If Arthur Fielder was the king of pops conductors, Erich Kunzel rightly earned the title “Prince of Pops”.
For more than three decades, Kunzel presided over the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, touring the world and making 85 recordings for the Telarc label. Their discs won Grammy awards and sold more than 10 million copies.
Kunzel, 74, was active almost until his death on September 1 in Maine from pancreatic, liver and colon cancer, which had been diagnosed in April. On August 1, he led the Cincinnati Pops for the last time at Riverbend, the summer home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Although Kunzel studied with Pierre Monteux and often conducted orchestras in core repertoire, he became admired for performances of lighter works ranging from Viennese waltzes, Sousa marches and movie music to Broadway scores. Kunzel was the consummate showman who was as comfortable shaping music by Copland and Ellington as he was schmoozing with audiences.
He did so not just with the Cincinnati Pops, which he founded in 1977, but also with orchestras around the United States, including Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and the National Symphony in Washington, DC. He received some inspiration in the field from Fielder, whose Boston Pops he allowed Kunzel to conduct starting in 1970.
The New York-born Kunzel studied at Dartmouth, Harvard and Brown. He made his professional conducting debut in 1957 in Santa Fe and become assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1965 at the invitation of Max Rudolf, the orchestra’s music director. The same year, Kunzel took over Cincinnati’s Eight O’Clock Pops series, the first winter subscription pops series in America.
Upon his founding of the Cincinnati Pops, Kunzel began amassing a remarkable series of stylish, exuberant recordings and performances with such legendary artists as Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Mel Torme. Kunzel’s devotion to young artists can be gleaned from the recent Cincinnati Pops release, “From the Top at the Pops”, on which he provides vibrant collaboration for stellar teenaged musicians.
Kunzel is survived by his wife of 44 years, Brunhilde, with whom he spent non-pops hours at their home, Camelot, on Maine’s Swan Island.