At an easy clip, Erich Kunzel seems to manage a work and travel schedule that might exhaust a man half his age.

A hint of this comes early on in a two-day period spent shadowing the longtime conductor of the Cincinnati Pops orchestra as he prepares for a series of live concerts at Music Hall and Riverbend Music Center; preparations for his annual Fourth of July concert in the nation’s capital; figuring out logistics for the Pops’ performance during opening weekend of the 2008 Summer Olympics in China (which Kunzel describes as “the highlight of my life”), and a planning meeting for the Pop’s next CD, which will be his 84th on the Telarc label. Kunzel concedes he hasn’t even kept count of his work for other recording companies, but it’s certainly “well over a hundred.”

Kunzel, casually dressed in a Cincinnati Pops white pullover sweatshirt and slacks rather than his trademark red blazer, is presiding over an intense rehearsal before a weekend of concerts. Seated on a stool rather than standing at a podium, Kunzel is drilling his troops, all of whom are also members of the Cincinnati Symphony.

Periodically, he pauses the musicians in mid-stanza to address a technical issue, or stage-direct the evening’s guest artists and dancers, or review subtle changes in lighting, or any of a thousand details that come together to form one of Kunzel’s Big Shows.

“Let’s get back into it,” the maestro announces, and suddenly he is doing just that, jabbing his finger at the string section as he swings his baton with flourish.

Even though this is a working rehearsal, Kunzel finds himself with an audience, a small group of some 50 invited donors and friends of the Pops. This is the chance for loyal supporters to meet and greet the popular maestro. While no one would characterize Erich Kunzel as reclusive, he can only satisfy so many requests for handshakes and chitchat. This elite audience is probably representative of the conductor’s thriving fan base: a few very young people, interspersed within a crowd with graying temples.

Despite the intrusion of the public into a private rehearsal, Kunzel is clearly at ease. And why not? He’s been stepping to this very podium, in this very place, for five decades. Kunzel has managed to craft his unlikely half-century career in Cincinnati, combining music by artists such as Michael Jackson with light classical fare.

Born in New York City in 1935, the conductor began playing piano in elementary school. He soon graduated to string bass and percussion. Kunzel studied music at Dartmouth, Brown and Harvard universities before making his professional debut in 1957, conducting the Santa Fe Opera Company.

It was October 23, 1965, when he first took the Music Hall stage as conductor of a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra pops program (the Pops was formally established in 1977). What does Kunzel remember most about the concert? “It was my debut. Dave Brubeck was my soloist,” he recalls. “I remember my manager coming up and saying, ‘We’ve sold out!’ It was a great feeling.”

Clearly, the world of Cincinnati symphonic music — and Kunzel’s own life — were never going to be the same.
Erich Kunzel, surprisingly, is not all about his music. He has three avowed passions, beyond conducting: Boating, gardening and food.
“I love the sea and anything connected,” he says, noting he and his wife Brunhilde recently spent their April vacation in the Bahamas aboard their 44-foot Hinckley jet cruiser, aptly dubbed “Pops.”

The couple nimbly shuttles between summer and winter homes in Swans Island, Maine, and Naples, Florida. And they indulge their green thumbs at the latter: “I can grow anything in Naples.”

Peter Throm, Kunzel’s personal manager, observes that “Erich’s taste in food is far-ranging. We’ll have exquisite meals, and the next day fast food.”

“I LOVE food, and I love drink. Anything I can get in my gut,” agrees Kunzel. “I’m married to an Austrian, and she’s a fabulous cook.” (His favorite’s include Brunhilde’s schnitzel and plum tart.)

Brunhilde Kunzel, who politely declines requests for interviews, is described by one symphony insider as “very much like Princess Diana, a wonderful representative for the orchestra. She went along on our most recent world tour and charmed the Chinese people.”
Another Kunzel passion is his annual Independence Day concert in Washington, though he jokingly guffaws and describes the patriotic event as “utter chaos!” (Every comment of the conductor should probably be punctuated by an exclamation point — an indicator both of his style of delivery and his joie de vivre.)
“It’s a live performance in front of a couple of million people,” he says of his annual gig conducting the National Symphony on the lawn of the United States Capitol, which is broadcast nationwide by PBS. “Anything live is a bit hair-raising. The stars are nervous, because there aren’t many live shows done anymore.

“I haven’t killed anybody yet, but I’ve come close to it,” he says, only half-joking about the concert, which has drawn up to a million attendees and ranks as the most-watched television event in PBS history.
Framed photographs on the conductor’s desk are reminders of famous faces and favorite times: Kunzel and Mel Tormé, Kunzel and Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi (on Kunzel’s yacht), Kunzel and actor George Clooney.
Another photo of a younger Kunzel reminds visitors of another youthful conductor, Keith Lockhart, who leads the Boston Pops. Lockhart was the symphony’s associate conductor for five years back in the 1990s: “I’m his dad and he’s my son,” boasts Kunzel, noting Lockhart has come home to guest conduct on occasion.
The remark prompts the question, does Kunzel know how many times he has performed at Music Hall? He answers with his staccato delivery: “No, I’ve never kept tabs. Haven’t the faintest idea. Certainly in the thousands.”
Currently, Kunzel conducts 20 concerts a year at Music Hall, and a half-dozen per summer at Riverbend, drawing 340,000 people annually, one of the highest per capita attendance figures in the nation. Upcoming Pops concerts with Kunzel at the helm include “Star Trek: The
Music” (with guests John de Lancie and Robert Picardo from the TV series) on June 28; “Piano Idol: The Music of Gershwin” on July 19; and “Broadway & Beyond” on July 26.
And he has his fans. Impressive ones.
“Erich Kunzel is an extraordinary artist and entertainer ... a treasure for our city,” enthuses the conductor’s self-described No. 1 fan, Carl Lindner.

Larry Thomas, editor of Rhapsody Magazine, the quarterly publication for the listeners of WGUC classical radio in Cincinnati, says, “Erich Kunzel has contributed to Cincinnati, and the music world, in three very important areas: One, higher worldwide awareness of our town and orchestra; two, additional revenue streams from impressive ticket and CD sales; and three, increased appreciation among both music lovers and beginning listeners for the greatness of film scores. It’s hard to imagine the musical landscape without him.”
Mark Cleghorn, a violist who is one of a handful of musicians to have shared the stage with Kunzel all these years, offers this perspective: “I came to the orchestra in 1963. Erich came in 1965, and was immediately asked to do something unusual. [Music director] Max Rudolf’s idea of a pops concert was to do the William Tell Overture. Erich would be the first to admit he didn’t know quite what to do with this [since Kunzel leans toward contemporary music]. He learned quickly.
“I would say Erich is the hardest-working guy I know in the business. He gets involved with every aspect of the performance,” continues Cleghorn. “He’s a crossover artist in the best sense of the word. He’s equally at home with the classical works and the pops.” Ah, the word “crossover.” That term certainly has to come up in any portrait of Kunzel. In 1991, Billboard named him Classical Crossover Artist of the Year for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year.
Of the 83 Cincinnati Pops releases on the Telarc label, 54 have topped the best-seller charts, an unmatched record for any orchestra in the world. Nearly 10 million Pops CDs are found in the country’s households. Among the most popular are Victory at Sea, The Sound of Music, Chiller, The Magical Music of Disney and Great Film Fantasies: The Music of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Four of Kunzel’s albums have won Grammy nominations: The Music Man, Lincoln Portrait, A Disney Spectacular and Copland: Music of America, the latter winning the 1988 Grammy for Best Classical Record of the Year. Add to this that President Bush himself presented Kunzel a National Medal of Arts in a 2006 Oval Office ceremony.

With all this, Kunzel still manages to steal moments to pursue his personal goal: The Greater Cincinnati Arts and Education Center, for which he serves as chairman, is striving to build a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts near Music Hall.
This dream alone earns applause. A standing ovation for the maestro, please.