Erich Kunzel, 74, Dies; 'Prince of Pops' Directed Cincinnati Pops to Fame

Erich Kunzel helped bring orchestral music into the mainstream by leading symphonies in performances of crowd-pleasers.
Erich Kunzel helped bring orchestral music into the mainstream by leading symphonies in performances of crowd-pleasers. (Courtesy Of
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By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Erich Kunzel, 74, the American pops conductor and colorful showman who sold more than 10 million recordings and for nearly two decades provided the national Memorial Day and Fourth of July soundtracks with the concerts he led on the Capitol lawn, died Tuesday at a hospital near his home in Swan's Island, Maine. He had been diagnosed in April with liver, colon and pancreatic cancer.

Known as the "Prince of Pops," Mr. Kunzel had directed the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since its founding in 1977 and led it to international fame. He built on the work of the late conductor Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops to bring orchestral music into the mainstream by leading symphonies in performances of crowd-pleasers ranging from Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" to the theme from "Star Wars."

"Orchestras began adding pops concerts to extend their seasons, . . . and they discovered two things," he told The Washington Post in 1979. "First, that a lot of people want this kind of music, and second, that there is money in it. These concerts are usually sold out. And the audiences get to hear and like the sound of a symphony orchestra -- some of them keep coming back to pops concerts and some become subscribers to the regular season."

As conductor of the Cincinnati Pops and guest conductor of many other orchestras, he stopped at nothing to make symphonic music appeal to large crowds. At a Halloween concert, he entered the stage in a coffin. For a Christmas performance, he asked audience members to come decked out in red and green. Symphonic composition was not, for him, the stuff of a rarefied world; it was music for flag-wavers, for passersby on summer nights when he offered free outdoor concerts in Cincinnati; for children.

"The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra . . . is the model of what a traditional 'pops' orchestra ought to be," wrote a New York Times music critic when the group went to Carnegie Hall in 1984.

Mr. Kunzel said he sometimes grew tired of the old warhorses he conducted before his audiences or even his orchestras did. But he maintained his gruelingly busy concert schedule until shortly before his death. Mr. Kunzel conducted as many as 100 concerts a year and was seen most recently in Washington in a performance with Aretha Franklin and the NSO on the Fourth of July.

Hard to miss in his scarlet jacket and U.S. flag bowtie, Mr. Kunzel was a vivid presence conducting the National Memorial Day and Capitol Fourth concerts. Both were broadcast live on public TV stations and drew millions of viewers.

"It is an experience you can't find in Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center or anywhere else in the world," Mr. Kunzel told the Washington Times in 1993, referring to conducting on the Capitol lawn. "It gives you a glowing feeling inside, a feeling that you really are part of the country."

Erich Kunzel Jr. was born March 21, 1935, in New York, the only child of German immigrants. He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and played the piano, the timpani and the bass in the school orchestra.

Initially planning on a career as a chemist, Mr. Kunzel decided to be a conductor after getting into an argument with a chemistry professor. After graduating in 1957 with a degree in music, he began conducting the Santa Fe (N.M.) Opera Company in a production of Pergolesi's "La Serva Padrona." It was a big year for Mr. Kunzel: He also served as back-stage chorus conductor in Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" and was greeted on a daily basis by Stravinsky himself.

He conducted the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra from 1960 to 1965 and served as personal assistant to the celebrated French conductor Pierre Monteux at his conducting school in Hancock, Maine.

Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Kunzel was a conductor for the Cincinnati Opera, including its popular performances at the Cincinnati Zoo, and even led a then-unknown Placido Domingo in a performance of Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." He might never have left classical music had Max Rudolf, the director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, not invited him to direct the group's "8 O'Clock Pops" in 1965.

The pops movement was exploding at that time, and Mr. Kunzel's first performance with the newly formed group included a guest appearance by jazz genius Dave Brubeck. In later years, he would also collaborate with Duke Ellington.

A turning point in Mr. Kunzel's life came in 1970, when an aging Arthur Fiedler invited him to guest conduct the Boston Pops, whose name was practically synonymous with Fielder's. That honor cemented Mr. Kunzel's place in the pops world. Although he would also become the conductor of the more traditional Cincinnati Symphony, he always appeared more comfortable in his flamboyant bowtie than in a tuxedo.

Mr. Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops recorded dozens of albums with Telarc, a premier classical label, several of which received or were nominated for Grammy Awards. He was known as an affable conductor and often did not take all the rehearsal time available because he didn't want his performances to sound canned.

Mr. Kunzel was the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, among other awards. He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Brunhilde.

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