The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Happy Maestro

Erich Kunzel, 1935-2009

It seems that I have been posting about death all too often recently. However, I would be remiss if, as a native of Cincinnati, I failed to note the passage of Erich Kunzel, the founder and leader of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for the past forty-four years. Kunzel died this Tuesday at age seventy-four, following an April diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

I could call Kunzel a showman but this would be a little bit like calling Enrico Caruso a singer or Niccolo Paganini a fiddler. He combined the grandiosity of Arturo Toscanini with the humbuggery of P.T. Barnum; the only human being I have ever met with a genuine twinkle in his eye. Everything about Kunzel was larger than life – his wife’s name was Brunhilde and he lived in huge home overlooking a lake in Swan’s Island Maine. He was a ball of energy dedicated to promoting music, his orchestra, and the city of Cincinnati.

Born in 1935 to German immigrant parents, Kunzel graduated from Dartmouth and went on to earn a Master's of Arts degree at Brown University. He continued graduate work at Harvard and eventually became conducting assistant to legendary French conductor Pierre Monteux.

Kunzel quickly earned acclaim conducting opera. When he joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as Max Rudolf’s assistant in 1965, he began conducing the Cincinnati Opera as well. Kunzel might well have settled into opera as his vocation but Rudolf was only too happy to hand him the over the Eight O’clock Pops series. Although Kunzel never gave up conducting opera altogether, the Pops were to become a lifelong calling. In the words of former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, a frequent collaborator, Kunzel had “a vision that grew.”

The Cincinnati Symphony trustees established the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in 1977. Kunzel was the de facto choice for its conductor. Kunzel repeatedly took the Pops on tours across the country and around the world. They were the first Pops orchestra to tour mainland China and the only American orchestra invited by the Chinese to play concerts during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops made eight television specials for PBS. For the past two decades, Kunzel conducted the National Symphony Orchestra on the U.S. Capitol lawn for PBS-broadcast national Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts.

Kunzel received the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony in 2006. This year, he was one of five artists inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

Three aspects of Kunzel’s long Pops conducting career deserve genuine appreciation and recognition.

First, Kunzel was a natural populist at bringing music to the masses. He instituted a much-loved tradition whereby the Cincinnati Pops played free concerts outdoors each summer at a variety of Cincinnati and Hamilton County park venues. The final concert at Miami Whitewater Forest’s lakeside pavilion, always featuring the 1812 Overture, complete with real canons, easily drew twenty to thirty-thousand listeners.

Kunzel saw nothing stuffy about orchestral music. Indeed, his love of spectacle was so great and his sense of embarrassment so non-existent that it often appeared there was nothing too kitschy or over-the-top in his playbook.

A Halloween concert found Kunzel and his musicians all wearing trick-or-treat costumes and Kunzel making his entrance by rising from a coffin wheeled onto the stage. A Thanksgiving concert provided a kick line of chefs, dancing vegetables, and the University of Cincinnati cheerleaders. A Christmas concert gave us two dozen clogging Santas, multiple local elementary school choirs (not to mention the May Festival Chorus), and sparkle lights. I once attended a concert that included Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, featuring numerous walk-ons by Cincinnati Zoo residents.

Second, despite his often-corny attempts to make orchestral music accessible to the public, Kunzel never sacrificed the quality of the music itself in the process. In fact, he made great strides increasing the range of genres included in the Pops’s repertoire.

Prior to his ascendancy, most Pops concerts still consisted largely of traditional light classical pieces with a few special arrangements of popular songs thrown in. Kunzel reached out to include serious compositions from jazz, country-western, Broadway musicals, and Hollywood film scores. In the process, he introduced audiences to a hitherto unknown set of contemporary and/or American composers.

Kunzel was dedicated to fine arts education that went beyond its mere promotion. He conceived and tirelessly promoted a new School for Creative & Performing Arts in Cincinnati’s impoverished Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Due to open next year, it will be the nation’s first K-12 performing arts public school.

Finally, Kunzel is due special remembrance as a recording pioneer. His teaming with the Telarc label led to the popularization of digital recording in the 1980s. His seminal first album with the Cincinnati Pops, featuring the 1812 Overture (what else?), set new standards for quality artisanship and technical innovations. It broke all records for time on the charts. Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops went on to release eighty-nine Telarc albums, with over ten million recordings sold.

Kunzel’s final appearance with the Cincinnati Pops was this past August 1, at their outdoor summer home at Riverbend Music Center. Although in good spirits, Kunzel was visibly thin and tired. He only had sufficient energy to conduct the second half of the concert and then sitting down.

At the end, he returned to a standing ovation and led the Orchestra in an encore of God Bless America, during which he exhorted the crowd of ten thousand people to sing along. Upon its completion, he gave a jubilant thumb up and then waved to the crowd as he walked off the stage with assistance. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Janelle Gelfand reported, “A sea of thousands of hands waved back. They were saying goodbye.”

The conducting peers who knew him best paid many fine tributes to Kunzel. Paavo Järvi, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s current music director called him “a remarkable spirit and a tremendous musician.” Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops and former assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Pops under Kunzel, said, “Erich represents the true gold standard among pops conductors.” James Conlon, music director for Cincinnati’s prestigious May Festival, stated, “I think that serious musicians should realize he was an extremely accomplished musician.”

Yet perhaps the most heartfelt and apt tribute came from former Joint Chiefs Chairman and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who worked with Kunzel for eighteen years on the annual Memorial Day concerts. “He was a magnificent musician. Above that, he was a happy musician, always with a smile on his face and joy in his heart for the music and the people who came to listen.” After hearing so many politicians eulogized over the years as a “Happy Warrior,” it was a pleasure to hear a true warrior understand and honor the life of one who contributed so much to the fine arts and popular music.

Former President John F. Kennedy once famously prophesied, “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered, not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Erich Kunzel was a sometimes slightly silly but always important contributor to that legacy. He was the Happy Maestro.

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