The American conductor, Erich Kunzel, was born to German-American immigrant parents in New York City. At Greenwich High School in Connecticut, he arranged music and played the piano, string bass, and timpani. Initially a chemistry major, Kunzel graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in music, then studied at Harvard and Brown universities. He conducted the Brown University Glee Club for at least two years. He studied at the Pierre Monteux School, and was personal assistant to the great French conductor Pierre Monteux.
Erich Kunzel made his professional conducting debut in 1957 leading Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona with the Santa Fe Opera Company. He met his Austrian-born wife, Brunhilde, while conducting Gianni Schicchi for Santa Fe in 1964, and they married a year later. From 1960 to 1965, he conducted the Rhode Island Philharmonic. In 1969, he was initiated as an honorary member of the Eta-Omicron chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. He was also a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.
Max Rudolf invited Erich Kunzel, then a young conductor on the faculty of Brown University, to join the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as an associate conductor in 1965. That October Kunzel conducted his first sold-out “8 O’Clock Pops” concert, marking his ascent as a modern orchestral legend. 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. For decades he led the orchestra, packing houses in Cincinnati’s Music Hall and Riverbend Music Center, and also gaining new fans the world over through tour performances, PBS television specials and millions of recordings sold on the Telarc label.
Erich Kunzel led the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra on tours that include many concerts in Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall and at the Blossom Music Festival. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra were especially popular in Asia. The group toured Japan several times, starting in 1990. The numerous international tours included a celebrated tour to China in 2005 (the first appearance of a pops orchestra in that country), highlighted by concerts in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Kunzel conducted the first ever pops concert in China in 1998 in Beijing with the China National Symphony Orchestra. In August 2008, Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra made an historic return to China to participate in the Opening Festivities of the Summer Olympics in Beijing; they were the only American orchestra to play at the event.
Erich Kunzel made most of his classical music recordings as director of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. However, he also made jazz recordings with Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and other well-known artists. Starting in 1977, Kunzel recorded with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra nearly 90 albums 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. More than 55 of these albums appeared on the Top 10 Billboard Charts. He was named Billboard Magazine's Classical Crossover Artist of the Year for an unprecedented four consecutive years. Several Grammy Awards, the distinguished Grand Prix Du Disque, and the Sony Tiffany Walkman Award for “visionary recording activities” highlighted his fantastic recording career of over 125 albums.
In 1987, his "Aaron Copland: Lincoln Portrait" (Telarc) 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. His albums frequently feature digital sound effects created by Michael Bishop. The recording engineer for Kunzel's recording of music by Copland earned a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Classical in 1998.
The conductor had a large influence on Cincinnati's local music scene. In addition to conducting almost weekly subscription concerts with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, 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. Some of Kunzel's mentees at the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra would later become notable in their own right, including Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops Orchestra and Steven Reineke of The New York Pops.
At the invitation of Arthur Fiedler in 1970, Erich Kunzel guest-conducted over 100 concerts with the Boston Pops Orchestra performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall and on tour in the USA and England. He remained active with symphony, leading the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (as Principal Pops Conductor) from 1982 to 2002. Outside of Cincinnati, Kunzel appeared also in more than 100 performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, where he holds the record for attendance - 22,000. From the Capitol Building on the 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 1996, the Fourth of July concert drew a record crowd of nearly a million people to the Capitol, as well as the largest viewing audience for a musical event in PBS history.
In 2005 Erich Kunzel made his Viennese debut as part of the 100th anniversary season of the Vienna Volksoper, conducting the Viennese premiere of The Sound of Music. In 2004 he made his debut with the San Francisco Opera conducting 12 performances of The Merry Widow. This production was telecast on BBC Worldwide and PBS as part of the Great Performances series. On several occasions Kunzel also conducted the World Super Orchestra in concerts at the Tokyo International Music Festival. In January 2008 he led the Vienna Volksoper Symphony Orchestra in a Gala New Year’s Eve Tour in eight concerts in Japan. On June 20-21, 2008, he conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's performance of Star Trek: The Music at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.
Erich Kunzel was also Chair of the Greater Cincinnati Arts and Education Center, an organization whose plan to build a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts adjacent to Music Hall was realized in 2010.
Erich Kunzel’s distinguished career was personified by his 2006 National Medal of Arts, presented by President and Mrs. Bush at a ceremony in the Oval Office at The White House in 2007. The National Medal of Arts, the highest given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government, is awarded to those who have made outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the USA. The legendary “Prince of Pops” (as he was called by the Chicago Tribune.) was also honored in September 2008 as an inductee into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
In addition to the National Medal of Arts and his induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, in August of 2009 Erich Kunzel was appointed honorary artistic director for the 2012 World Choir Games, which will host its first-ever event in the United States. He was honored with the President’s Award from the Public Relations Society of America’s Cincinnati Chapter in June of 2009, and in 2006 with the Irma Lazarus Award from the Ohio Arts Council. He received the 1994 Presidential Medal for Outstanding Leadership and Achievement from Dartmouth College, his alma mater, and in 2006 he was elected into Phi Beta Kappa, America’s oldest honor society. Dartmouth College honored him in June 2007 with the Honorary Doctor of Arts degree. He also received honorary degrees from University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, College of Mount St. Joseph, Wilmington College and Northern Kentucky University. He was named by the Ohio Arts Council as a special recipient of the 1991 Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio. In 1995, Kunzel received the 1995 Salvation Army “Others” award in recognition of his contributions to the city of Cincinnati, the same year that the Cincinnati MacDowell Society honored his contributions to the arts community by awarding him the MacDowell Medal. In 1996 the Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity presented him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award in recognition of his outstanding achievements in the performing arts.
In April 2009, Kunzel was diagnosed with pancreatic, liver and colon cancer and received chemotherapy treatments in Cincinnati. He performed a final concert at Riverbend on August 1, 2009. He died a month later at Bar Harbor, Maine, near his home at Swan's Island. That day, the CSO board of trustees posthumously named him "Founder and Conductor Emeritus".