I was saddened to hear that Erich Kunzel passed away at his home in Swan’s Island, Maine this past Tuesday, September 1. He was 74. Kunzel was known to symphony audiences throughout the U.S. and Canada for decades as a the Pops Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, with which he made many recordings. He also conducted the PBS nationally televised holiday concerts in Washington, D.C. and was conducting as recently as August 1st. I knew him personally when he conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1970s and 1980s; he was the Principal Pops conductor of the RPO from 1983 to 1988.
Kunzel’s programs were always percussion heavy, and it was a normal occurrence for me to spend hours and hours working on the preparation of thick books of printed percussion parts prior to his first rehearsals – erasing old pencil markings, re-marking and assigning instruments clearly, photocopying, etc., because Kunzel was very professional and he rightly expected things to be good-to-go right away, since there would normally be only two rehearsals. Fortunately, we always got along pretty well. I would always ask, and Kunzel would pass along greetings from Bill Platt, my Eastman School classmate and then the Principal Percussionist in the Cincinnati Symphony.
NEXUS also performed one concert with Kunzel and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on August 4, 1980 at Ontario Place in Toronto. The program featured NEXUS playing several novelty ragtime pieces with orchestra accompaniment.
Kunzel’s demeanor, both in rehearsals and in social settings, was loud and direct – not formal. In Rochester, I can remember numerous post-concert parties at the homes of patrons and board members and Erich’s was always the loudest voice. He loved beer and he enjoyed showing off his ability to chug an entire yard-glass of beer in one sustained gulp to the delight of all witnesses.
Ruth and I occasionally drove Kunzel in our car to out of town concerts. We always had to be sure to carry several 6-packs of cold beer for the drive home after those concerts. The cans were always empty by the time we got home, and neither Ruth nor I are beer drinkers. He carried all that beer well and he never seemed to be affected by it.
During the 1980s Ruth and I had a sailboat – a 30-foot Bayfield sloop – docked on Lake Ontario, and as soon as Kunzel heard about it, he asked if he could take it out. On one of his summer visits, after double-checking on his sea worthiness, we gave him the keys and he sailed our boat – solo and sometimes with his guests (and plenty of beer).
After his departure from Rochester in 1988 Kunzel returned to guest conduct only once or twice, and after I left the orchestra in 1995 I never met him again.