Bassoons run baritone scales as piccolos trill and timpani tune. Trumpets blare and violins slide from flat to true, the musicians intent as they twist pins and work valves, each oblivious to the cacophony.
Maestro David Kunkel steps gingerly onto the conductor’s platform, raises his hand, and the chaos stumbles to a stop.
It’s Tuesday night and as they have for nearly 35 years, members of Virginia Beach’s Symphonicity watch intently as Kunkel, 72, lifts his baton.
If he clutches it tightly, the music will become tense. If he holds it gently, the performers will relax. He does these things from muscle memory, so engrossed that at one practice he didn’t realize that his watch band had cut into his wrist and he was bleeding all over his shirt.
Kunkel is not one to seek an audience’s eyes, although when the orchestra was young and not as good as it is now, he became quite the raconteur, joking and telling stories before each selection. It was part of what drew the audience, what kept them entertained.
So a few years ago, after he chose to stay silent during a performance, to let the music speak for itself, people sent emails and stopped him in Farm Fresh to ask if he was OK. “I just did the concert like a normal conductor,” he says, “and what a hullabaloo!”
He lowers his baton now – moves it perhaps 4 inches – and music rolls from the throats of trumpets, tubas and trombones in practice for this, Kunkel’s last season, aptly titled “The Year of the Maestro.”
He looks over his glasses at the violin players, their bows skating over strings, raises his left hand and closes it, biting off the notes. He bends to the right, reaching out his palm to quiet the violas.
“Can you make that note softer?” he says. “We want eerie.”
Kunkel turns to the trumpet players. “See the crescendo with triple forte? Save some for the next phrase,” he says. “You know the old rule, when you start to turn red and fall over, I’ll cut the note.”
The players laugh.
Kunkel has been music director and conductor since the orchestra’s founding in 1981, never late to a rehearsal, never missing a show, his first rule always to entertain.
There are 100 members now – teachers, bankers, doctors, electricians – professionals and weekenders, their ages ranging from high school to octogenarian.
The volunteers perform throughout the year at their home venue, the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, a building that might not even exist had Kunkel and fellow orchestra members not lobbied hard for it. Prior to the Sandler, they made do at area schools, like Kitty Hawk Elementary, where longtime violinist Elaine Spitz says the risers rocked back and forth as they played. A lot has changed. But not Kunkel’s love. Nor his mission.
“I have one goal,” he says, “that anyone who does anything at all with us goes away glad they did it.”
Kunkel’s high school band teacher taught him the basics of conducting and then stood him up in front of his peers. When his hand came down they made music. If he swooped his baton in arcs, they played louder. If he moved it parsimoniously, they played pianissimo.
He loved being a leader, but mostly he loved making others feel what he felt as a little kid with a tiny record player and yellow plastic discs, a story on one side and classical music on the other. He was 5 and shushing his aunts and uncles, insisting they listen to Mozart’s “Turkish March” or Grieg’s “Norwegian Dance No. 2.”
“I have this desire that everybody have the same emotions pumping through them as I have as I’m doing it,” he says. “It’s the same thing that happens when you hear the national anthem – goose bumps on the back of your neck, the hair on your arms standing up and just that huge emotional response washing over your body. You do something like Wagner’s “Love’s Death” from Tristan und Isolde and it’s this powerful, emotional music that climbs and climbs and climbs to an unbelievable climax.”
Kunkel grew up just outside Philadelphia and spent his childhood watching performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale, the glamorous operatic soprano Lily Pons and the great pianist Eugene Liszt. He studied classical piano, then joined the Navy, where he added jazz and cocktail music. He performed in saloons up and down the East Coast, and traded piano keys for percussion in the Navy’s marching band. The service sent him to Iceland and Boston, where he met Pat, the woman he married.
The service eventually sent him to Washington, D.C., and put him in charge of its premier jazz band, The Commodores. He conducted arrival ceremonies for Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. He marched in Carter’s inauguration parade. He was promoted to associate conductor of the United States Navy Band in Washington, and then sent to Norfolk to serve as conducting instructor at the Armed Forces School of Music.
He planned to stay three years and then get back out in front of a band, but he knew that to be a truly good conductor he would have to master Haydn and Mozart. And to do that, he needed a full orchestra. So, in 1981 Kunkel accepted the opportunity to take over the fledgling Virginia Beach Community Orchestra. Symphonicity, as it came to be called, was his baby; and as with a baby, he spent a lot of time learning on the job.
He had 35 musicians, some of whom took him to the woodshed, as he phrases it, teaching him about etiquette, politics and seating. He learned that listening to, and playing, classical music was very different from teaching it.
He stuck with it, though, all along looking forward to Tuesdays with his people, their shoulders tight from a day at work or raising families. He watched how the tension eased away as they played. His job was to coax and encourage them, from first fingerings to full black-tie performance.
There was a little girl who came to the performances. Ànnika Jenkins, now a third-year undergraduate at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York and a sometimes-soloist with Symphonicity, came to every concert she could as a child, often toting her tiny violin, and Kunkel would crouch down next to her and say, “You’re going to play with us someday.”
He treated her like a granddaughter, she says, but also with tremendous respect, always encouraging, always coaching, always asking what she had been playing and what she hoped to achieve.
“He will support anyone who has any sort of dream,” she says, recognizing their talent and skill in the moment but also their potential.
His avocation and vocation align, to draw out the music, to share that joy.
At first the job didn’t pay, but it overlapped for three good years with his Navy work and his side job as music director and choir master at Virginia Beach’s First Presbyterian Church.
The orchestra wasn’t very good at first; the church program wasn’t very big. Now the orchestra is nearly professional and the church program has grown from a small choir to a full 50 members. It has a children’s music program and a visiting musicians’ concert series. Every Christmas his mother makes her way up the steep balcony steps at the church to take her front row seat at her son’s holiday service.
For Christmas Kunkel also inaugurated the symphony’s annual sing-along of Handel’s Messiah. When it began he didn’t have a lead soloist on stage, so he begged the few singers he’d met to come and carry the audience. This past Christmas marked 33 years, and all of the Sandler’s 1,300 seats were full. The year before, so many showed up that a couple hundred overflowed into another room to sing along to nothing more inspiring than a big-screen TV.
His effort, his enthusiasm, has created a holiday tradition for an entire community. And now, he is retiring. He has three shows left in this season and then someone else will pick up the baton. More than 60 people from around the world have applied to replace him. His legacy is a symphony so strong it will carry on without him.
But until then, he will keep drawing the music from his people, keep inspiring the same passion he feels when he hears them play.
“You started coming with me and then you stopped. Are you mad at me?” he says to the orchestra, lowering his baton. The running eighth notes are tripping over the triplets. “If I were playing
I would close my eyes and practice with the metronome,” he says, and once again raises his baton.
“I have no doubt you can do it.”
He lowers his baton and the music begins. The goose bumps are still there.
David Kunkel’s Last Three Shows
“Rule Britannia,” February 21
“Russian Treasures,” April 10
“Grand Finale,” May 15
Initially published in DISTINCTION, February 22, 2016