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Kunzel Memorial Concert a Testament to Love

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 20, 2009 - 4:05:09 PM in reviews_2009


Memorial concert for Erich Kunzel October 19 at Music Hall in Cincinnati. L to R in front: Vincent Lee, Paavo Järvi, Kathleen Brett, Keith Lockhart, Steven Reineke and Robert Porco

   The rider-less horse, age-old symbol of the fallen warrior.

    The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra tapped into that poignant imagery Monday night (October 19) at Music Hall in a special concert honoring Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel, who died of cancer Sept. 1 at age 74.

   With the lights down and a spotlight shining on the empty podium, the CSO strings sounded the gentle Air from Bach's Suite No. 3.  (Applause would have been jarring and there was none.)

   How fitting for the popsmeister whose "heart was huge," said lifelong friend Henry Coe, who along with Kunzel's nephew Stefan Davidson and Kunzel protégé Steven Reineke, presented spoken remembrances of him during the concert.

   It was an evening that deserved to be called "perfect," from the music and commentary to the setting, with the glittering Pops sign superimposed on an American flag at the back of the stage and bright red antheriums on both sides in the front.  A lamp post with “Erich Kunzel Way” stood onstage at the right, a facsimile of the signs that stand on the stretch of Elm Street between 12th Street and Central Parkway, re-named in Kunzel’s honor in September.

   A video was shown that captured the man, from his animated alter ego, "Mr. Pops," that appears on Pops DVDs, to the “P.T. Barnum” Kunzel whose motto was "we're entertainers" and mined multi-media for orchestral concerts before it became accepted as a tool to build audiences  "If it sells tickets and the music is good, do it," he was quoted as saying (fire effects at Music Hall were eventually frowned upon by the fire department, however).

   The video also contained footage of Kunzel's final concert August 1 at Riverbend, a touching farewell (though not announced as such) that remained vivid to many in the crowd, both at Music Hall and downtown on Fountain Square, where the concert was projected live on a giant video screen.

   There were ten musical numbers, classical to "Sesame Street," all specially keyed to Kunzel's 44-year legacy with the CSO and Pops (the Pops, which comprises the same musicians as the CSO, was created for Kunzel in 1977).  They were led by five conductors, Reineke, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, CSO music director Paavo Järvi, Cincinnati May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco and CSO assistant conductor Vincent Lee.

   CSO president Trey Devey introduced the concert:  "Erich loved his family, his country, his community, his Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and his audience.  This concert is his gift to you.”

   Kunzel and his wife Brunnhilde (who sat in the conductor’s box at the concert) were married in 1965, the week before Kunzel came to Cincinnati.  The two helped plan the memorial program, select the music and the participants.  Admission was free.

   Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart followed the Bach with "America the Beautiful,” sung by the May Festival Chorus, and the theme from "The Magnificent Seven" by Elmer Bernstein, complete with obligatory livestock (taped "moos" and neighs), just as Kunzel would have done.

   CSO music director Paavo Järvi summoned a sublime "Nimrod" (Elgar) from his players, shaping it into a seamless, heart-stopping line.  Järvi also led "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss Jr.  Kunzel loved waltzes and devoted one of his 90 Telarc CDs to a single, uninterrupted waltz ("Never-Ending Waltz").

   In Soviet-occupied Estonia, where Järvi grew up, one of his family's few windows on the outside world was the annual New Year's concert broadcast from Vienna, so waltz music is in his blood, too, and he gave it scintillating shape and a rhythmic tilt.

   May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco, who collaborated with Kunzel frequently on concerts and recordings, conducted "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" with the Chorus and soprano Kathleen Brett.   Brett, who sang with Kunzel August 1 at Riverbend, stood in for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who canceled due to illness.

    Brett was attending the memorial concert anyway, she said, and her feelings were evident, not only in the warm tone of her voice, but, to those sitting close enough to the stage, the tears in her eyes.

   Brett joined the orchestra, led by assistant conductor Vincent Lee, a Kunzel discovery when he was a student at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, in a soaring "Climb Every Mountain" from "The Sound of Music."

   Cincinnati Pops associate conductor Steven Reineke, 39, pronounced "Cincinnati's latest genius" by Kunzel in an interview with The Cincinnati Post  in 1994, conducted his own arrangement of "America" from "West Side Story."  Kunzel particularly liked it, said Reineke, a composer who also became one of the Pops' principal arrangers.  Paying tribute to Kunzel's inner child, Reineke also led an arrangement by Richard Hayman of "Sing a Song" from "Sesame Street" and "I Believe in Music."  In true Kunzel fashion, he invited the audience to clap and sing along

   Now music director of the New York Pops, Reineke capped the show with "The Stars and Stripes Forever."  Patriotic music is closely associated with Kunzel, both for his concerts in Cincinnati and as long-time conductor of the nationally televised Fourth of July and Memorial Day concerts with the National Symphony in Washington D.C.

   The spoken parts of the program gave it a direct and deeply human dimension.  Davidson recalled boating trips with his unflappable uncle and being caught once in the fog without radar.  "I could stand up here all night and tell you these stories," he said, emotion welling in his voice, "if only I could believe he was still here."

   Lockhart received a hand-written note from Kunzel when he was appointed CSO assistant conductor in 1990, he said.  Kunzel never missed a birthday after that, up to and including this year, always signing his card "Love, Dad." 

   Coe, a friend from college days who was best man at Kunzel and Brunnhilde's wedding, recalled his prankish, fun-loving nature, like tossing French fries to pelicans at a restaurant in Florida and rolling in the mud with his dog.

   Coe visited Kunzel at his home on Swan's Island, Maine shortly before he died.  “His last words to me were 'I've got to go,'" said Coe in one of the most emotionally drenched moments of the evening.  “Good night, Erich,” Coe murmured to the Music Hall audience, adding these touching words from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet":  "When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night."

   Reineke spoke affectionately of Kunzel's candor:  “So kid, ya any good?” he asked, when he approached the 24-year-old Reineke to arrange for him.  "He was the greatest influence on my life, and the most precious lesson he taught me was the importance of love," said Reineke.

   One of Kunzel’s favorite quotes, Reineke added, was by Oscar Hammerstein II:  "A bell's not a bell 'til you ring it.  A song's not a song 'til you sing it.  Love in your heart wasn't put there to stay.  Love isn't love 'til you give it away."

   The SCPA Chorale and Children's Choir came onstage for "Sing a Song/I Believe in Music,” reflecting not only Kunzel's childlike nature, but his devotion to Cincinnati’s one-of-a-kind, K-12 performing arts school.  (The new SCPA between Elm and Race Streets at Central Parkway, opening in 2010, was made possible by Kunzel's leadership and fund-raising efforts).

   Reineke exhorted the Music Hall audience and those watching on Fountain Square to clap and sing along.

   “Raise the roof so the old fox can hear us," he said, demonstrating the spirit of his mentor in the process.

    They did, and then the entire company – Reineke, Lockhart, Järvi, Porco, Brett, Lee, the May Festival Chorus and SCPA choirs – joined the crowd for a rousing sing along of “The Stars and Stripes Forever," topped by a confetti drop.

   Seen in the Music Hall audience were Norma Peterson, Nick and Nina Clooney, Doc Severinsen, Jack Everly, Robert Woods and Elaine Martone, Carmon DeLeone, Steven Monder, Louise Nippert, Edythe and Carl Lindner, Nancy Donovan, Daniel Hoffheimer, Chris and Tom Neyer, Marvin Quin, Vicky and Rick Reynolds, Melody Sawyer Richardson, John Spencer and Linda and Don Siekmann.  Former CSO staffers returning from out of town included  Rebecca Beavers and Nellie Cummins from Atlanta, David Crane and Marcy Wilhelm (Nagoya, Japan), Carrie and Peter Throm (Ann Arbor. Michigan) and Ernest Toplis (Philadelphia).

   A commemorative CD, "Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra: The Legacy Collection," produced by Robert Woods, has been issued by the CSO.  The cost is $20, with profits to benefit the Erich Kunzel Pops Legacy Fund, created by the CSO board of trustees for continuing support of the Cincinnati Pops and Pops-related projects. To order call the CSO box office at (513) 381-3300.