The news was unthinkable.

On May 1, 2009, Erich Kunzel announced that he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic, liver and colon cancer. Four months later, he was dead.

The outpouring of emotion was immediate and overwhelming; dozens of appreciations and memorials were followed by a raucous battle over whether to rename the School for Creative & Performing Arts after him.

Almost forgotten in it all was the Cincinnati Pops, the group that launched Kunzel into a career that would eventually crown him the “Prince of Pops.”

The subscription season was about to begin. There was a summer season at Riverbend to plan. And it was already time to start strategizing the subsequent Pops season at Music Hall. For the first time in its history, the Cincinnati Pops was facing its future without its founder, frontman and guiding light.

Erich Kunzel was many things: opinionated, entertaining, pushy, charismatic. But his sense for what audiences wanted was nearly infallible.

“Erich was a force of nature,” says Peter Throm, the Ann Arbor arts manager who represented Kunzel for the last five years of his life. “He was a consummate showman on the podium no matter where he conducted. His musical presence will definitely be missed.”

And now, the Cincinnati Pops is in the unenviable position of trying to replace that force of nature.

First, a little background is essential. You have to understand that the Cincinnati Pops and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra are composed of the same pool of musicians.

Back in 1965, inspired by the success of the Boston Pops, then-music director Max Rudolf asked first-year associate conductor Erich Kunzel to put together an “8 O’Clock Pops” concert. It sold out, leading the orchestra to schedule more such performances.

The populist offerings brought a new audience into Music Hall. They loved the music. They loved Kunzel’s regular-guy image. And, in turn, the orchestra loved the additional income.

In a recent interview with Symphony Magazine, the publication of the League of American Orchestras, CSO/Pops vice president and general manager Janell Weinstock said that Cincinnati Pops concerts now account for 44 percent of the orchestra’s ticket revenue. And, she went on to say, “without the Pops, Cincinnati would not be a full-time orchestra.”


So, the future of the Cincinnati Pops isn’t just a matter of who will replace a legend. It’s a matter of filling a central piece in the future of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra itself.

Add to that CSO music director Paavo Järvi’s announcement that he’s leaving at the end of the 2010-2011 CSO season and the impending renovation of Music Hall, and suddenly the enormity of the situation becomes much more evident.

Some may see this as a “perfect storm” for the orchestra. Others see it as a chance for a major reinvention. However one interprets all of this, though, this is a critical moment for the CSO/Cincinnati Pops.

Local developer and CSO board member Jack Rouse has been appointed to head up the search committee to find Kunzel’s successor.

From an outsider’s vantage point, it would seem the simplest solution would be to promote associate conductor Steven Reineke. Recently installed as the conductor of the New York Pops, he is an up-and-coming pops superstar. And, in many ways, Reineke is as responsible as anyone for the Cincinnati Pops’ sound. He’s scored more than 100 orchestrations for the group and is already scheduled to conduct concerts on Jan. 31, April 11 and April 18.

According to Throm, who also represents Reineke, “Steven would be an inspired successor.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

After more than 40 years with one leader, the orchestra’s board and management need to decide what type of relationship they want with a conductor.

Generally, pops orchestras follow one of two formulas. They either have principal conductors like the Pops had with Kunzel, or they stress the franchise itself and rely on guest conductors. In many ways, the Cincinnati Pops was a bit of both.

Because of the fame that Kunzel developed, the Pops grew from a largely unknown ensemble to one whose reputation nipped at the heels of the venerable Boston Pops. It performed around the world, appeared with regularity on TV and had an enviable recording contract.

Thanks to the recordings — there are more than 80 — Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops will continue to have a formidable presence. But the Pops won’t be able to count on new recordings anytime soon.Although Concord Records, the Pops’ recording company, will continue to distribute past recordings, it has no plans for any new ones.

For now, the CSO/Pops has to decide exactly what kind of orchestra it wants to be.

Not all pops programs are the same, you see. Some are very traditional, featuring lots of music from musicals and movies. Others are edgier, featuring guests best known for more progressive music. Inevitably, the orchestra comes to reflect the character of the person at its helm.

Before becoming conductor of the Boston Pops in 1995, 50-year-old Keith Lockhart spent seven years as music director for the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and was associate conductor for the CSO and the Cincinnati Pops.

A generation younger than Kunzel, Lockhart launched JazzFest and EdgeFest in Boston, both aimed at slightly younger audiences than the traditional pops concerts.

Would that approach work in Cincinnati? Perhaps. But would it alienate Kunzel aficionados? Hard to say.

The Pops remains very popular. In Kunzel’s absence, it hasn’t lost any gigs or had difficulty booking guests, but this is a tricky time for any arts organization. Audiences were already down slightly during Kunzel’s final season, but that could be a function of the economy. The specific programs and guest performers? Once again, it’s hard to know. The dip in attendance may be a trend, or it may just be a blip.

“The only thing I can say for sure is that the show has gone on,” says Chris Pinelo, senior director of communications for both the CSO and Pops. “The Pops season has remained intact. It’s the season he designed. And, in the spirit of Erich, it will go on, one way or another.”