Sunday, October 20, 2002

Maestro Kunzel shares his memories

In 25 years with the Cincinnati Pops, Erich Kunzel has shared the stage with everyone from Rosemary Clooney and Mel Torme to a couple of chickens and pigs.

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel, 67, has celebrated many anniversaries since his first appearance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra 37 years ago. This year, he observes an important landmark: 25 years since the Cincinnati Pops was officially established in 1977.

The Pops' founding began an incredible run of recordings. The Pops' relationship with Telarc has resulted in more than 70 recordings on the Telarc label, 52 of which have been best sellers on the Billboard charts - and caused Mr. Kunzel to be named Classical Crossover Artist of the Year for four consecutive years.

I sat down with Mr. Kunzel in his Music Hall office earlier this week to reminisce about his highlights with the Pops over the last quarter of a century.

• When: 7 p.m. today
• Where: Music Hall
• Tickets: $17-$47; 381-3300 or
  The Cincinnati Pops is offering a special two-for-one discount to tonight's concert at Music Hall. To secure this special price, purchase your tickets at the door today after 5 p.m. and mention code "EN". This offer is valid only for today's Pops concert.
Question: What are some of your favorite recordings of the past 25 years?

Answer: One of my favorites is The Sound of Music, with Frederica von Stade and Eileen Farrell. Flicka (Ms. von Stade) is a consummate artist, and to have Eileen Farrell as Mother Superior - that was just magic. We had seven wonderful kids and Hakan Hagegard was a terrific Baron von Trapp. We also had (soprano) Barbara Daniels from Cincinnati in that cast.

Another one is our first Big Band Hit Parade. So many are no longer with us: Gerry Mulligan, Cab Calloway, Ray Brown. We had Doc (Severinsen) and Dave Brubeck and Eddie Daniels and all these jazz greats. It was just awe-inspiring to be a part of that.

I have particular affection for the Singing Hoosiers, and I think The Magical Music of Disney album that included The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid was very special.

And I treasured Blue Monday and Porgy and Bess. I wish George Gershwin would have been there.

Q: Does your history with Telarc coincide with the founding of the Pops in 1977?

A: At that time we were recording for MMG (Moss Music Group). We put out about 15 albums with them, and continued even after we began with Telarc. We did our first Telarc recording in '78. (Telarc producer) Bob Woods was scared to use the name Cincinnati Pops, so for our first three albums, he called us the Cincinnati Symphony. The first time we used the name Cincinnati Pops was for Star Trek.

The principal reason we formed the Pops was because of the recording industry, so people would really identify this orchestra, when Erich Kunzel was conducting, as a pops orchestra.

Q: Recording technology has changed a lot in 25 years. What has been the biggest challenge for you?

A: All these recordings are done in two sessions. In the old days, when we first started recording on LPs, an LP was about 40 to 45 minutes. When we got to the compact disc, we could record up to 78 minutes. The problem for me was, it's still only two recording sessions! The pressure - that was the hardest for all of us, to jam that much more into two recording sessions.

Q: You've toured with the Pops to Japan three times, and once to Taiwan, between 1990 and 1998. What impressed you most?

A: The reception. We have very strong Telarc sales in both countries. What impressed me is that our biggest following, both in Taiwan and Japan, is young people. They love our recordings. I was just there again, and two-thirds of our audience was college age. We'll be going back to (Asia) in a couple of years (2005).

Q: What stood out in your Carnegie Hall debut with the Pops in 1984?

A: That was with (jazz artists) Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. What I liked about it was we were sold to the rafters before we got there. We had a tremendous reception and got a great review. We showed New York, hey, this is the Cincinnati Pops sound!

In 1981, on the first anniversary of John Lennon's death, we did a tribute to John Lennon with Roberta Flack and David Clayton-Thomas, at Radio City Music Hall, with a slide show that personally came from Yoko Ono's collection. I was at her house, and she gave me slides of many people I've never seen. So that was unique.

Q: Do you have a favorite memory of Rosemary Clooney? (The Maysville native and legendary girl singer died in late June.)

A: We had her every three or four years, whether at Music Hall or Riverbend, and I brought her to (PBS-TV's) "A Capitol Fourth" in Washington, D.C., too. Our last concert together was the July Fourth concert broadcast live from Riverbend (in 2000). What can I say about Rosie? Here she was, in her 70s, and even at that, she was a tremendous teacher. You could always understand every word that Rosie sang. Always. And she always sang every note in tune. ... We were going to bring her back this summer, for her 75th birthday.

Q: What's your biggest blooper?

A: Blooper? (Howls) Well, actually there isn't just one. In a pops concert, there are as many as 10 numbers in each half. Because the (music) stack gets so big, I do some from memory, so the stack is a little smaller on the stand. What I forget sometimes is the one I'm supposed to do from memory. I'm putting the downbeat down for the next number, and the orchestra plays a different piece. That is the greatest shock ever, when you're conducting along and - Agh! - they're playing the wrong thing! Sometimes, (the musicians) are looking at me cross-eyed. It happens kind of frequently.

Q: What was your most outrageous show?

A: Down on the Farm, at Riverbend. I had two chickens and two pigs out there. I'll never forget the headline in the Enquirer: "Cincinnati Pops, conducted by a chicken with a truck as soloist," because the chicken got loose and I didn't know what to do with it, so the chicken was conducting, and we did the theme from Smokey and the Bandit, with our truck blowing its horn.

Q: What was your impression of the Pops' first holiday special for PBS, a Christmas show with Mel Torme, broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1995?

A: Music Hall looked so magnificent. I don't know how to top that one. Five months later, Mel had a stroke. I'll never forget when he was singing and the snow was coming down. Mel was in his 70s when he did it, but by golly, what an ear he had. Just floating tones, at his age, in tune, and every word was understood. The velvet mouth. There's the picture right there on the piano (points to his piano), one of the last pictures ever taken of him.

Q: What's the best attended outdoor concert by the Pops?

A: We had 45,000 for our first concert with (pianist) Van Cliburn at Riverfront Stadium. We also nearly hit that once at Winton Woods, at a Concert in the Park. At Blossom Music Center (near Cleveland) every Labor Day, we show them how to pack 'em in. We hold the record there: 22,000. It's supposed to hold 18,000, so we can't tell their fire chief.

Q: You've received many honors. Is there one you're especially proud of?

A: The Grand Prix du Disque (in 1989). We got it for American Jubilee. The French president awards this; it's a very prestigious thing. I felt that honor a lot. Normally they give it to a European orchestra. But it was for an American orchestra doing an American program.

Q: You've sold more than 8 million CDs, worldwide. In your opinion, what has that done for Cincinnati?

A: We're all proud of it. I think the city is, too. I conducted for the first time in Beijing three years ago, and they knew me because of the recordings. It's something that we built ourselves from nothing, and I think we've achieved a tremendous amount of worldwide recognition.

Q: Next summer will be your 20th anniversary at Riverbend, since you opened the venue on July 4, 1984. Tell us about your first grand entrance there.

A: The Delta Queen made her only stop at Riverbend to deliver me there. She had never before - and has never since - stopped at Coney Island. They asked me to play the calliope, so I played "Dixie." But when it came out, there was a time delay. Wow! I tried to play, (but) I was a disaster on the calliope!