Conversations With…The Prince of Pops

Mike Lawson • Archives • January 21, 2008

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Amongst the most successful Classical/Crossover recording artists of all time and certainly one of the renowned conductors of his age, Erich Kunzel occupies a singular position in the world of popular Classical music.

After studying music at Dartmouth College, Kunzel continued his education and earned ever-greater distinction at Harvard and Brown Universities before connecting with celebrated maestro, Pierre Monteux, at the French conductor’s summer program in Hancock, Maine.

Kunzel’s early professional career was distinguished by stints with the Santa Fe Opera, work as personal assistant to Pierre Monteux, and an appointment to the position of resident conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra courtesy of CSO’s music director at the time, Max Rudolf.

It was while with the Cincinnati Symphony that Erich Kunzel began down the path that would ultimately bring him the greatest level of widespread fame. Leading the “Eight O’Clock Pops” series proved an ideal fit and soon his success with Cincinnati’s pops series would lead to an invitation to work with Arthur Fiedler and guest conduct his world renowned Boston Pops Orchestra. As Maestro Kunzel’s star continued to ascend, another avenue for broadening exposure to the music became evident: recordings. Having now recorded over 100 releases, Erich Kunzel has been awarded Sony’s Tiffany Walkman Award, the Grand Prix du Disque in Europe, Classical Album of the Year (1989) from the Japan Record Association, and four Grammy nominations. A frequent recipient of Billboard’s Top Classical/Crossover Artist honor, Erich once held that distinction for an unprecedented four years in a row.

Though his professional pursuits as conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra certainly take center stage, it would do great disservice to gloss over Kunzel’s lifelong and continued dedication to music education. He was on faculty at Brown University and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and has since continued to lend his name and efforts to music education advocacy programs.

School Band and Orchestra was delighted to have the chance to chat with Erich Kunzel the man once dubbed “the Prince of Pops” by the Chicago Tribune while he was in Pittsburgh recently to conduct the student orchestra at Carnegie Mellon University

School Band and Orchestra: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Erich I know that SBO readers will be very interested to hear what you have to say.
Erich Kunzel: A pleasure.

SBO: Let’s start by talking about your own early musical education in Connecticut.
EK: I was very fortunate, having grown up in rather an affluent community namely Greenwich, Connecticut because, consequently, we had excellent music education in the schools. Even in the grammar school we had a separate music room and attended music class once a day.

SBO: That’s not so common nowadays.
EK: Unfortunately, no. Music was very much alive, then, even in grammar school.

SBO: What instruments did you first gravitate towards?
EK: I started piano when I was about 9 or 10 years old. When I went to Greenwich High School I wanted to be in the Orchestra, so of course I was the pianist there. But I also wanted to be in the String Orchestra, so I picked up the string bass, and then I wanted to be in Band, so I picked up the timpani. In fact, in my Senior year, I was Connecticut all-state timpanist.

SBO: That’s quite a lot to have tackled by that age.
EK: So I had a very wonderful music education the type of which I don’t know even exists today. I know that throughout the country, ever since No Child Left Behind, we have a tremendous amount of emphasis on reading, writing, and arithmetic

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