Erich Kunzel & Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Founder and Conductor Emeritus
1935 - 2009
Erich Kunzel’s distinguished career was personified by his 2006 National Medal of Arts, presented by President and Mrs. Bush at a ceremony in the Oval Office at The White House in 2007. The National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government, is awarded to those who have made outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States. The legendary “Prince of Pops” was also honored in September 2008 as an inductee into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
The late Maestro Max Rudolf invited Mr. Kunzel, then a young conductor on the faculty of Brown University, to join the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as an associate conductor in 1965. That October Maestro Kunzel conducted his first sold-out “8 O’Clock Pops” concert, marking his ascent as a modern orchestral legend. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, part of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was then officially founded in 1977 with Maestro Kunzel at the helm. For decades he led the orchestra, packing houses in Cincinnati’s Music Hall and Riverbend Music Center, and also gaining new fans the world over through tour performances, PBS television specials and millions of recordings sold on the Telarc label.
Maestro Kunzel led the Cincinnati Pops on tours that include many concerts in Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall and at the Blossom Music Festival. The numerous international tours included a celebrated tour to China in 2005 (the first appearance of a pops orchestra in that country), highlighted by concerts in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Maestro Kunzel conducted the first ever pops concert in China in 1998 in Beijing with the China National Symphony Orchestra. In August 2008, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops made an historic return to China to participate in the Opening Festivities of the Summer Olympics.
Starting in 1977, Mr. Kunzel recorded 90 albums on the Telarc label with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. More than 55 of these albums appeared on the Top 10 Billboard Charts. He was named Billboard Magazine's Classical Crossover Artist of the Year for an unprecedented four consecutive years. Several Grammy Awards, the distinguished Grand Prix Du Disque, and the Sony Tiffany Walkman Award for “visionary recording activities” highlighted his fantastic recording career of over 125 albums.
Outside of Cincinnati, Maestro Kunzel appeared in more than 100 performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, where he holds the record for attendance – 22,000. Since 1991 Maestro Kunzel had led the National Symphony on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in PBS-TV’s nationally televised Memorial Day and Fourth of July concerts. In 1996, the Fourth of July concert drew a record crowd of nearly a million people to the Capitol, as well as the largest viewing audience for a musical event in PBS history.
In 2005 Mr. Kunzel made his Viennese debut as part of the 100th anniversary season of the Vienna Volksoper, conducting the Viennese premiere of The Sound of Music. In 2004 he made his debut with the San Francisco Opera conducting 12 performances of The Merry Widow. This production was telecast on BBC Worldwide and PBS as part of the Great Performances series. On several occasions Maestro Kunzel also conducted the World Super Orchestra in concerts at the Tokyo International Music Festival. In January 2008 he led the Vienna Volksoper Symphony Orchestra in a Gala New Year’s Eve Tour in eight concerts in Japan.
Educated at Dartmouth, Harvard and Brown Universities, Mr. Kunzel studied with, and was personal assistant to, the great French conductor Pierre Monteux. He made his professional conducting debut in 1957 leading Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona with the Santa Fe Opera Company. By 1970, when Arthur Fiedler invited him to conduct the Boston Pops for the first time, Mr. Kunzel’s commitment to “pops” was assured. He led the Boston Pops in more than 100 performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall and on tour in the U.S. and England.
In addition to the National Medal of Arts and his induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, in August of 2009 Mr. Kunzel was appointed honorary artistic director for the 2012 World Choir Games, which will host its first-ever event in the United States. He was honored with the President’s Award from the Public Relations Society of America’s Cincinnati Chapter in June of 2009, and in 2006 with the Irma Lazarus Award from the Ohio Arts Council. He received the 1994 Presidential Medal for Outstanding Leadership and Achievement from Dartmouth College, his alma mater, and in 2006 he was elected into Phi Beta Kappa, America’s oldest honor society. Dartmouth College honored him in June 2007 with the Honorary Doctor of Arts degree. He also received honorary degrees from University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, College of Mount St. Joseph, Wilmington College and Northern Kentucky University. He was named by the Ohio Arts Council as a special recipient of the 1991 Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio. In 1995, Mr. Kunzel received the 1995 Salvation Army “Others” award in recognition of his contributions to the city of Cincinnati, the same year that the Cincinnati MacDowell Society honored his contributions to the arts community by awarding him the MacDowell Medal. In 1996 the Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity presented him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award in recognition of his outstanding achievements in the performing arts.
Maestro Kunzel was also Chair of the Greater Cincinnati Arts and Education Center, an organization whose plan to build a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts adjacent to Music Hall was realized in 2010. His last album for Telarc was “From the Top at the Pops” from NPR’s hit radio show “From the Top,” and was released in August of 2009.
Erich Kunzel, longtime conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, died on September 1, 2009, at the age of 74. Kunzel was battling cancer of the pancreas, colon and liver. He died at his home in Maine.