Erich Kunzel is Dead

Well I was sad to read (a few days after the fact) that Erich Kunzel died September 1.  For those of you who don’t know who he was, he conducted the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for decades and decades.  He did a great deal of recording and innovative programming, and while it’s hard to compare apples to oranges, the Cincinnati Pops is probably the only Pops Orchestra that has enjoyed similar fame and success as the Boston Pops.  And an awful lot of that success and credit goes directly to Erich Kunzel.

I actually played for Kunzel on one or two occasions.  One of them was exceptionally memorable.  One of the standard “light classics” that the Boston Pops played over and over again was Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne. This piece has a lot of little stylistic pauses and slowdowns, they are traditional and are not written in the sheet music.  And Arthur Fiedler always did those pauses and slowdowns the exact same way, and Harry Ellis Dickson (who conducted us a lot after Arthur died) did this piece very often, and he did those pauses and stops the same way as Arthur.

Well one fine day, Erich Kunzel was the guest conductor at the Boston Pops, and he had programmed… Gaite Parisienne.  We didn’t think much about it.  It’s a relatively easy piece of music, something we could “phone in.” 

But much to our surprise, Erich Kunzel had a completely different idea of how this piece should be played in terms of style and all those little pauses and slowdowns.  And he insisted that we do it his way.  So Gaite Parisienne, usually one of the easiest pieces on a Pops program, suddenly became the most difficult piece we had done that whole season. 

There is also a story (told to me by enough different sources for me to believe it really happened) that Erich Kunzel was guest conducting at the Boston Pops one night, and one of the big finish encores was David Rose’s “The Stripper.”  And in the middle of this piece, Kunzel apparently took off his jacket in a somewhat suggestive manner, and, depending on who is telling the story, started to unbutton his shirt to an astonishing degree…  As the story goes, the audience absolutely loved it, but the symphony board of trustees was not thrilled.

Anyway, Kunzel provided a tremendous amount of leadership in a world beset by conformity.  He was a one-of-a-kind.  Cue the Lacrimosa. 

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