 1,450, and lowered the average age of a listener from 68 to 47.

The Firelands Symphony's last permanent conductor, Santos Perez, resigned in October 2006.

Recent Firelands Symphony concerts have drawn about 130 people.

The Firelands board hopes its upgrade of the orchestra and grassroots marketing efforts will increase the audience to 300 to 500 people per show. The State Theatre seats 1,500.

A growing audience could help convince donors the orchestra is going in the right direction, Steinemann said.