Zack: I myself have heard the discussion many times before: whether or not the orchestra, last seen in 1998, should return. For a slight second, it seemed it would after rumblings of rumors during the months leading to the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest. Those rumors did not come to fruition.
On the Internet, you can find a number of sites dedicated to the orchestra. And one of my favorites is “And the Conductor is…” at www.andtheconductoris.eu. It houses some of the best information out there about the many Eurovision conductors. And I was lucky enough to talk with one of its owners, Bas Tukker. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Bas is very articulate and passionate about the orchestra!
ZACK: Bas, thank you for agreeing to the interview! Will you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got interested in Eurovision?
BAS: My name is Bas Tukker, 34 years of age. I studied ancient languages (Latin and Greek), earning a Ph.D. in 2006 with a thesis on Roman law. I have been a teacher at a grammar school in Breda, Netherlands, since ’99.
My Eurovision interest began when I first watched the event on TV in ’87. Right away, two elements drew my attention: all those different languages and the fact that each country had a conductor of its own to lead the orchestra. As for the languages, it is genuinely true that my interest in foreign languages started by listening to Eurovision songs from faraway corners of Europe; the sounds of Finnish, Danish, Portuguese fascinated me to bits.
As for the conductors, it was when the orchestra was kicked out of the competition after the 1998 contest that I realized that the most interesting part of the show had been taken away: for, realistically speaking, what is a music competition without real, live music? For that reason, from 1998 onwards, my interest in the Eurovision Song Contest has declined to a point that I do not always watch the show anymore.
ZACK: How did you first come up with the idea of the website? What is its mission?
BAS: Already before 1998, I had been writing some articles for Eurovision Artists Magazine, a magazine about the Eurovision Song Contest which was and indeed still is released for journalists and fans in the Netherlands and Belgium (more about Eurovision Artists and its magazine can be found @ www.eurovisionartists.nl). Somewhere in 2005, I talked to Ferry van der Zant, former chairman of Eurovision Artists, and told him that I had lost all interest in the competition and wanted to quit the club. He, instead, wondered why I did not turn my passion for the history of the festival, and specifically the orchestra and the conductors, into something positive… He suggested I should look for some conductors to do interviews. I did interviews with some ten musicians for the magazine, including Richard Oesterreicher, Martyn Ford, Noel Kelehan, and Frans de Kok. The latter two have sadly passed away since.
As I did more and more interviews and collected more and more data, my greed for information only grew and grew. And with a total of 346 musicians having participated as a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest, I realized it would be impossible to publish that many interviews in the magazine. It was then that I had the idea of building a website, on which I have been working since ’09. I owe much to Edwin van Gorp, a big Eurovision connoisseur himself, for building and maintaining the website, which went online in February 2011; Edwin has put in much of his time and he never asks for anything in return! Another great help is Tin Spanja from Norway, who uploads the videos which are included in the biographies; the video on the front page of the site, which is his work as well, is a masterpiece and captures the spirit of the website excellently, if you ask me!
By now, I have interviewed some 70 to 80 conductors, the majority of which I met in real life – the work on my website took me to as far away as Iceland and even Israel. For each conductor, I write a profile, which is subdivided into two parts: a general career bit, which ventures into the life and professional career of each musician, and a second part with details, memories, and anecdotes about the Eurovision participation. As many of the conductors who participated in the contest have already passed away, my job is also to try to get in touch with family members and colleagues of these musicians looking for relevant information and photo material. You can imagine all of this takes up a lot of my leisure time, but as long as I enjoy myself working on the website and exploring music history, I will happily continue my surveys.
ZACK: Looking back at past Eurovisions, I think the live Eurovision performances sounded far better than the studio versions of songs that were released. For example, France 1968 (“La Source” by Isabelle Aubret) sounds fantastic but the studio version leaves me wanting more. What do you think?
BAS: In general, I think it is fair to say that the studio versions often sounded quite ‘slick’ and flat, while the live versions with the orchestra – even if the arrangement was exactly the same as on the record version – beamed with energy and life. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when studio versions were often recorded with keyboards instead of strings and woodwind instruments, the orchestral versions of songs were often far more interesting than the record. Songs such as ‘Vi maler byen rod’ (Denmark 1989), ‘Somewhere in Europe’ (Ireland 1990), and ‘Insieme’ (Italy 1990) are titles that spring to my mind when talking about this.
Many of the conductors I talked to explained that the ‘cheap’ studio productions with keyboards were often the result of a small budget. However, they knew that, for the international Eurovision final, they would get to work with a full orchestra and capitalized on this opportunity by writing a full orchestral arrangement. As is true with good arrangements, they improve on the original composition by making it more interesting to listen to by adding instrumental elements. Just compare the record and live versions of ‘Somewhere in Europe’ by Liam Reilly and you will exactly understand what I mean!
STUDIO VERSION OF “SOMEWHERE IN EUROPE”
LIVE PERFORMANCE OF “SOMEWHERE IN EUROPE” FROM ESC 1990
ZACK: A lot of people agree with you that losing the orchestra was a big mistake. Some big Eurovision figures have even said that at that moment, Eurovision became a karaoke contest. But do you think there are any advantages to having backing tracks used instead of the orchestra? Some say it allows for more variety in the type of music that can presented? What do you think?
BAS: Of course, production-wise, I readily admit that there are practical advantage. For example, without an orchestra, there is no need for intricate sound technique.
As for variety in types of music, I think that is too easy to let the opponents of live music get away with. In this respect, I would like to draw the comparison with the Sanremo Festival in Italy, an annual song festival usually held in February, which still has an orchestra in place. Acts from across the Italian music scene participate in it, from crooners to rock bands and even dance acts. All of them are obliged to use the orchestra in one way or another… in other words, in Sanremo, it is obligatory to submit an orchestral arrangement. To prove just how wide the range of possibilities is, I’d suggest listening to the Sanremo performance of a dance act called Eiffel65, which participated in Sanremo 2003 with a piece which would delight many of the younger Eurovision fans, ‘Quelli che non hanno età’. By virtue of the inventiveness of the band’s arranger, the strings of the Sanremo orchestra greatly improved on the original track.
EIFFEL 65 STUDIO VERSION
EIFFEL 65’s SAN REMO 2003 PERFORMANCE
BAS: Many of the conductors I have interviewed stated that, in Eurovision, since the moment the live orchestral arrangements were taken out of the competition, there has been a painful lack of musical creativity. With an orchestrator taking a look at a song, you are assured of the professionalism of someone who knows how to write for real instruments. Someone, moreover, who knows how to write countermelodies and things like that. Any song, when well arranged, will be more interesting to listen to as a result. Instead, what we are getting nowadays is usually the composer arranging his song himself using samples, computer-generated strings, and other artificial elements. For sure, it is cheap and it is also probably what most listeners nowadays are used to, but nobody should be surprised when a random viewer of the contest feels that all songs sounded alike – because, production-wise, that is kind of true.
So to finally answer your question, I would say that having an orchestra in place would trigger the creativity of musicians and cater for a bunch of songs which sounds more varied rather than less. A modern pop orchestra, such as the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, can play any type of music to perfection; something which these ensembles have proved time and again, in the case of the Metropole Orchestra even with rap and metal artists.
ZACK: Another thing that opponents of the orchestra bring up is that because the orchestra is comprised of musicians, human error can occur. Take the backing track incident with Spain’s Azucar Moreno in 1990. Or Greece’s Eurovision 1991 entry, in which the saxophone player seemed to miss half the notes. If the orchestra were ever to return, what do you think could be done to avoid problems such as these?
AZUCAR MORENO – BANDIDO (SPAIN – ESC 1990)
SOPHIA VOSSOU – I ANIXI (GREECE – ESC 1991)
BAS: The two incidents you mention are of a totally different nature. I talked to both of the hapless conductors who had to go through this, Eduardo Leiva from Spain (Azucar Moreno, 1990) and Charis Andreadis from Greece (Sophia Vossou, 1991).
In the case of the 1990 Spanish entry, the technical crew failed to put on the sound of the backing track in time; something similar could still occur today. It has got nothing to do with the orchestra. The saxophonist from the Italian Eurovision orchestra in 1991 is quite another story. During rehearsals, there had been another saxophonist, but due to a conflict over payment, he declined playing in the actual broadcast; as a result, he was replaced by a sax player who played the scores for the first time during the live broadcast! If he had been given rehearsal time, I am sure there would have been no hiccup with the Greek sax solo in ’91. In this case, it was due to a lack of professionalism and dedication in the Italian organisation that an error occurred that, sadly, more than twenty years later, is still used by opponents of the return of the live orchestra as a proof that an orchestra would not work.
If a good and modern orchestra is picked, with players who are used to working on pop music – especially in the case of the rhythm section this is pivotal – errors like this will not occur. On the contrary, I think the main amount of errors should be attributed to vocalists singing off-key. Swedish maestro Curt-Eric Holmquist explained to me that the lack of live instruments is probably one of the main reasons for the off-key singing for which the Eurovision Song Contest has become so notorious in the last fifteen years; because of the lack of real instruments to pitch their voices to, he stated, singers are more likely to sing out of tune.
ZACK: In addition, people talk about the financial aspect, in that having an orchestra would add a huge financial burden on the host country. Is that true? If so, what could Eurovision do to help resolve any financial costs associated with reintroducing the orchestra?
BAS: Several European countries still have a broadcasting orchestra in place, of which the players have a fixed salary paid for by the broadcaster instead of being paid per gig. Thus, excellent ensembles such as the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Norwegian Broadcasting Orchestra, and the Metropole Orchestra could be used in the Eurovision Song Contest without burdening the contest’s budget.
In 2001, Dutch broadcaster NOS explicitly proposed to the European Broadcasting Union the opportunity to ‘give away’ the Dutch broadcasting band, the Metropole Orchestra, for the Eurovision Song Contest to whichever country would organize the festival that year in case this country did not have a suitable orchestra of its own. Incredibly but true, the EBU high-handedly turned down this proposal! More about this botched initiative by Eurovision aficionado Willem van Beusekom and Metropole Orchestra conductor Dick Bakker can be found by clicking ‘Eurovision Orchestra History’ in the backgrounds section of my website.
Of course, with an orchestra in place, there would be some extra costs, such as hotel accommodation for the orchestra members and a more intricate sound technique. However, things like this are always a matter of priority. If the Italians are able to have their Sanremo Festival, with up to forty songs a year, accompanied by a live orchestra which accompanies all of the competition’s entries with limited rehearsal time and an excellent result, it is possible to achieve something similar in the Eurovision Song Contest as well.
When looking at the Eurovision Song Contest as it is today, both on screen and behind the screens, I am 100% convinced I would find enough possibilities for budget cuts in other parts of the organisation to have two or even three orchestras flown in! The big question is: what do we want? To put it bluntly, there are two options: a competition in which music is the most important element – which would mean the Eurovision Song Contest would go back to what it originally was about – or a happy getting together of people all around Europe with a sing-back TV programme as a side show. Over the last one and a half decade, to my mind, the attention of the contest has shifted too much away from music. I am convinced this is the main reason why the contest has lost so much of its appeal to viewers in many of the traditional Eurovision countries in Western Europe, such as France, Britain, and the Low Countries.
ZACK: Since the orchestra has left Eurovision, what songs do you think would have benefited from having the orchestra there? I myself think Jade Ewen “It’s My Time” (UK 2009) would have sounded incredible with the full orchestra.
BAS: I think there are many songs that would have benefited from live orchestral accompaniment. As I tried to explain in the above, I am convinced that a good arranger can write an orchestral arrangement to any Eurovision song which would improve on the original.
It is funny that you mention ‘It’s my time’. For this song, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who accompanied Jade Ewen on stage at the piano, asked the organisation to be allowed to play his parts live; incredibly, the EBU organising team refused to honour Lloyd Webber’s request. There are more examples where EBU has bluntly turned down pleas by artists to be permitted to play live. For example, the Austrian group Global Kryner in 2005, the mouth organ player of Danish group Rollo & King in 2001, and the Slovenian group Quartissimo in 2009 wanted to play instead of pretending to play, but to no avail.
It is time to face up to the truth: here we have a music contest in which performing music live is prohibited by the organisation. An impromptu survey among the singers and composers participating in the Oslo contest in 2010 has proved they think this rule amounts to a curtailment of their artistic freedom. So if the organisation is not ready to reinstate the live orchestra – for whichever reason – a first step in the right direction might be to allow instrumentalists on stage to show the audience their ability to play their instrument to perfection instead of forcing them to pretend to play. The way it is now, I cannot help thinking of the Eurovision Song Contest as a farce.
ZACK: Who were some of your favorite Eurovision conductors? I myself loved Rainer Pietsch (“Ein Lied Kann Eine Brucke Sein” Germany 1975). He was very energetic, fun, and totally feeling the song, like Joy Fleming and her backup singers were. It’s a shame it did so poorly. As with many fans, it’s one of my all-time Eurovision favorites!
BAS: The late Rainer Pietsch, who was a member of several pop bands before becoming a record producer and arranger in the 1970s, loved the show element and conducted the orchestra in 1975 accordingly: as a showman. Timur Selcuk from Turkey even went one step further in 1989! When taking a closer look at the careers of almost any of the 346 conductors who led the Eurovision orchestra between 1956 and 1998, one cannot help being impressed by the amount of good music in many different genres and in many different capacities they were responsible for.
After so many years of extensive survey, it has almost become impossible for me to pick a favourite. I really like the style of arranging of Alain Goraguer from France, who worked with chanson giants such as Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and one of my favourite singers, Jean Ferrat, from the 1950s onwards. I was delighted when he allowed me an interview in the summer of 2010; sitting opposite of him posing him questions, I could not help but feeling slightly intimidated because he is such a genius and a giant of the European music industry.
Another favourite would have to be Jacques Lasry, a Jewish musician born in Algeria in 1918. He studied the piano in Paris, but the outbreak of World War II forced him to flee away from German oppression, travelling back to Alger. In ’45, he returned to France and became a pianist in avant-garde cabarets. As a conductor, he accompanied one of those singers, Michèle Arnaud, to the very first Eurovision Song Contest, held in Lugano in 1956; Arnaud represented Luxembourg in that festival. In the 1950s, he was the co-inventor of a new musical instrument, the Cristal-Baschet, with which he even performed in the Ed Sullivan Show. After having turned to Orthodox Judaism, he left the music industry and moved to Jerusalem in 1978. Amir Herschkovitsch, an Israeli friend, managed to track him down for me. In December 2011, I interviewed Mr Lasry, nearly 92 years old, at his house in Jerusalem; I can assure you it was a moving experience talking to a man with such an atypical life story, all the more so because it turned out he had not heard a recording of the two songs which he conducted for Michèle Arnaud in Lugano for over fifty years; luckily, I had brought a CD recording of the 1956 contest. Listening to Michèle Arnaud’s song ‘Les amants de minuit’, he cautiously started making conducting gestures, which moved Amir and myself to tears. Lasry’s biography on my website is warmly recommended to your attention.
If you’d allow me a tiny hint of partisanship, Dolf van der Linden from the Netherlands is another favourite. Van der Linden passed away aged 83 in 1999, meaning that I did not have the opportunity to talk to him, but luckily, thanks to help of many colleagues, friends, and family, I was able to reconstruct his career. Right after World War II, Van der Linden put together the Metropole Orchestra and remained its leader for an impressive thirty-five years. His arrangements and style of conducting are second to none. In the 1950s and 1960s, each country in Europe had its own Van der Linden or Van der Lindens, conductors of broadcasting orchestras providing the accompaniment to countless light entertainment shows. There were Raymond Lefevre and Franck Pourcel in France, Francis Bay in Belgium, Eric Robinson and Harry Rabinowitz in Britain, Noel Kelehan in Ireland, Johannes Fehring in Austria, Yitzhak Graziani in Israel, etc. It is a generation of musicians that has nearly been forgotten; it is high time for a reappraisal of their excellent compositions and arrangements, which are all in music libraries across Europe waiting to be rediscovered.
ZACK: What sort of feedback has your website received from the conductors?
BAS: My website is a tribute website, meaning that, so far, I have only published authorized biographies – i.e. articles that have been approved of by the musician which I interviewed or by the family of a deceased musician. The downside of this is that some juicy Eurovision anecdotes have been lost. However, to me, the gratitude of the musicians involved is the most important stimulus to work on this project. You can imagine that most of the conductors involved, about whom nothing or very little can be found online, are quite happy to have a full career overview of them written and published online with photo material.
Meanwhile, some of the conductors I interviewed have moved on, most notably Noel Kelehan and Frans de Kok. In both cases, I was satisfied to find that Internet media reporting on their passing away shamelessly plagiarized information of my website…because that is exactly what it is there for: to give accurate information about the lives and works of 346 remarkable musicians. Anyone can freely use and peruse it…of course preferably mentioning www.andtheconductoris.eu as the source!
One of my happiest moments was when, in December 2011, a musician who had turned down my interview request a couple of years before, when there was no website yet, accidentally visited my website, contacted me, and wondered if it was not too late for him to give me an interview after all. I won’t tell you who it was, but I went to visit him, did a very nice interview and his biography has been online since last summer and I have received quite some positive feedback about it in the past months!
ZACK: If any, do you have any recent favorite songs from the more recent Eurovisions?
BAS: Usually, I like the more traditional ballads, especially those from the South-Eastern parts of Europe, a song such as ‘Lejla’ by Hari Mata Hari suits my taste. To be perfectly honest with you, however, I must say I have gradually lost the motivation to look for three or four interesting songs amongst a pack of forty entries, the majority of which does not sound attractive to my ears.
This does not necessarily say something about the average quality of the Eurovision entries of the last fifteen years. I readily admit that, personally, I cannot stand any music in which the beat dominates the melody. Seriously, of the major artists which emerged in the last decade, Katie Melua and Nora Jones are two of the very few which I can appreciate. I prefer listening to classical music, jazz, and pop music (especially from France and Italy) from the 1940s to early 1970s. Call me old-fashioned, because I am!
ZACK: I know we still have many entries yet to be announced, but at this point, what is your favorite 2013 entry so far?
BAS: I sometimes come across links and videos on Facebook and Youtube. I remember coming across the Icelandic entry a couple of days ago, which did not sound all that badly. However, I have never been a follower of national finals.
ZACK: Do you have any advice on how fans of the orchestra can advocate for its return?
BAS: There are several ways, the main one being to approach the EBU and national broadcasters over and over again with pleas to reconsider the live music issue in the Eurovision Song Contest. Signing the petition on Tin Spanja’s website www.esclivemusic.com is a good idea as well. And of course, join ‘All Conductors of Eurovision (www.andtheconductoris.eu)’ and ‘We want live music in the Eurovision Song Contest (www.esclivemusic.com)’ on Facebook!
ZACK: Bas, thank you so much for a look back at the conductors of Eurovision! Any closing thoughts?
BAS: The majority of this interview has been about the absence of the orchestra in today’s contest and about bringing back live music. Honestly, though, I cannot help but being pessimistic about the willingness of the contest’s organizers to get the orchestra back. The majority of them are not musicians, but journalists turned TV producers. The organizers of the contest today seem to lack the motivation to give centre-stage to music, instead focusing on producing a slick TV programme. That’s good for them, of course, but their Eurovision formula is not mine!
Having more or less given up today’s Eurovision Song Contest, I prefer instead to devote my time and attention to the contest’s history. My website is first and foremost a celebration of the careers and music of a set of 346 excellent musicians who happened to, once or more often, conduct the Eurovision orchestra. I’d like to leave it up to others to try and reinstate the orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest; they can, however, be assured of my whole-hearted support!
WE THANK BAS SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO TALK WITH US!
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FACEBOOK PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/eurovisionconductor?fref=ts