Swan song: After 35 years, conductor begins final season

David Kunkel leaned forward and pressed his left index finger on his lips.

“Shhhhhhhhh,” he told the Symphonicity’s wind section. It faded out.

In his right hand, Kunkel hoisted a baton. Without hesitation, the double basses surged and flooded the Sandler Center with low tones that reverberated in the empty 1,200-seat theater.

Something was wrong.

The conductor dropped both hands. More than 30 musicians froze in place.

Silence.

The conductor set down the baton and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe sweat from his brow before speaking.

Violinists began annotating their sheet music as he addressed them. They had to get it right – right now.

David Kunkel conducts a practice at the Sandler Center. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)
David Kunkel conducts a practice at the Sandler Center. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)

It was Thursday night, which meant there were three days and one rehearsal left before the 97-member orchestra would kick off Kunkel’s 35th and final season in charge of Symphonicity. It will be his swan song, he had said earlier, and he knew how to perfect it. He knew this from experience; he has conducted the orchestra through more than 300 performances and more than 3,000 hours of rehearsal, according to Symphonicity Executive Director Wendy Thomas.

Kunkel made final tempo adjustments and decided his musicians did not need a break.

“Alright, we’re going to go on,” said the only conductor the symphony has ever had.

***

Conducting.

It’s a power, a job, a feeling that hooked Kunkel, 71, during a conducting class he took in high school, he said. He never shook it, yet he never thought it could be obtained either.

“Well, maybe back then I did,” he said, reconsidering. “Because I was really stupid. But aren’t all 9th graders?”

In high school in the ’60s in Philadelphia, Kunkel saw a Navy band perform and enlisted. He knew the Navy would send him to music school and, if he graduated, send him back into high schools to recruit kids.

“If I flunked out, I would have become a sailor,” he said.

All he wanted was to make music. The Navy let him.

During his next 22 years in the service, Kunkel played cocktail piano in Iceland, led a recruiting rock band, performed at the White House and taught music at a Virginia Beach Naval base.

That last stop is where he met Frank Jones, a Navy man who played the flute. Jones was starting a volunteer orchestra in the area and needed staff who would work for free. He offered Kunkel an assistant conductor position.

The Pennsylvania native accepted, but he didn’t stay in the role for long.

The conductor that Kunkel was assisting moved to Alabama before the first show. That created a void no one else could fill, partly because of the time commitment but mostly “because we couldn’t afford to pay someone to conduct,” Jones said. The orchestra’s board was composed of its own players, who today remain unpaid volunteers.

Kunkel didn’t take a salary for the first five of his 35 years in charge of the orchestra. One of the first acts as conductor was to put his own money into a hat that the orchestra passed around so it could print programs for its first performance – staged in a high school.

“We’ve gone from that to this organization that’s never finished a year in the red,” Kunkel said.

The symphony’s budget has ballooned dramatically since its inception, allowing it to purchase two sets of percussion equipment and the tools it needs to put on top-quality shows, he said.

“But more importantly, we accumulated players who are dedicated, faithful and energetic,” he said.

That didn’t seem possible at first to Kunkel.

“When I started in town, no one knew me and no really even one wanted to,” he said, recalling his recruitment efforts for the fledgling orchestra. “I was just this Navy guy.”

Kunkel in the early 1990s. (Courtesy of Lynette Andrews)
Kunkel in the early 1990s. (Courtesy of Lynette Andrews)

To those already involved, he quickly became the conductor guy. First he pieced together music he knew his orchestra could play. Then, as the years went by, he pieced together an orchestra that could play all the music he wanted it to.

“Without David, it wouldn’t have happened at all,” Jones said. “We would not have grown any.”

In 2007, the Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra renamed itself Symphonicity, and Kunkel moved it into the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts.

***

With an open palm, Kunkel stopped the music again.

He’d sorted the tempo.  It was time to move on to another section of “The Planets,” a seven-movement suite composed by Gustav Holst between 1914 and 1916. Symphonicity will perform it at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Sandler Center with visuals from NASA Langley, where two of the orchestra’s musicians work.

“The second movement just melts my heart,” Kunkel told the orchestra.

He picked it to launch “The Year of the Maestro,” the title of his final season.

Kunkel loves music for the way it allows him to share his emotion with his audience, how he can make them feel what he feels as a conductor.

Holst’s work has seven movements, one for each of the eight planets minus Earth. Kunkel said the suite was on his bucket list.

Conducting it – and any other symphony – “comes with a great physical and mental cost,” he said. The energy he expelled Thursday left him sweating, even in an empty theater and with breaks.

The exertion is part of the fun, but it’s also most of the reason why he’s stopping after 35 years. The orchestra is a year-round job without breaks, he said.

After the opening concert, Kunkel will be back at Sandler Center on Tuesday teaching the orchestra music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky for the November concert. Beethoven is Kunkel’s favorite musician.

“I want to slow down, smell the roses,” he said. “Relax.”

After the season, he’ll focus on his farm in southern Virginia Beach and on his role as music director at First Presbyterian Church, where he sits hidden on stage behind an organ each Sunday.

Kunkel1
After conducting, Kunkel plans to focus on his role as music director at First Presbyterian Church. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)

“So, I’m prepared that after this I’ll probably never conduct an orchestra again,” he said.

Everyone else is trying to prepare for that. Thomas said there are plenty of surprises planned for Kunkel this season as the board searches for his replacement. They have 12 candidates — whittled down from 70 applicants from 6 continents. Five will be selected to conduct one concert each next season. After that, the board and audience will pick one, Thomas said.

One who will forever be second, after Kunkel.

Tickets for “The Planets” can be purchased at sandlercenter.org or the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts box office. Prices begin at $10 for students and $19 for adults. For more information visit symphonicity.org or call the Sandler Center at (757) 385-2787 or Symphonicity at (757) 671-8611.

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