ORCHESTRAL POPS

While symphony orchestras continue their tradition of playing symphonies, concertos, and overtures, American ensembles have their own unique tradition of the pops repertoire.

It can be traced to what Arthur Fiedler did in Boston as he pushed the light classics repertoire into a blend all his own. Or it can be traced to John Philip Sousa’s work a generation earlier with the concert band.

Either way, something remarkable happened in the aftermath.

First, while Fiedler was still busy in Boston, Max Rudolf asked his young associate conductor Erich Kunzel to take over the Eight O’Clock series in Cincinnati. He told Kunzel there were a thousand young conductors who aspired to Mahler, but here was a repertoire begging for leadership – and Rudolf was overwhelmed as it was.

The rest is musical history.

Just look at the recordings – and that’s just the tip of an iceberg that includes performances with Tina Turner (when she could really use them) and local bluegrass bands and, well, anything that was music. Kunzel was also big on extending local connections.

Somebody could probably do a doctoral dissertation on the way Kunzel built a spider web of concert themes. You can look to his fabulous Telarc recordings to build the connections. The Hollywood albums, of course. Plus Mancini. There were all the Star Wars/Star Trek albums, each leading to the next. The Roundup album led to Happy Trails and Down on the Farm. The light classics discs soon focus on American orchestral selections leading to the piano and orchestra masterpieces as well as the Gershwin series. Well, they radiate outward, each one rising on something earlier.

The Cincinnati trustees quickly established Kunzel’s Pops ensemble as a separate brand, one that played throughout the year, unlike Boston, where the pops band is a late spring/early summer staple.

Each to his own.

So second, I should point out that when the flamboyant Kunzel was passed over in Boston after Fiedler’s demise, the film composer John Williams instilled another repertoire, giving film music an esteemed place.

I should add that the two become big fans of each other, rather than seeing themselves as rivals.

Now that’s music-making!

There’s much more, I sense, in that range between popular (commercial) music and traditional orchestral fare that could be explored – a third stream, more adventurous than most pops programming and, dare I say, than most classical scheduling these days.

As I hope will yet happen.

As for a connection between these two cities? Kunzel’s assistant, Keith Lockhart, took Williams’ place on the podium in Boston. Seems like just yesterday, though it’s been … I don’t want to count!

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