Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Pops Week with Erich Kunzel

It was one of those Tuesday mornings, the start of a ten-service week of the Cincinnati Pops with Maestro Erich Kunzel. There was to be a full complement of rehearsals, three concerts and two recording sessions. Our stands seemed awfully top-heavy with those thick red trumpet folders jammed full of repertoire. We had brought bags o' mutes, extra mouthpieces, and several trumpets all warmed up and ready for action. Approaching Music Hall even an hour early, one could see that his dark blue Mercedes with his EK Maine license plate was already there. Mr. Kunzel was always the first to arrive and the last to leave.

A typical Pops week meant you were going to have to work and play hard, loud and high, soft and sweet. You would be juggling mutes, switching horns, standing and sitting while quickly adjusting the music stand, trying to manage those fast segues from tune to tune, all the while being expected to sound great. Often a three-ringed circus with soloists, dancers, choirs, cloggers, aerialists, flame-throwers, you name it, would be happening right there on our stage. Try to play and concentrate when you and your colleagues were in some crazy costume with cameras in your face. It was literally lights, cameras and lots of action!

One of the most impressive gifts Erich had was his ability to organize and lead a recording session. He was Mr. Efficiency! There we sat looking at the long list of rep for the next three hour session often thinking "there's no way!" But there was a way, and he usually got it all done on time with maybe even a prerecording of some piece for the next album. Every minute of every break was used to quickly assess what needed to be fixed. Dashing from the podium to hear playbacks, he was always on a mission. Erich was great at that, working fast and efficiently under pressure. I always admired that he did not get rattled as the clock was ticking down.

Eventually the busy week would finally end right on the dot with the last tune in the can. With hair bedraggled, shirt wet with perspiration, water bottles empty, and all the scores in a disheveled heap, Erich's work for the week was done, and done very well. "Thank you, everybody!!" he would call, which signaled the official end of the week. Another Pops event had come and gone in its familiar whirlwind fashion. He made you work, but it was fun.

The stage hands would instantly descend onto the stage en mass like scavengers to quickly set up for the next set of rehearsals. String players scattered instantly. The busy librarians would gather up the remains of the week's work on carts like medics picking up the wounded after a battle. The massive amount of Telarc recording equipment would slowly begin to come down to be packed away.

The woodwind instruments would get swabbed and carefully placed back into their cases. The percussion guys would once again begin their long methodical take-down having just used every instrument they owned. There was the occasional murmuring from a few of us brass players, but all the hard work was worth it. We usually finished stronger than we began. Working for Erich was sort of like a high-powered body-building course. There were some aches and pains for sure. But hey, no pain, no gain. How hard could Mahler be after one of Erich's weeks! He made us unstoppable!

I am sure that we did not fully appreciate all that we had in Erich Kunzel's leadership. It was easy to take it for granted when we were accustomed to it for so many years. He began each week with a loud and upbeat "Good morning, everybody!!" He tapped the baton and we immediately began delving into the huge stack of stuff. The week closed with "Thank you, everybody!!" I will never forget those weeks. On August 1st, he conducted his last concert. We will miss him.

Thank you, Erich.

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