Cincinnati Pops Director Erich Kunzel Dies At 74

Award-winning conductor Erich Kunzel has died at the age of 74. He had been diagnosed with liver, colon and pancreatic cancer in April. Kunzel headed the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since it was founded three decades ago. He had led the National Symphony on the Capitol lawn in nationally televised Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts since 1991. Janelle Gelfand, music critic for The Enquirer in Cincinnati talks with Renee Montagne about Kunzel's work.

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There is no orchestra in the world that has spent more time at the top of classical crossover charts than the Cincinnati Pops. And the man who put it there was Erich Kunzel.

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MONTAGNE: Erich Kunzel was named conductor of the Cincinnati Pops orchestra when it was created back in 1977 to bring to the masses a combination of classical music, Broadway tunes and movie scores. When he died yesterday of cancer at the age of 74, Erich Kunzel had done that and far more. Janelle Gelfand is arts and classical music writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Good morning.

Ms. JANELLE GELFAND (Cincinnati Enquirer): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Erich Kunzel recorded more than 125 albums and he sold millions of recordings. What was it about this orchestra's music that was so appealing to so many people?

Ms. GELFAND: He was a real music man. His performances were splashy. They were exuberant. And he always made it look like fun. He was a showman and nothing could be too outrageous or even too corny for Erich Kunzel. In his concerts in Cincinnati on Halloween he'd have the musicians dress in costume and he'd make his entrance in a coffin.

MONTAGNE: In a coffin? You know, one thing, you say - I mean, I know he loved to incorporate real cannons into performances of the "1812 Overture," Tchaikovsky's famous piece, and coordinate patriotic marches with Fourth of July fireworks. Let's play something that Erich Kunzel said about that on NPR about 10 years ago.

Mr. ERICH KUNZEL (Conductor): See, once the fireworks start, were have to be into the more bombastic type of thing, such as the Sousa marches, the 1812. We can't have any vocalist or something like that. It just won't work.

MONTAGNE: So the whole package.

Ms. GELFAND: The whole package. And he had his finger on every detail of every concert, of every project that he was recording.

Perhaps his greatest legacy was introducing tens of thousands of people to orchestral music through 38 years of free concerts in regional parks, and they were literally hanging out of the trees. He knew how to connect to audiences. And in the process he introduced them to music such as Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," and of course always with the cannon.

MONTAGNE: Well, he started out aspiring to be a classical conductor. He made the switch to pops. Here's how he said earlier this year that he wanted to be remembered.

Mr. KUNZEL: I was a music entertainer, like Beethoven was, like George M. Cohan was, like Irving Berlin was. I was a music entertainer. So was Bach. So was Brahms.

MONTAGNE: You have covered him for about 18 years, I gather. How do you think he'll be remembered?

Ms. GELFAND: There is an image that is ingrained in my mind from his final concert in Cincinnati on August 1st, when he turned to the audience and he led a sing-along and 10,000 people stood and sung "God Bless America" and he waved goodbye and walked off the stage. I'm getting all choked up. Thousands of hands waved back. And that was Cincinnati saying goodbye to him.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. GELFAND: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Janelle Gelfand is arts and classical music writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Erich Kunzel, longtime conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, died yesterday at the age of 74.

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