The orchestral conductor, much like a film director, sets the tone and mood for the orchestra he works with, creating a unified image that is reflected in performances and recordings. Erich Kunzel, founder and conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, typifies this relationship. He has helped create the “popular” classical album, topping the billboard charts numerous times with groundbreaking recordings reflecting themes like big band, the march sound, the wild west, Americana, and science fiction films. Since taking up the baton in 1977, he has thrust the Cincinnati Pops into the limelight, popularized the pops sound, and earned himself the title “Prince of Pops.”
Erich Kunzel was born in New York on March 21, 1935, the only child of German immigrants, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. His musical career flowered in high school where he played piano, timpani, and string bass for the school orchestra, and in his senior year he earned one of many musical awards as all-state timpa-nist for Connecticut. His first musical arrangement was for a small orchestra at his high school’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Yeoman of the Guard. Kunzel attended Dartmouth College, received his degree in music in 1957, and in that same year made his operatic and professional debut conducting the Santa Fe Opera Company. He completed post-graduate studies at both Harvard and Brown Universities and served as a faculty member and director of choral music from 1958-1965 at Brown. He also conducted the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra from 1960-1965, and served as personal assistant to the acclaimed French conductor Pierre Monteux at his conducting school in Hancock, Maine.
Kunzel’s extensive education, professional achievements, and background in classical conducting could have set him on the road to directing a large symphonic orchestra, or producing opera with one of the world’s great companies. However, an invitation in 1965 from Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra director Max Rudolf altered Kunzel’s musical focus dramatically. Rudolf asked him to serve as his assistant and to direct the newly formed 8 O’Clock Pops—the pops arm of the Cincinnati Symphony. The “pops” movement, which began with classical orchestras performing popular music, was experiencing a resurgence during the early 1960s, and was characterized by a more relaxed approach to performance and repertoire. His first concert with the 8 0’ Clock Pops in October, 1965, with jazz soloist Dave Brubeck, was a triumph. The next decade brought a long list of achievements for Kunzel, including a promotion to associate conductor and finally conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, along with numerous invitations to guest conduct with prestigious orchestras. His future with the pops sound was assured when Arthur
Began arranging music in high school; conducted the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra from 1960-1965; conductor of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, 1965-1977; director of Cincinnati Pops Orchestra 1977 to the present with which he has made many recordings.
Fiedler invited him to tour and guest conduct with the Boston Pops in 1970. Working with Fiedler convinced him that pops was his true calling, and in 1977 the Symphony board of trustees created the Cincinnati Pops expressly to be directed by Erich Kunzel.
While conducting the Cincinnati Symphony, Kunzel simultaneously embarked upon a phenomenally successful recording career. His first recordings were with Decca Records, beginning in 1968 with Dave Brubeck, and included a Duke Ellington album with Ellington himself featured as a soloist. He also recorded many classical pieces with the Cincinnati Symphony on Vox Records, and worked with other orchestras including the Rochester Pops. But it was the relationship he began in 1979 with Telarc Records, the acknowledged industry leader in high-quality classical CD production, that led to Billboard chart-toppers and made the name Erich Kunzel synonymous with the pops sound.
Telarc was initially hesitant about using the name “Pops,” and for the first few albums Kunzel recorded under the title of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. These best-selling recordings were, ironically enough, classical works: Tchiakovsky: 1812 Overture (1979), Gershwin: Rhapsody in B/ue (1981), and Beethoven: Wellington’s Victory (1983). Subsequently, Telarc agreed to give Kunzel full creative control, and with the release of Star Tracks in 1984 the Cincinnati Pops were at forefront of the classical recording industry. Star Tracks, and also its follow-up Time Warp, set a precedent for science-fiction music collections, featuring themes from films such as Alien, Star Trek, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey By the release of Round-Up in 1986, Kunzel had developed a formula for success: he featured the more memorable excerpts from western television shows and feature films—including Bonanza, Rawhide, and The Magnificent Seven —combined with dazzling sound effects. The album was accompanied by a warning from Telarc that not all stereo speakers were equipped to handle the intense digital effects, which included cows mooing, crackling fires, and howling coyotes. The recordings that followed featured many of the same elements: a specific theme (big band, film music, Broadway showtunes, etc.), abundant digital sound effects, and an innovative approach that created a new standard for pops recordings.
With each new album Kunzel crossed into new territory for the orchestral pops genre. For Ein Straussfest he used the eruption of champagne corks to highlight the waltzes of the Strauss family, while the introduction to Chiller was an eerie approach to a haunted house, complete with yowling cat and creaking gate. A sweeping release came in 1996 with Symphonic Star Trek, a collection of themes from every Star Trek television series and film to date, featuring guest vocals by Leonard Nimoy and numerous sound effects created expressly for the album. Symphonic Star Trek was also the first classical album to include a bonus CD-ROM sampler of science fiction computer games as part of a limited edition release; a move that exemplifies Kunzel’s dedication to keeping the Pops on the forefront of technology as well as scientific advances. The appeal of Kunzel’s recordings were that he collected only the most popular portions of a soundtrack—or various pieces that had never been grouped together—onto a single album. The sound effects and vocalists then served to unify the theme of the album. However, this formula did not escape criticism. When asked by Fanfare how he reacted to critique, Kunzel replied, “If it’s not perfect, we just won’t do it. It’s got to be there for a reason. It makes the whole record a jewel. Now if people call that a gimmick or whatever fine! To us, it’s a part of the whole picture, and it’s an important part.”
For each album Kunzel would also strive for accuracy and authenticity in production, by researching the missing portions of a piece or locating the original arrangements for a particular score. For Star Tracks II he included “The Planet Krypton” from composer John Williams’s score for the movie Superman. The original orchestral parts had been destroyed, but Kunzel consulted with Williams, who searched his attic to find a duplicate score. Kunzel also continued to record classical pieces and sometimes featured these on his thematic albums, such as Modest Moussorgsky’s thunderous “Night On Bald Mountain,” an appropriate addition to Chiller. The Cincinnati Pops strove to cover almost every theme imaginable with releases including Bond & Beyond, an action/adventure album including themes from Goldfinger, Mission Impossible, and Dragnet, and the World War II themed Victory at Sea, which spent 51 weeks on the Billboard charts. Kunzel even posed with composer Henry Mancini, along with the animated star the Pink Panther, for the cover of Manci-ni’s Greatest Hits.
These releases—an unprecedented 50 with Telarc and six million recordings sold by 1996—made Kunzel the top-selling pops conductor in the world and earned him lauds as Billboard’s top classical crossover artist four years in a row (1988-91). Several of his recordings were nominated for Grammy Awards, including Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, Amen! A Gospel Celebration, and A Disney Spectacular. The Pop’s recordings garnered worldwide praise and popularity, with American Jubilee winning the prestigious Gran Prix du Disque from the French government in 1989 and A Disney Spectacularbeing named Classical Record of the Year that same year in Japan. He also became a popular guest conductor, working with orchestras in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, and the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., which he conducted at the nationally televised Memorial Day and July 4th celebrations at the Capitol for many years. Kunzel was also given the Sony Tiffany Walkman award in 1989 for his “visionary recording activities” over a ten year period.
Kunzel’s real passion lies in reaching out to his worldwide audience, both young and old. Whether through recordings or spectacular multi-media concerts in Cincinnati replete with laser shows, hot air balloons, cannons, gymnasts, and zoo animals, he strives to pique the interest of his fans. One of Kunzel’s goals is to fill what he called a “void” in the music education programs of school systems. “Mr. Pops,” a cartoon likeness of Kunzel that graces the introductions of Pops videos and television shows, is aimed at getting children involved with symphonic music. He told the Cincinnati Post, “If they see me and this character on TV… and parents get involved—this is an avenue I want to explore.” Kunzel is a true success story, elevating himself and his strong partnership with the Pops into worldwide fame and praise. When asked by the CincinnatiEnquireni he ever regretted choosing a pops career, he remarked, “No, I chose to go into pops because I felt so at home with it, and the audience vibes were so right. When you have that electricity, you march with it.”
All recordings are with Telarc International
Tchiakovsky: 1812 Overture, 1979.
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue/An American In Paris, 1981.
Beethoven: Wellington’s Victory/Liszt: Huns, 1983.
Star Tracks, 1984.
Time Warp, 1984.
Ein Straussfest, 1985.
Orchestral Spectacular, 1985.
Stokowski: The Fantastic Stokowski, 1986.
William Tell&Other Favorite Overtures, 1986.
Hollywood’s Greatest Hits, Vol. I., 1987.
Pomp&Pizazz: March Favorites, 1987.
Star Tracks II, 1987.
American Jubilee, 1988.
Big Band Hit Parade, 1988.
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, 1988.
The Sound of Music, 1988.
Symphonic Spectacular, 1988.
A Disney Spectacular, 1989.
Happy Trails (Sequel to Round-Up), 1989.
Mancini’s Greatest Hits, 1989.
Victory at Sea, 1989.
Christmas with the Pops, 1990.
Classics of the Silver Screen, 1990.
Fantastic Journey, 1990.
Trumpet Spectacular, 1990.
Bond & Beyond, 1991.
Down on the Farm, 1991.
Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, 1991.
Movie Love Themes, 1991.
The Pops Plays Puccini, 1991.
Rogers&Hammerstein: Songbook for Orchestra, 1992.
Unforgettably Doc, 1992.
Young at Heart, 1992.
American Piano Classics, 1993.
Ein Straussfest II, 1993.
Hollywood’s Greatest Hits, Vol. II., 1993.
Amen! A Gospel Celebration, 1994.
The Great Fantasy Adventure Album, 1994.
Lerner&Loewe: A Songbook for Orchestra, 1994.
The Magical Music of Disney, 1995.
Puttin’ on the Ritz, 1995.
Andrew Lloyd Weber, 1996.
Symphonic Star Trek, 1996.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, November 10, 1995.
Cincinnati Post, November 9, 1995.
Fanfare, November/December 1988.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. 2.
Ovation, March 1985.
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