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Erich Kunzel, "Prince of Pops," Dies

Emily Langer, who works in The Post's Outlook section, wrote today's obituary of conductor Erich Kunzel.

Langer writes:

You've probably heard Mr. Kunzel's music even if you didn't know his name: Since 1991 he had conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in the Memorial Day and July Fourth concerts on the Capitol lawn. Millions of Washingtonians have seen the concerts in person over the years and millions more Americans have watched on public television.

emily1.jpg Thinking about Mr. Kunzel's life, I was struck by how much music he offered up for free, no tickets required -- not just in the Capitol lawn performances but also in the countless concerts he led in Cincinnati's public parks. One of his violinists told the Cincinnati Enquirer that as many as 30,000 people would turn out for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."
 
Sure, the classical purists sniffed at Mr. Kunzel's red jacket, his American flag bowtie and his antics -- entering the stage in a coffin for a Halloween concert or asking the audience to dress in red and green for a holiday show.

But Mr. Kunzel probably did as much or more for classical music than many of his more refined contemporaries. His renditions of "Star Wars" and "Rocky" put butts in the seats, and, as he noted, many listeners enjoyed the music so much that they came back asking for more. 

Sometimes their happy experiences with the pops even convinced them to attend the regular classical performances. And anybody who couldn't afford tickets always knew that Mr. Kunzel would offer another free concert before too long.

I had the pleasure of watching Mr. Kunzel once or twice in Washington but am sorry to say that I never saw him in Cincinnati, just a 45-minute drive from where I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. But my father and I did spend many evenings in the Cincinnati Music Hall, the beautiful theater that is home to the Cincinnati Pops.

We went there not for the pops series but for the opera. (As a side note, Cincinnati is fortunate to have not only a world-class pops orchestra but also an exceptional opera company.) Mr. Kunzel actually started his career as an opera conductor -- in 1966 he led then-unknown Placido Domingo in a performance of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" at the Cincinnati Zoo, which for years was a popular venue -- and I imagine that he would thoroughly approve of the opera community's efforts to appeal to larger crowds.

The Washington National Opera, for example, is offering a free simulcast of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" at Nationals Park on Sept. 12.

Now, I don't think Mr. Kunzel would expect the conductor to wear a red jacket, but he probably wouldn't complain if he did.

But back to Cincinnati Music Hall: As my dad and I entered the opera house, we often noticed the homeless people in the park across the street. It was always a bitter irony: Just a few yards away from the tuxedoed men and the elegant women clutching their tiny beaded purses, people were pushing around in shopping carts everything they owned.

With that memory in mind, Mr. Kunzel's free concerts seem all the more important.

By Adam Bernstein |  September 2, 2009; 11:06 AM ET  | Category:  Musicians , Obituaries
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