The Speaker's Lobby: The Baton At Rest

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

06 September 2009

Capitol Hill recently bade farewell to two maestros.

The first was a legislative maestro. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was all Fortisisssimo. He played the legislative game at full volume. But Kennedy was the consummate dealmaker, reaching across the aisle to find harmony on the most intractable issues. Kennedy produced a legislative opus that ranged from immigration to wages to children's health care.

The other maestro who passed away didn't make law. But was a Capitol Hill impresario in his own right.

He made music.

Erich Kunzel died last week of liver, colon and pancreatic cancer. He was 74. The conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, Kunzel visited Washington twice each year to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra for the Memorial Day and July 4th concerts on the Capitol lawn.

Kunzel was the son of German parents who immigrated through Ellis Island. He grew up in New York and attended Dartmouth. Friends say it was Kunzel's quintessentially American story that prepared him to conduct on Capitol Hill.

"He was a patriotic guy," said Jerry Colbert, producer of the Memorial Day and July 4th concerts. "Erich knew those were the two most important dates in the nation's life."

In 1989, Colbert drafted Kunzel to conduct the new Memorial Day show and lead the July 4th performance as well.

Before Kunzel, legendary Russian conductor Mstislav Rostropovich presided over many of the Independence Day performances. While in the Soviet Union, Rostropovich challenged the Kremlin when it came to art and free speech. And he even took in Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to live with him. But Colbert says, Erich Kunzel brought something to the concerts that Rostropovich couldn't.

"(Rostropovich) liked to play Russian music on the Fourth of July," Colbert said. "Other conductors are all playing the canon of the classical world. That's one of the reasons classical music is dying."

And Colbert said that's where Kunzel differed from Rostropovich. At the helm of the Cincinnati Pops, Kunzel meshed classical genres with themes from the Terminator, Batman, Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. He added pinches of jazz and country. Dashes of Broadway show tunes. Kunzel brought those blends with him to the concerts in front of the Capitol.

"Erich understood we are all populists," said actor Joe Mantegna, who's hosted the Memorial Day show alongside Kunzel for the past eight years.

"He was America's conductor," said Kunzel's longtime manager Peter Throm. "Erich always thought about what he called the 'Iowa couch potato.' He would always ask 'What's going to keep them tuned in?'"

What kept them tuned in was the array of stars and selections of music at the Capitol. Country artist Trace Adkins. Katharine McPhee of American Idol. Huey Lewis and the News. The Beach Boys. Elmo from Sesame Street.

"Erich subscribed to Entertainment Weekly," said Throm.

But for his shows on Capitol Hill,  Kunzel's musical fusion was as important as his appreciation of the venue itself.

For each performance, the glen between the Capitol and the National Mall morphs into gigantic, open air concert hall. I once asked Kunzel what was his favorite place to conduct. Without hesitation, Kunzel pointed at the Capitol and said "Right here! This is the greatest stage in the world!"

Mantegna says it was as though Kunzel was destined to conduct the Capitol Hill shows.

"He's one of the symbols of (the shows) as much the Capitol Dome itself," says Mantegna. 

Thousands of people crowd the Capitol grounds for the concerts. And millions more watched Kunzel, sporting his signature, American flag bowtie on PBS. It's the biggest audience any symphony gets all year.

Of course, conducting the shows was often a high-wire act for Kunzel. Throm says one year, the National Park Police evacuated the Mall because of a tornado warning. PBS always records the dress rehearsal from the night before in case of an emergency. So when show time hit, PBS rolled the tape of the practice. Shortly after, the National Weather Service lifted the tornado warning and PBS cut to the live concert, in progress.

Throm says Kunzel started the orchestra as though it was doing a dry-run when the show was supposed to start. And then 45 minutes in, PBS switched from tape to the concert, synching up the program in mid-broadcast.

"It was like one, two three and you're live!" Throm said. "It was literally like flipping a switch from tape to live. It's a testament to Erich that he could hold it together. He's unflappable."

Through the years conducting the concerts, Kunzel forged a friendship with another son of immigrants who also grew up in New York: Colin Powell. Powell's been involved with the concerts for decades as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.

When Powell chaired the Joint Chiefs, Kunzel asked the general to the podium to lead the orchestra for a number.

"Erich really wanted to see (Powell) with the baton in his hand," Throm laughed. Erich said 'Here's the man in charge of the whole military and he's nervous.'"

Without question, the climax of each Capitol show was the salute to the military services.

Kunzel led the orchestra in a medley that incorporated all of the service songs. The NSO always begins with the Coast Guard and glides through the themes for the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army. With unparalled gusto, Kunzel individually called out the name of each service as the orchestra played their tune. He'd also ask veterans in the audience from that particular branch to rise. Many sung along as Kunzel conducted "Into the Wild Blue Yonder" for the Air Force and the Navy's "Anchors Aweigh."

"That was always my favorite part of the show. And it moved me," said Mantegna. "I'll miss hearing that stirring voice of his. The Coast Guard! The Marines!"

Shortly after Kunzel died, I walked outside the West Front of the Capitol facing the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and down toward the patch of grass where they stage the concerts. It was a sunny summer day. Tourists milled about and snapped pictures of the imposing Capitol Dome looming over them. I moved to the place where they erect the stage and tried to imagine where Kunzel would stand at the podium, gyrating with his baton.

On my daily trips to the Capitol, I usually think of this place as an arena for waging political battles. But over the years, Kunzel claimed ownership and converted it into something else: a concert hall. And as I meandered around the Capitol lawn, I could hear the orchestra playing and Kunzel barking out each branch of the armed forces.

Erich Kunzel's baton is now at rest. But if you've seen one of those shows, take a stroll across Capitol Hill. His music echoes through the glade below the Capitol that doubles as one of the most special concert venues in the world. 

- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.