Erich Kunzel didn't set out to be a pops conductor. After making his professional debut with Pergolesi's "La Serva Padrona" at the Santa Fe Opera 50 years ago, Kunzel spent the following decade conducting operatic and symphonic repertoire.
But when Max Rudolf, then music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, invited Kunzel to come to Cincinnati in 1965, Kunzel's career took a dramatic turn.
"One of my duties in Cincinnati was to establish a pops series in winter," Kunzel said in a phone interview from his summer home on Swans Island, Maine. "At that time, we were only one of a few orchestras to have a pops series in the winter within the regular subscription season."
Kunzel's first soloist was Dave Brubeck. Immersed as he was in classical music, Kunzel admitted he had no inkling who Brubeck was at the time. But after that first concert, Kunzel got to know Brubeck very well. "We ended up doing six recordings with him over the years."
And while Kunzel tours with the Cincinnati Pops and guest conducts around the country, he has never appeared in Utah. That's an oversight that's difficult to explain for someone who is known as "the nation's conductor." But it's an unfortunate omission that has finally been remedied.
This weekend, Kunzel will lead the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as part of the Tanner Gift of Music Series, in a concert at the LDS Conference Center called "An American Songbook." "It's going to be a wonderful program of Broadway and patriotic music in Mack Wilberg's out of sight arrangements."
Joining the orchestra and choir will be singers Denyce Graves and Brian Stokes Mitchell, both of whom Kunzel has collaborated with in the past. "I did a PBS special with Denyce, and I conducted Stokes at one of my Capitol Fourth concerts (the annual Fourth of July concerts with the National Symphony)," Kunzel said. "They are easy to work with and a real lady and gentleman."
Even though this will be his first time conducting the Tabernacle Choir in Utah, this won't be Kunzel's first association with the choir he considers "the best in the world."
During its last major United States tour a couple of years ago, the choir performed in Cincinnati. "Craig (Jessop) conducted a couple of numbers, and it was just amazing how they sounded," Kunzel said. "One of the things they sang was a number from 'Les Miz' with just the men, and honestly they sounded like one voice."
Before that, Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops recorded an album for Telarc with the choir, "Miklos Rosza, Three Choral Suites: 'Ben-Hur,' 'Quo Vadis,' 'King of Kings."'
The CD has an interesting history. "The son of Miklos Rosza found choral arrangements of parts of the scores from those movies in his father's papers and approached Telarc about having them recorded," Kunzel said. He and the Tabernacle Choir (which at the time was still recording for Telarc) were approached and both were interested.
There was one problem, though. The choir couldn't come to Cincinnati for the recording. "What happened was, we recorded the orchestral parts in Cincinnati, and the chorus was overdubbed in Utah," Kunzel said. "It was an engineering feat and the result was fantastic."
To date, Kunzel has recorded 87 albums for Telarc, and he and the Cincinnati Pops are one of the label's most recorded artists. Their newest CD, "Vintage Cinema," has just been released and has hit the Billboard charts, and Kunzel is thrilled with it. "There is some great music on this album. We did some early Korngold and also music by Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner." In some cases, it was impossible to find the scores. "Some of the scores had gotten lost and we had to listen to the films and recreate them."
Kunzel and the Pops have a busy schedule to maintain. And at 73, Kunzel shows no interest in slowing down. Last month, he and the orchestra traveled to China to take part in the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics. Afterward, they performed at an invitation-only concert in Beijing's new concert hall that included 30 heads of state. "It was a packed house and a terrific concert. There was also an 80-member children's choir there, who sang about peace and love. It was very moving." President and Mrs. Bush were also scheduled to attend. "They requested 18 tickets," Kunzel said, "but after the 4 1/2 hour opening ceremony, Laura was pooped out," and they changed their plans.
There is a special place in Kunzel's heart for China. A decade ago, he made history when he conducted the China National Symphony in a pops program the first ever pops concert in China. And in 2005, he brought the Cincinnati Pops on tour to China, the first time an American pops orchestra had played in the country. "They love music. Every city has an orchestra and a conservatory. They've been assimilating Western culture for years and it shows in their enthusiasm at concerts."
One of the concerts that Kunzel and the Pops played in Beijing was televised nationally. "We played in the Great Hall of the People. We were told it was being televised and that it was being tuned in by 700 million TV sets." That was a humbling experience, Kunzel said.
Even though Kunzel spends the majority of his time conducting pops concerts, he is still a regular guest artist at the Chicago Symphony's Ravinia Festival and other festivals, and he certainly hasn't neglected (nor would ever want to neglect) the symphonic repertoire.
And that would make one of his old mentors very proud, if he could come back and see Kunzel today.
As a 20-something budding conductor, Kunzel was fortunate to be chosen to assist Pierre Monteux, who at the time was the music director of the London Symphony. Monteux was already in his 80s then, and Kunzel recalls the time he spent with the venerable conductor with awe. "This was in the '63-'64 season, and it was a fantastic experience to be under his elbow. And not only was he a fabulous musician, but he was also a fantastic human being."Monteux also had an uncanny ability to see the humor in every situation. Kunzel got a first hand glimpse of that when Monteux let him read the letter from the London Symphony inviting him to be their new music director. "He was 85 at the time, and to show how much they respected him, they offered him a 25-year contract," Kunzel said. But Monteux said he wouldn't accept the offer unless the orchestra gave him the option to renew for another 25 years. "They gave him what he wanted, and he accepted."
If you go ...
What: Tanner Gift of Music, An American Songbook
Where: LDS Conference Center
When: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: Free but tickets required (tickets are still available)
Phone: 570-0080 or 866-537-8457