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Remembering a true pops master, Erich Kunzel

September 8, 2009 | 12:50 pm


With another Hollywood Bowl season careening to a close this week, it is a sadly appropriate time to take note of the passing of a man who symbolized the summer and light music to many. Erich Kunzel, the true inheritor of Arthur Fiedler’s mantle as America’s King of Symphonic Pops, died Sept. 1 of pancreatic, colon and liver cancer in Maine, aged only 74.

The news hit Cincinnati – where he had been conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since its founding in 1977 –  especially hard; the newspaper was filled with tributes to the maestro who staged sometimes outlandishly themed concerts on his home base. Yet Kunzel’s death will have reverberations within what’s left of the recording industry and wherever there is an outdoor band shell or an in-house pops orchestra. 

In the 1980s, Kunzel often led weekend concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, in effect laying the groundwork for the coming of John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 1991. When  I interviewed Kunzel during that period, he was an engaging personality, with an unjaded and, I think, genuine enthusiasm for the music he was playing.  He really enjoyed being a pops showman – and musicians in the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time picked up on that and appreciated his expertise and lack of condescension.

It cannot be said that Kunzel single-handedly invented the modern pops format in concert or on recordings. There have been symphonic Gershwin nights at the Hollywood Bowl ever since Gershwin was alive to perform in them, and Broadway invaded the pops scene long ago. Fiedler himself led the charge toward bringing popular culture to the symphony.

Erich But Kunzel took symphonic pops to another level.  He would embrace absolutely anything, any topic, no matter how “corny” – his word, not mine – no matter how precariously it teetered on the brink of taste.  

Western themes were a natural for Kunzel. One of his best albums was a sonic spectacular called “Round-Up,” which quickly became the hit of audiophile conventions in 1987.  He made two Halloween albums liberally sprinkled with digital sound effects, another entirely devoted to baseball. Some of his brainstorms didn’t work – a misguided all-Beatles disc with the King's Singers, too many CDs filled with generic film themes – but the variety of material in his massive catalog is bewildering.

Jazz buffs who cringed when pops concerts paid lip service to their heroes should have been delighted with Kunzel, who received invaluable tutelage early in his career when he recorded symphonic works by Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington with the composers’ participation. Almost alone among maestros, he could actually get a big symphony orchestra to swing, and swing hard.  His secret was to sprinkle real jazz soloists and rhythm monsters like bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Shaughnessy into the orchestra and let them drive the band.

And yet, for all of the fun that he was having with pop culture and jazz, Kunzel never broke faith with his classical heritage. In between runs of albums of James Bond, Henry Mancini or Disney tunes, there would be a program devoted to the music of Copland, or Russian classical favorites, or an excellent survey of Howard Hanson’s orchestral music.  His first Telarc disc with the Cincinnati Pops, in fact, was a classical program with Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture as the flagship.

When first issued on LP, that one became notorious for blowing out underpowered amplifiers and aging speakers – and it broke ground for digital sound the way Antal Dorati’s recording of “1812” did for high-fidelity sound a quarter-century before.

Basically, Kunzel and Telarc became synonymous; indeed, sales of his recordings – some 10 million over the years –  probably kept that Cleveland-based label alive and independent for nearly 30 years.  Most of the time, you could count upon staggeringly clear, powerful, bass-rich sound from a Kunzel recording, making full use of Telarc’s long-standing production team of sound mavens like engineer Michael Bishop, who gleefully laid on the sound effects with a sure hand and an ear for the bizarre. Kunzel’s discs helped get the CD format rolling early on.

Kunzel and Telarc kept the show going at a prolific pace into the first decade of the 21st century, but their days were numbered in a era when the goal of great sound reproduction has been trumped by the convenience of compressed music on an iPod. As far as the public and mass marketers are concerned, it is video that makes news these days, and audio spectaculars simply do not have the same clout that they once did.

As the classical CD business continued to tank, the Concord Music Group swooped in to buy Telarc in 2005 – and inevitably, as so often happens when one company devours another, the cutbacks came. 
Concord laid off Telarc’s production team this past March, which, coupled with the Cincinnati Symphony board’s decision to end funding for recordings in February, brought a halt to the long-running series of  Kunzel/Cincinnati Pops CDs. The last one, “From the Top at the Pops,”  came out only a week before his death. 

Thus, Kunzel’s passing puts a punctuation mark on the end of an epoch in audio history. Cincinnati has lost a primal musical life force, but so have we all.

--Richard S. Ginell

Photos: Top, Erich Kunzel leads the National Symphony Orchestra for "A Capitol Fourth" in 2008. Credit: Capitol Concerts. Below, Kunzel in 2007. Credit: Jamie Rose/Getty Images.