5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples, FL
NAPLES — The death of Erich Kunzel, the “Prince of Pops,” Tuesday, leaves U.S. orchestral music without one of its hardest-working, creative musical forces. Revered nationally and locally, Kunzel, 74, was the former resident pops conductor of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra and a popular guest conductor with the Southwest Florida Symphony for the past three years.
Four months ago he announced he had been diagnosed with liver, colon and pancreatic cancer. Yet he continued to conduct until this month, conducting the nationally televised July 4 U.S, Capitol concert he has organized since its institution in 1991. Kunzel founded the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, and his recordings with them and others have sold more than 10 million copies. His conducting appearances were worldwide, including one at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Kunzel served as the resident pops conductor for the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra for nearly 11 years, until 2003. He recorded two discs with the orchestra and won an invitation for the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra to appear in China. The orchestra canceled it, however, when the avian flu epidemic caused health concerns for Asian travel.
Kunzel and his wife, Brunhilde, owned a home in Windstar in East Naples, and were often out in the Gulf of Mexico in their sailboat, Pops.
Friends who knew Kunzel described him as a juggernaut who loved his listeners and popular-music programming. He occasionally dressed the part, showing up as Darth Vader to conduct a concert of “Star Wars” music.
“He would work and rehearse 24 hours a day. I don’t know when the man slept,” declared Chellie Doepke, of Naples. She was a flautist with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra who worked with Kunzel for more than 36 years and watched him revitalize the concept of pops programming, she said.
“Up to that point it was basically Arthur Fiedler (late director of the Boston Pops Orchestra), and whatever Boston did was basically last word in pops,” Doepke said. “Erich revolutionized it. He updated the music to bring in modern pieces. He put on spectaculars. He would dream up these Cecil B. DeMille productions that were just phenomenal.
“His energy was so endless, that whenever people learned Erich was coming to town, the word was ‘fasten your seat belts!”
That’s why after Doepke moved to Naples, she enlisted Kunzel to serve as president of the Cultural and Performing Arts committee for the Bayshore/Gateway Triangle focus of the Community Redevelopment Agency. David Jackson, executive director of the agency, said he didn’t know Kunzel well, but recalled the maestro’s efforts to include all artists, not only performing ones, in discussions about a cultural arts district.
“He was so excited and enthused about promoting the local visual and performing artists. He personally signed invitations to over 200 visual artists to get them involved,” Doepke recalled.
“He’s the whole reason I’m arranging,” said Jim Stephenson, a composer-arranger, now in Chicago, who met Kunzel when Stephenson joined the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra as a trumpet player.
“I was just a 23-year-old, when he came to me and said, ‘You want to do arranging?’” Kunzel had heard some of Stephenson’s work for his brass section, and put him to work arranging all kinds of works for the orchestra.
“Music had to be top-notch. He never allowed things to be second-rate,” said Stephenson, who now works in Chicago. Stephenson called Kunzel a much deeper musician than classical fans give pops conductors credit for: “Through and through, he was very well-trained and smart, and a good educator.”
Fran Goldman, who joined the Southwest Florida symphony in Fort Myers as executive director in December, agrees. She knew Kunzel as a guest pops conductor for that orchestra.
“His programs were very well thought through, with great music. He watched every detail,” she marveled. “I’m a musician (a clarinetist), and when I saw him in rehearsal telling the musicians to turn this way or that, I knew his programs would be great.”
Myra Janco Daniels, founder, director and CEO of the Naples Philharmonic Center, remembers seeing Kunzel conduct the Santa Fe Opera and admits, “I was blown away.”
After she asked him to build a Naples pops series from ground up, Kunzel applied superhuman rigor to the process, she said.
“He did more concerts here. We did seven in a row (for each program). He did that no place else,” she said.
Daniels said the Kunzels had been planning to spend Erich Kunzel’s 75th birthday in Naples.
“We never lost our friendship with him,” she said of the Philharmonic Center and staff. “He loved people. And people loved him.”
A spokesman for the Cincinnati Pops says Kunzel died Tuesday morning at a hospital near his home in Swan’s Island, Maine.
A page on his career has been compiled by the Cincinnati Symphony as an Erich Kunzel Tribute Web site:
Erich Kunzel, the award-winning conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the former Pops Orchestra conductor of the Naples Philharmonic, has died. He was 74.
Kunzel won international fame through sales of more than 10 million recordings and conducting appearances worldwide.
A spokesman for the Cincinnati Pops says Kunzel died Tuesday morning at a hospital near his home in Swan’s Island, Maine, where he was receiving treatment.
Kunzel was diagnosed with liver, colon and pancreatic cancer in April 2009, but continued conducting while undergoing treatment.
He conducted a nationally televised concert July 4 at the U.S. Capitol. Kunzel had led the National Symphony on the Capitol lawn in PBS-TV’s nationally televised Memorial Day and July 4 concerts since 1991.
Kunzel, who also had a homes in Naples and Newport, Ky., is survived by his wife, Brunhilde.
Kunzel was chair of the cultural and performing arts center board for the Bayshore Gateway Triangle Community Redevelopment Agency in Naples, but resigned in late spring. David Jackson, executive director of the agency, said Kunzel had sent a letter removing himself from its chairmanship because a combination of travels and treatment for his illness. The board elected to keep him in an honorary chair title.
Jackson said he didn’t know Kunzel well, but felt he was a major catalyst for the progress in planning the area’s future. “He was the one who help bring all the visual artists, not only the performing artists, into discussions about the cultural arts district. His name, as well as his creative energy, helped to bring a lot of people into the process who might not have been there otherwise.”
Learning about his death was an emotional moment for Chellie Doepke, of Naples, who is also on that board, and who has known Kunzel for more than 37 years. She was a musician in the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra under his direction.
“He was a very nurturing person,” she said. “He had energy you would not believe.”
Kunzel had been a guest pops conductor for the past three years with the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra; Mary Larkin of its public relations staff, said the orchestra had received his resignation from his schedule for the upcoming season only five days ago.
“Erich Kunzel has been the Southwest Florida Symphony’s guest pops conductor for the past three years and we are proud to have had the privilege to work with and witness the marvelous contribution that Maestro Kunzel has made to the music world,” said a statement from the Southwest Florida Symphony office, assembled shortly after the announcement.
“It was an honor to watch his passion for music emulate from the stage each evening and his unique stage presence will never be duplicated.
It is our deepest desire to give love and support to his family at this time of need. He will be greatly missed by all he touched.”
“He was very popular with the musicians and with the audience. Obviously he’s an institution in the world of pops performance,” said Fran Goldman, who joined the Southwest Florida symphony as executive director in December. The essence of that popularity began with his music, she said.
“His programs were very well thought through, with great music. He watched every detail,” she said. “I’m a musician (a clarinetist) and when I saw him in rehearsal telling the musicians to turn this way or that, I knew his programs would be great.”