"Lets make music together." Leo Kucinski (1904-1998), long time Sioux City conductor, educator and musician often spoke those words in his efforts to bring the best possible music to the people of Sioux City. In his long career, he exposed thousands of school children to the finest music, nurtured a little orchestra into a superb symphony and brought extraordinary music to the community of Sioux City.
The Kucinski family moved to Lorain, Ohio, where Leo began his study of music at the nearby Oberlin Conservatory of Music. When Kucinski was just fifteen years old, he conducted a festival grade school orchestra in Lorain. He later organized and played first violin in the Lorain String Quartet.
While at Oberlin, he studied with internationally known artist Charlotte Demuth Williams. Kucinski continued his studies at the Cleveland Institute under the guidance of the great Swiss violinist Andre de Ribeaupierre. He also received a fellowship in conducting at Juilliard Graduate School of Music. He later received a degree in music education from Morningside College in 1936, and he was awarded an honorary doctor of music degree from Morningside in 1958.
However, it was Kucinski's connection with Charlotte Williams that led him to Sioux City. While Williams was visiting Sioux City as a guest artist with the Civic Concert Course, she mentioned Kucinski to her host, Professor Paul MacCollin of the Morningside Conservatory. She praised Kucinski's abilities, and soon he had a job offer to teach violin at Morningside College.
When Leo Kucinski came to Sioux City in 1923, not long after graduating from Lorain High School, he immediately began to impact the music community, an influence that is still evident today. His incredible abilities and passion for good music inspired his students and others around him. He played his violin for concerts and recitals, and he established an excellent reputation as a gifted violinist.
In 1925, he took over leadership of the Morningside Orchestra. The small orchestra was originally organized to give students the opportunity for orchestra experience, but under his direction, the orchestra began to include musicians from the community and surrounding area. By 1929 the orchestra had grown to fifty members and was called the Sioux City Community Orchestra. That growth continued until the organization became the Sioux City Symphony orchestra in 1946. Kucinski conducted the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra until 1977. While director, he brought a national reputation to the orchestra, conducting many famous performers including Van Cliburn, Benny Goodman, and Meredith Wilson.
Kucinski was a perfectionist who demanded the best from those working under him. He was never satisfied until the results were as perfect as possible. Whether the piece was a light-hearted polka or difficult symphony, he treated each with respect. "All music worth playing at all is worth playing to the best of our abilities," he said.
Kucinski took on additional duties when in 1929 he became the director of the world famous Monahan Post American Legion Band. The band won many awards, including seven first place prizes at international competitions from San Francisco to Paris.
Kucinski was a leader in the effort to erect a band shell in Grandview Park. He felt the award-winning Monahan Post Band deserved a respectable place to play.
"At first we were crestfallen," Kucinski said in a 1936 Sioux City Journal interview, "when the opponents of the project obtained an injunction against the building of the band shell, saying that such an edifice would be an eyesore. We were downhearted then. But our sorrow soon turned to joy, and now, in place of a $15,000 band shell, we have a $60,000 pavilion that is famous nationally and even internationally."
Despite the fact that Kucinski rehearsed, trained and conducted the Monahan Post Band, he could never lead it during the competitions because he was not a member of the American Legion. The situation was remedied when at the age of thirty-eight Kucinski joined the United States Army in 1942. Members of the Monahan Post Band paraded from their headquarters to the Milwaukee railroad station, where Kucinski lead them in four selections before boarding his train.
He served as bandmaster in the Army Air Corps, spending time in the South Pacific during World War II. When he returned to the Monahan Post Band podium, Kucinski was an official card-carrying member of the American Legion.
The Monahan Post Band eventually became the Sioux City Municipal Band, and Kucinski remained its leader until 1980.
Leo Kucinski was convinced that good music was an important part of any community, and he worked tirelessly to develop the finest music programs for Sioux City. He also worked with Sioux City School Superintendent M.G. Clark to bring violin and orchestra instrumental classes to the music curriculum in the public schools.
As early as 1946, Kucinski introduced "pops concerts" designed to appeal to the young people of the city. "We want to expose these young people to good music presented briefly and in an attractive way," Kucinski said.
In his long and distinguished career, he also conducted the Lincoln, Nebraska Symphony for eight years and the Sioux Falls Symphony for fourteen years.