Erich Kunzel, Jr. was an American orchestra conductor, named the “Prince of Pops” by the Chicago Tribune. He conducted the Brown University Glee Club for at least two years, the Santa Fe Opera, and the Rhode Island Philharmonic. He lead the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (CPO), for 32 years and received the 2006 National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.
In 1965, Kunzel began the country’s first winter pops series, the “8 O’Clock Pops”. When the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra board of trustees created the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in 1977, Kunzel was named conductor. The Pops became the larger of Cincinnati’s two orchestras, as all of Max Rudolf’s symphony orchestra also played for the Pops year-round. At the invitation of Arthur Fiedler in 1970, Kunzel guest-conducted over 100 concerts with the Boston Pops Orchestra. He remained active with symphony, leading the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (as Principal Pops Conductor) from 1982 to 2002.
From the beginning, Kunzel strove to expand the Cincinnati Pops’ reach worldwide, with nearly 90 recordings on the Telarc label, most of which became bestsellers. His popular recordings of classical music, Broadway musicals, and movie scores topped worldwide crossover charts more than any other conductor or orchestra in the world.
The Cincinnati Pops were especially popular in Asia. The group toured Japan several times, starting in 1990. In 1998, Kunzel became the first American pops conductor to perform in China. Ten years later, he and the Cincinnati Pops were invited back to perform at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing; they were the only American orchestra to play at the event.
Kunzel made most of his classical music recordings as director of the Cincinnati Pops. However, he also made jazz recordings with Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and other well-known artists. From the Capitol Building lawn, Kunzel conducted the National Symphony Orchestra every Memorial Day and Fourth of July from 1991 to 2009, in concerts televised nationwide on PBS. In 1987, his Aaron Copland: Lincoln Portrait (CD-80117) album with narration by Katharine Hepburn including Old American Songs sung by Sherrill Milnes received a Grammy nomination. Other Grammy nominations came in 1989 (A Disney Spectacular), 1991 (Meredith Willson’s The Music Man), and 1993 (Amen!–A Gospel Celebration). The album American Jubilee won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1989.
The conductor had a large influence on Cincinnati’s local music scene. In addition to conducting almost weekly subscription concerts with the Cincinnati Pops, he expanded the Pops program in 1984 to include a summer concert series at the newly built Riverbend Music Center on the banks of the Ohio River. He pushed for a new campus to house the city’s public School for Creative and Performing Arts. He invited many local performers, including children’s choruses and College-Conservatory students, to share the stage with the Pops.