Christian Kolonovits

Born: February 25th, 1952, Rechnitz (Austria)
Nationality: Austrian

Eurovision record
Austrian composer, arranger, and record producer Christian Kolonovits was involved in the Eurovision Song Contest as a conductor for his country’s entry twice, in 1977 with Schmetterlinge and ‘Boom Boom Boomerang’ and, in 1993, with his self-penned ‘Maria Magdalena’ for Tony Wegas. Apart from those two occasions, Kolonovits was a member of the group Milestones which took part in Eurovision 1972, and he wrote the studio arrangement for Waterloo & Robinson’s ‘My Little World’, Austria’s effort in the 1976 festival.

Biography
Born in 1952 in the Burgenland region, just a stone’s throw away from the Hungarian border, Christian Kolonovits grew up as the son of an Austrian-born Croatian father and a Hungarian mother. “My mother spoke Hungarian as a first language,” Christian explains, “but I was brought up speaking German. She was a teacher at our local school. My father ran an installation company. Both of my parents were musically very talented. As a child, I was taught Hungarian songs by my mother, while my father had a wonderful operatic voice. He had always dreamt of having a professional career as a singer, but it never materialised – and, after the war, he settled for a civilian job. In spite of that, music played a major role in our household.”

“In 1956, when the Hungarian revolution was crushed by the Soviets, my Hungarian uncle Duci managed to escape to Austria. Before moving on to Rome, he stayed with us in Rechnitz for a short while. He was an experienced musician – violinist, organist, and choirmaster. Although I was only four years old at the time, one way or another he sensed I had music talent. When I contracted a lung disease the following year, Uncle Duci suggested to my parents me join him in Rome. The climate there was supposedly better for my lungs. Incredible but true, I was put on the train to Italy, where I stayed with my uncle in the Vatican for half a year.”

“Uncle Duci had been appointed as the Musica Sacra’s choirmaster – and as such, he was very close to Pope Pius XII. When the pope held audiences at his summer residence in Castelgandolfo, my uncle was in charge of providing the musical accompaniment. As a child, I met Pius on several occasions. Being the only child in the Vatican, I was some kind of a celebrity! I lived with my uncle in a monastery in the heart of Rome. In those six months my uncle, single-mindedly, taught me as much about music as he could. Thanks to his efforts, I read the musical notes sooner than I could read and write letters. He also took me with him for the rehearsals of his choir, which was quite exciting – but more importantly, he taught me the basics of the piano. When I got back to Austria, I was already quite proficient as a pianist. Dropping me off at the train station in Rome, he told me that my destiny was to be a musician. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, because, of course, he was right.”

Christian as a five-year-old at the Santa Maria del Rosario Monastery in Rome (1957)

“The following year, my uncle regularly returned to Rechnitz for a family visit. I would be eagerly expecting him to teach me some more piano lessons. For some years, I also took piano lessons at Rechnitz convent school, but, at some point, the nuns were desperate. They told my parents they couldn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Fortunately, my parents realised that music was everything to me. They decided to send me to boarding school in Strebersdorf, Vienna. There, I was taught by a piano teacher of the conservatory. I also followed theory lessons. I stayed in Strebersdorf from my tenth to my eighteenth year. It was actually a sports boarding school, and I hated sports, but thankfully I had a brilliant piano teacher who was convinced of my talent as a musician… and thus he convinced the headmaster to give me a room of my own to allow me to practise the piano without being disturbed by others.”

“When I was twelve years old, I first heard a Beatles song on the radio. I think it was ‘She Loves You’. At a stroke, I realised the world would be a different one… no doubt in my mind. After returning to school after the summer holidays, I took up playing the guitar as a second instrument. If I wanted to get to the bottom of rock and pop, I couldn’t stick to just playing the piano – that was perfectly clear to me. With some friends, I formed a school band. During holidays, I also played in a band which played at dance events across Burgenland. Meanwhile, my parents were growing desperate, as I let my hair grow long and my results in regular school subjects were getting worse and worse. At some point, they even threatened to cut short my ambitions as a musician if I didn’t put in more of an effort. My music teachers were more understanding. One of them, Professor Bruckner, was a classical musician, but he also played the double-bass in a jazz band. Hence, he was not the type of man to look away in disapproval when I was enthusing about pop music.”

After obtaining his grammar school diploma in 1970, Christian Kolonovits enrolled at the Vienna Music Academy, studying the piano and cello – officially, in order to obtain a diploma as a music teacher. “That was the only reason my parents agreed to let me do music school,” he laughs. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have paid for my expenses. After a short while, however, I started earning money as a bar pianist and session musician – and I was able to make my own choices. I never wanted to be a music teacher. As a student, I became a regular at Peter Müller’s recording studio, which was Vienna’s first real pop music studio. That studio became my home. In the early 1970s, I played the piano on dozens and dozens of recordings for Austropop artists.”

Christian as a boarding school student in Strebersdorf (1970)

“Around the same time, in 1972, I joined the Milestones, a wonderful folk group. In the Atlantis Folk Club in Vienna, I found an announcement which read: ‘Milestones are looking for a new guitarist’. Now, you have to know, I was not a good guitarist at all! As a madman, I practiced for two weeks to make a good impression at the audition – and, to my own surprise, I was picked. That was an important moment, because the Milestones were already quite well-known in Austria. That same year, I quit the academy. I felt I didn’t need any more formal education. Some time later, I went back for some additional composition classes with Professor Gattermeyer, while also studying some more piano with Professor Kautsky, a really cool woman.”

Christian Kolonovits was a member of the Milestones until the group disbanded in 1975. Meanwhile, in the recording studio, he had started working as an arranger and producer in addition to playing as a session pianist. “As a twenty-year old, I was already referred to as ‘Herr Professor’ in Peter Müller’s recording studio. Why? Well, I was the only one able to read music. The next thing I knew, singers started asking me to write arrangements for them. “If you can play the piano, you can do that as well,” they presumed. I bought myself a set of arranging textbooks and started working from there. It very much was a case of ‘learning by doing’. I was fortunate to be asked by Erich Kleinschuster to write some pop arrangements for the ORF Big Band, which was a valuable part of my learning curve as well. I soon discovered that I was much happier writing music than being on stage as a performer. In part, this may be down to my character, but, more important than that, I realised it would be much easier to influence the sound of any music production behind the scenes than being up front. Being a star never really was my ambition.”

In the first half of the 1970s, Kolonovits wrote the arrangements for studio albums by Christina Simon, Wolfgang Ambros, Georg Danzer, Wilfried Scheutz, and many more. For Ambros, he also wrote the arrangements to his musical comedy ‘Der Watzmann ruft’ (1972), which was later recorded as a concept album. Moreover, in 1974, he made his mark as a songwriter, composing the international chart success ‘Hollywood’ for Austria’s pop duo Waterloo & Robinson. It was a number-one hit in Austria, but it also climbed the charts in Switzerland, West Germany, and even the United Kingdom.

Christian (second from right) on stage with the Milestones (c. 1973)

“At the time, I was working on Waterloo & Robinson’s new album as a session musician and arranger, but the record needed one more track. The album was almost done and we were in a hurry. They wondered if I could compose a song for them. Going home after that day’s session, one way or another, I was thinking of Hollywood. Couldn’t that be a good subject for a song? That same evening, I called Peter Seemann, a film director. I asked him to tell me what he knew about Hollywood and the history of the American movie industry. At length, he spoke to me about Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple, and all those other legendary actors of the 1940s and 1950s. Using Peter’s input as my inspiration, I sat down at the piano to write the song. One or two days later, we recorded the title with Waterloo & Robinson. It was rather strange, because it was never intended as a hit. Nobody was waiting for it – the purpose of it was to have enough material for one album. As so often in the music business, this was a lucky shot. Waterloo & Robinson were hugely popular at the time. Originally, they were folk singers, performing covers of Simon & Garfunkel hits, but their biggest successes were in a style which was much more commercial.”

In that same year, 1974, Christian Kolonovits chose to leave Vienna, moving away to Frankfurt (West Germany). “After ‘Hollywood’ and all those Austropop records I had been involved in, I had a feeling I had seen the length and breadth of the Austrian music industry. Was that all there was to it? What was I doing in Austria? Then, Peter Hauke, a German producer who often worked in Austria, suggested coming with him to Frankfurt. “Don’t worry, there will be plenty of work for you there,” he assured me – and he was right. I signed a one-year contract as a staff arranger with the Bellaphon record company. I wrote enormous piles of arrangements for recording projects, many in genres that didn’t really appeal to me – Schlager and even German folk music – but I learned a lot. Still, there was no way I was going to do this for life. After one year, I could bear it no longer. I didn’t want to be someone’s employee. I packed my bags and, with my girlfriend, I went back-packing in Central America for three months. I needed fresh air.”

“While I was in Guatemala City, Peter Hauke called me, imploring me to come back to Frankfurt as fast as I could. There was this new group called Supermax, which included some good friends from Austria, and Peter said I would certainly be happy to work on their music – and that he needed me to take on this recording project with him. Supermax were a group which played disco-rock. They were certainly more inspirational than what I had been involved in up to that point. Around the same time, in the Europasound Studio in Offenbach, I met Frank Farian. He had been tipped off about me by a mutual friend, guitarist Johan Daansen. Frank was always on the lookout for musicians who could work on his studio projects. For two years, I was a pianist and arranger for many of his productions. I co-arranged three Boney M albums, mainly working on the vocal arrangements. These included all the big Boney M hits, but, in reality, my impact on the final result was limited. Frank was a real freak who used twenty to thirty musicians to work on one album, and he wanted us to come up with new versions of tracks endlessly. He could let us work on one single song for twelve hours on end, upon which he just said, “No, this is not what I’m looking for.” Being a true perfectionist, he was never satisfied. In the end, nobody remembered who had done what in the final mix. Still, Frank was a great producer from whom I learnt a lot.”

Playing in the band accompanying the musical comedy ‘Karli’, composed by Georg Danzer and Wolfgang Ambros (Vienna, 1976)

Even though living in Frankfurt, Kolonovits remained firmly involved in the Austropop scene, arranging and producing some legendary albums in the second half of the 1970s for the likes of Wolfgang Ambros, Waterloo & Robinson, and Julie Parsons.

“This was Austropop, but virtually everything was recorded in Frankfurt,” Kolonovits explains. “I particularly remember Wolfgang Ambros’ LP ‘Hoffnungslos’ (from 1977, BT). I had been working with Wolfgang since my early days as an arranger in Vienna. Musically speaking, we always seemed to understand one another. Wolfgang’s songs were usually simple and straightforward – not intellectual music, but songs going straight for the heart – and he wanted me to bring some refinement to them. For the ‘Hoffnungslos’ album, he asked me to write an orchestral overture. That evening, I sat down at the piano and wrote it, but I wasn’t satisfied… to my mind, it was just too classical in its approach. The orchestra had already been ordered for next morning’s session. Around midnight, I went to Wolfgang and told him we had better call off the session altogether. “Just sit down and play me what you’ve written,” he said… and when I played it to him, he was thrilled. He wanted to use this intro at all cost. That evening, I understood Wolfgang was keen to take his music to a higher cultural level. Whenever I wrote complicated, Mahler-like string lines, he loved it. Wolfgang just adored those contrasts.”

In 1976, Christian Kolonovits recorded a solo album, ‘Life Is Just a Carnival’, an English-language rock LP, released on the CBS label. The arrangements, all written by Christian himself, were recorded in London. “The percussion parts especially were rather complicated. Those fantastic English session players did what they could, but it was rather too much for them… and you know what? The next day, they came back voluntarily to play the scores again – and the second time around, they absolutely nailed it! They simply insisted on getting it right, without asking an extra day’s payment for it. In London’s studio business, where trade union rules were applied ruthlessly, this was unheard of. For me as a young musician, this was a wonderful experience. Not many copies were sold of the album, but, to me, that’s not really what it was about. I never truly aspired at being a solo artist. When working as an arranger for others, you tend to lose sight of your own tastes. This album, and the other solo albums I did later, are not really much more than snapshots of myself, simply to find out what was really going on in me at that particular moment. I loved my solo work, but they really were concept albums and not material with which I was hoping to reach a large audience.”

Between 1982 and 1991, Kolonovits released three more solo albums, but before that, he was a member of the Austro-German rock group Einstein, which released two, ultimately unsuccessful, albums. “By the end of the 1970s, I wanted to get away from the hard, commercial studio business in Frankfurt at all cost, and so did two of my friends from Austria, Richard Schönherz and Hartmut Pfannmüller. We weren’t all about disco and Schlager! Forming a rock group was our way of pushing the escape button. We formed a five-man band and started writing songs. Peter Hauke put a huge budget at our disposal and sent us to Los Angeles to record an album. We stayed in a magnificent villa on Mulholland Drive, with an inside pool and a Japanese cook. It was insane! After releasing the first album, we went on tour as the support act for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, but we were doomed to fail. We weren’t rock stars – we were studio musicians. Ultimately, Einstein was some sort of a therapeutic project for all of us, with which we hoped to solve our problems – our unhappiness about the studio work in Frankfurt, our cocaine addiction – but, of course, it didn’t work that way. When the group disbanded, I felt there was no reason to stay in Frankfurt any longer. I decided to come back to Vienna.”

Christian (left) with Richard Schönherz and Wolfgang Ambros, recording the backing vocals to Ambros’ album ‘Nie und nimmer’ – Hotline Studio, Frankfurt (1979)

Back in Austria, Christian Kolonovits got back on track, writing the arrangements for artists who constituted the ‘second wave’ of Austropop, most notably Rainhard Fendrich, Ludwig Hirsch, Opus, and Stefanie Werger. For Maria Bill, he composed the hit ‘I mecht landen’ (1982). “The fun thing was… everyone in Vienna treated me as a star for no other reason than having worked abroad for six years. Before I knew it, I was working with all the up and coming artists in Austria. Rainhard Fendrich was one. He was suggested to me by Wolfgang Ambros. I had never heard of the name Fendrich before. Wolfgang told me this guy wanted to do a record with arrangements in a style similar to the ‘Hoffnungslos’ album. It turned out Fendrich would be performing in Sankt Pölten the next evening. I went there and met him backstage during the interval. He was surprised to meet me and, as Wolfgang already knew, he really had been looking for me for years! He had previously worked with other arrangers, (including Robert Opratko – BT), but he felt something was missing. I did the arrangements for Rainhard’s new studio album, ‘Zwischen 1 und 4’, and it was an instant success. It heralded the start of a long and happy partnership. I also was the musical director of several of his tours. Working with him and others, I wondered why I had ever left Vienna in the first place.”

In 1986, Kolonovits became involved as an arranger and conductor of a crossover project featuring the Wiener Symphoniker playing pop and rock music, the so-called VSOP, or Vienna Symphonic Orchestra Project. From the first single releases onwards, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’ and ‘Rock me Amadeus’, the VSOP achieved wide public acclaim. Between 1986 and 1997, the VSOP released seven albums – thereby acting as one of the main frontrunners of the classical crossover boom of the 1990s.

“Many musicians of the Vienna Symphonic did session work for me, playing the string arrangements for the Austropop music I produced. One day, the orchestra’s concertmaster came to me, and suggested doing a pop music recording with the orchestra as a whole. The younger musicians, especially, relished to the idea. With my sound engineer, Hartmut Pfannmüller, I submitted a worked-out plan to Dino Music, a German company. From the outset, they were enthusiastic. We were given the green light almost immediately. With my arranging partner Johnny Bertl, who originally was Ludwig Hirsch’s guitarist, I simply started working on the scores of the first songs we had picked in collusion with Dino.”

At work in the recording studio – Achau, 1985

“The exciting bit was to stand up as a conductor in front of that huge orchestra. Most musicians had no experience at all with non-classical genres – a really conservative Viennese orchestra. In those early years, it wasn’t that easy. I remember having written an arrangement to ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones. The orchestra were sitting there, rather desperately, and they sounded horrible. Because I was at a loss what else to do, I stopped trying to conduct the piece, but showed them how Keith Richards played the tune on his guitar – indicating where the upward and downward moves were happening. Yes, I was playing air-guitar in front of a classical orchestra! Then, I asked the double-bass section to play that for me. That’s how we slowly developed the groove together. The musicians needed to get used to the level of energy required to play this type of music. It just goes to show that, however technically brilliant a classical musician may be, he cannot be expected to play rock or pop music well without acquainting himself thoroughly with the style. I don’t think a classical conductor could have explained to them how to do it.”

Meanwhile, Kolonovits found he needed to widen his own expertise as well. “In 1987, José Feliciano came to Austria to perform live with the Vienna Symphonic on Vienna’s City Hall Square. Parts of the arrangements he brought with him from America were very complicated indeed. Therefore, I went back to my old conducting teacher at the Music Academy, Erwin Ortner. I had taken some basic conducting lessons with him at the time, but, working with a classical orchestra, I felt I needed more background – especially in terms of rhythm changes and rubato. I wanted to be able to stand up in front of the orchestra as a proper conductor. It was nice to work with Erwin, because this was no longer a student-teacher relationship, but an exchange of ideas between colleagues. His lessons were really helpful in improving my conducting technique. The Feliciano concert was a huge success – and we were even invited to give a reprise with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in East Berlin in 1987. From here on, my career as a conductor started to develop.”

Apart from selling over four million records worldwide, the VSOP also performed in Austria and beyond, going on a concert tour in the Far East (1990) and performing at the Athens Summer Festival (1995). “Those concerts were really wonderful experiences,” Kolonovits comments. “The Vienna Symphonic loved it – and so did I and the other pop musicians who had been added to the orchestra (including singer Gary Lux and bass player Mischa Krausz – BT). Music critics were harsh in their judgment, but they were fighting a rear-guard action, to be honest. All those people going out to buy those records cannot be completely wrong, can they? The VSOP helped bringing about a major change in the outlook on music. From now on, the purist view that classical music should be kept apart from other genres at all cost was rightly shown to be outdated. Later on, artists like Sting and Peter Gabriel started working with symphonic orchestras – and no longer were they criticised for it. In retrospect, the time was ripe for this type of symphonic cross-over. By the start of the 1980s, the Nelson Riddle-style arrangements were outdated, but, as the VSOP showed, audiences were by no means averse to a combination of pop music and classical instruments in itself. They were just looking for a more contemporary approach.”

Conducting the Vienna Symphonic in an open-air concert with José Feliciano on Vienna’s City Hall Square (1987)

One thing led to another, and in 1996, Christian Kolonovits was chosen to do the arrangements for the popular ‘Christmas in Vienna’ concerts, for which the Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo worked with the Vienna Symphonic, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, and a string of pop singers, including – amongst many others – Michael Bolton, Riccardo Cocciante, and Patricia Kaas.

“It was so very funny how it all got started,” Kolonovits smiles. “Originally, Lalo Schiffrin wrote the arrangements for ‘Christmas in Vienna’. But, in 1996, Lalo wasn’t available, and so the Vienna Symphonic suggested my name to Plácido Domingo’s manager, Mario Dradi. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from Draghi – he curtly summoned me to take the first plane to Paris, where I would find a Concorde ticket to New York. “Plácido Domingo wants to meet you. Please bring an arrangement,” I was told. That same day, I prepared an arrangement of a Christmas song, ‘I wonder as I wander’. With little more than this score under my arm, I flew to New York, where I was received at the 35th floor of the Sony Building. In a huge lobby, there was this white Steinway Grand. Plácido Domingo was there, as were Michael Bolton and Peter Gelb, Sony’s President of Classical Records. I had to sit down at the piano and explain my arrangement to Plácido. I was given a mere ten minutes. In the end, Plácido joined me at the piano, changed some things here and there in my arrangement, and in the end he turned to Dradi with a smile, just saying, “He’s got the job!” That’s how I became the arranger for ‘Christmas in Vienna’. In the end, I did the arrangements to three editions of the concert, always working with my writing partner Johnny Bertl.”

Looking to ever widen his scope of musical activities, from the early 1980s onwards, Christian Kolonovits also composed film soundtracks as well as background music for dozens of TV programmes, working with acclaimed directors like Peter Hajek, Peter Patzak, and Philipp Stölzl. “I actually started working on film music back in my Frankfurt days,” Kolonovits admits. “Peter Hauke brought me the news that a large film company in Berlin was looking for a composer – was I interested? Well, of course I was! I only found out later that the films Peter was talking about were soft porn movies… well, at least, it helped me to acquire the technique required to write film music. Some years later, I was contacted by Peter Hajek, the director, who wondered if he could use two titles from my solo album ‘Life is just a carnival’ for his new film, ‘Sei zärtlich, Pinguin’. In the end, he wanted me to do the rest of the soundtrack as well. In the following years, I was offered more and more commissions to write for films, TV series. I also did quite some radio jingles.”

“It depends on the director you’re working with on a particular project if you’re given much freedom, or less so. Some are very exact in the type of music they want from you, while others leave you free to bring in your own style. Philipp Stölzl is a director who falls into the second category. His film ‘North Face’ (German title ‘Nordwand’, released in 2008 – BT) was a particular favourite of mine. He had tried doing the film with another composer, but it hadn’t worked out. Turning to me, he asked if I could write a full orchestral score. He admitted that he didn’t have much budget left, meaning that I had to record the entire 90-minute score in one day. Working with the Budapest Philharmonic, I managed to do it in under eight hours. It was a hell of a job – very stressful, but rewarding at the same time, because what can be better than working with an accomplished symphonic orchestra? Moreover, Stölzl had put trust in me to find a style of music suitable to his movie. Unfortunately, this type of film job is becoming ever rarer. Nowadays, film budgets are usually much smaller than before – and, furthermore, the music itself is often little more than sound design, with synthesizer pieces taken from sound libraries. All of that is fine, but I guess my tastes are a little more conservative.”

Flanked by Plácido Domingo (left) and José Carreras in Bad Ischl at a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Franz Lehár’s death (1998)

In 1994, Christian Kolonovits made his debut as a theatre conductor, leading the orchestra for an Austrian production of the musical ‘Grease’ at Vienna’s Raimund Theatre for a full year. Following that, he became involved in arranging and composing the music to theatrical pieces, such as ‘Die Weberischen’, a piece based on the life of Mozart (2006), the children’s opera ‘Antonia und der Reißteufel‘ (2009-2013), and, more recently, a rock opera based on Vivaldi’s ‘Four seasons’ (2017-2020). For many of these pieces, he conducted the orchestra himself. In 2014, at the request of José Carreras, Kolonovits composed an opera tailor-made for the Catalan tenor. The piece, called ‘El Juez (Los niños perdidos)’, was performed in opera houses in Bilbao, St Petersburg, and Vienna.

“Some years previously, José was in the audience when Plácido Domingo performed an opera which had been specifically written to accommodate his vocal possibilities, which had slightly decreased in the course of the years. Afterwards, Plácido told José he should find someone to write him an opera too! This gave José the idea. At some point, he came to me, saying simply, “Hey, write me an opera!” I had produced José’s last four records, so we already were a team and he trusted me, but I had never written a fully-fledged opera. For half a year, I immersed myself in Puccini and Verdi. Meanwhile, my librettist saw a documentary about the so-called ‘lost children’, the children of Republican families in Spain which had been taken away from their parents to undergo forced re-education in monasteries. As José is from a Republican family himself, this was a subject which we felt would suit him – and he agreed. He wanted to play the role of the judge who went looking for evidence of the cruelties committed. During the composing process, I flew to Barcelona each month to keep him up to date about progress. Step by step, we developed this opera – and, when it was finally performed in the Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao, it was an instant success. Audiences elsewhere were impressed as well. I can hardly begin to explain how grateful I am to José for giving me the opportunity to write this piece.”

With Wolfgang Ambros (2008)

After the end of the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra Project in the late 1990s, Christian Kolonovits worked as an arranger and conductor on countless other symphonic rock projects with classical orchestras in Austria and abroad, most notably the Berlin Philharmonic, The Moscow State Symphonic, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Pop acts he teamed up with for these cross-over concerts include the Scorpions, Zucchero Fornaciari, and Xavier Naidoo.

“It’s not that this is necessarily my favourite genre – I mean, I’m interested in so many different music styles – but it has become my speciality… and it’s also the genre in which I feel most at ease to express myself. With such a large group of instruments at one’s disposal, the possibilities to invent new combinations of sounds are almost endless. I love that! In 2000, I first worked with the Scorpions and the Berlin Philharmonic, who were due to perform together at the Hanover World Expo. The orchestra had been looking endlessly for arrangers who knew how to translate the Scorpions’ songs to a symphonic set-up, but the result had never been satisfying. Finally, the band’s manager suggested my name, and, one way or the other, it worked well from the outset. As always, the hard work has to be done in rehearsals – and that’s what I like most about conducting… getting a classical orchestra into the groove, to get them to play the arrangement exactly as I had imagined when writing it. When I succeed at that, conducting the gig itself can never really top that sensation. Sometimes, though, an audience’s reaction can bring about a kind of magic in itself. A short while ago, when I conducted a John Williams concert at the City Hall Square in Vienna, it was almost as if orchestra and audience became one. In that sense, conducting can occasionally be far more than just the means to an end.”

The variety of professional activities Christian Kolonovits has been involved in, seems almost endless. From the 1990s onwards, while working on symphonic projects and theatre performances, he continued arranging and producing studio recordings with his old friends Gert Steinbäcker and Wolfgang Ambros. Moreover, in 1991, commissioned by Austria’s public broadcaster ORF, he composed a classical string quartet. Since 2010, he has been giving composition and film music workshops at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Recently, in 2020, he arranged and conducted the Red Bull Symphonic for a concert with drum and bass act Camo & Krooked at the Wiener Konzerthaus. Over the years, Kolonovits received ample recognition for his work, being awarded with, among many other prizes, the Golden Europe Award (1988), Golden Honorary Sign of Merit of the Republic of Austria (2013), and the German Musical Theatre Prize (2017).

When asked about his seemingly boundless energy, Kolonovits smiles. “Music has kept me young. When working with Camo & Krooked, one of them said, “You’re completely different than my father!” In music, age is of no importance. I still love being challenged to do new things – this feeling of insecurity because you don’t know where to find firm ground under your feet. I couldn’t live without it. When Red Bull asked me to work with Camo & Krooked, I had never heard of them before. They are Austrian guys, but their music is being played all over the world. When my daughter heard I had been offered to work with them, she was adamant. “Of course you should do it!”, she exclaimed. “They’re great!” For four long months, I immersed myself in those heavy bass sounds to bring about a fusion with this classical orchestra. It was very inspirational and the concerts we did were awesome! Unfortunately, the European tour had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but working with them was a fantastic experience all the same. I’m 68 years old now, but I intend to go on in music forever… there’s no alternative! From my earliest childhood onwards, my whole life has been music and music alone. To me, this is not a job, it’s a philosophy of life!”

Christian Kolonovits in the Eurovision Song Contest
Before making the first of his two appearances as a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest, Christian Kolonovits took part in the festival as a performer, being a member of the folk group Milestones which represented Austria in Eurovision 1972 in Edinburgh with ‘Falter im Wind’, a song composed by Manuel Rigoni and Richard Schönherz. When the group were invited to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Austria’s broadcaster ORF, Christian had only just joined them as a guitarist and pianist. The song ‘Falter im Wind’ was chosen by an internal ORF panel of experts.

“Richard Schönherz also wrote the arrangement,” Kolonovits recalls. “He wasn’t part of Austria’s folk scene, but the song fitted the style of the Milestones wonderfully well. The lyricist, Heinzi Unger, was a good friend of the group. Later on, he became a well-known author. He wrote the lyrics for that Eurovision song to help us out. Listening to it now, I still think it’s a beautiful composition. The lyrics were far more profound than a run-of-the-mill pop song. In Edinburgh, we got some very good reactions to our song from journalists. It stood out, because it was different from what an average Eurovision melody sounded like in those days.”

Mike Nevard, writing for English daily The Sun, even rated ‘Falter im Wind’ as the best entry taking part in the festival that year. Before the journey to Scotland got underway, however, there had been a discussion among the four group members of the Milestones if they wanted to do Eurovision in the first place. “Of course, our image was miles away from the Eurovision Song Contest. We felt we might be out of place. In Austria, the contest had a very bad reputation, especially among musicians. The discussion between group members took some time... would it damage our reputation? Should we be involved in such a shit festival? That was the way the subject was spoken about – incredible, but that’s how it was back then. One of the other guitarists, Günther Grosslercher, wasn’t in favour of accepting ORF’s invitation. I felt we should do it. My way of thinking was perhaps more commercial than the others. In the end, it came down to a democratic vote – and the outcome was that we should take the opportunity and just go for it.”

At the festival final in Edinburgh, the Austrian entry was conducted by Dr. Erich Kleinschuster, who was Head of Entertainment at ORF Radio as well as one of the musical directors of the ORF Big Band. “Kleinschuster was appointed by the ORF to conduct the orchestra for us in Edinburgh,” Kolonovits comments. “He wasn’t our choice, but we had no say in that. Don’t get me wrong, he was a fantastic trombone player. I’m eternally indebted to him for giving me the opportunity to write arrangements for the ORF Big Band even though I didn’t have any music school diploma to prove my abilities, but he was part of a different world. Back in those days, a rather strict segregation existed in Austria’s music world. First, there was the Viennese classical music tradition which was completely sacrosanct. Then, there was jazz and there was pop. Of course, I belonged to the pop orbit, and we hated jazz music. We even spoke of jazz fascism. Jazz musicians didn’t like us much either… we were communists, anarchists even – at any rate, much too left-wing for them. This whole hippy movement which started in the mid-1960s was a thorn in their side. Most pop musicians were autodidacts – and, in jazz circles, it was felt you needed an academic background to be able to play. In short, their outlook on music was completely different than ours.”

Single release of ‘Falter im Wind’, Austria’s Eurovision entry in 1972

“So we weren’t particularly close with Kleinschuster. It wasn’t unpleasant to work with him, but there wasn’t much interest from both sides to be in close contact. We weren’t arrogant, and neither was he. To him, Eurovision was just part of his job. No doubt, the band would have preferred Richard Schönherz to conduct his arrangement himself, but Richard wasn’t a conductor yet at that stage of his career. This made Kleinschuster the logical choice to do the job. In music circles, he was an authority. Moreover, he couldn’t do much wrong… I mean, the orchestral arrangement to our song was rather simple and shallow. This was a conscious choice – it shouldn’t be in the way of the flute and the guitars played by the band members on stage… we were a 1970s folk group and we wanted to present the song as a folk group ought to. The interventions of the orchestra were rather limited and didn’t get in our way, so to speak. In all, it worked well – yes, it was a good compromise.”

On stage, Christian Kolonovits played the piano. At the time, he was only twenty years old – and he could have been forgiven for feeling extremely nervous. “Oh, no, we weren’t nervous! I suppose we were all very naïve. We just did what we always did… we played our instruments and sang our song. Everything was done live, but the piano part was very easy. There wasn’t much to it. In rehearsals, it struck me how much more open the musicians in the English orchestra were to our type of music than big band musicians in Austria. I suppose a folk group in the style of Peter, Paul & Mary, or Crosby, Stills & Nash was closer to their musical tradition than it was to ours. The rehearsals went smoothly. We didn’t feel any pressure… we had nothing to lose.”

“It wasn’t until we met Mary Roos, the girl who took part for Germany, that we realised there were others who were nervous about all of this. I had never given it a thought how important Eurovision was to some people. We didn’t meet many of the other contestants, but our commentator, Ernst Grissemann, was close with the West German delegation… so, at some point, we were introduced to Mary. She was a most attractive girl, so adorable! She admired us and our song and she became really good friends with our Trixi (the girl member of the Milestones, Beatrix Neundlinger – BT). Those two hung out together for much of the week in Scotland. Of the other artists, I only remember having a short chat with the New Seekers. Vicky Leandros? Oh, my god, yes, but we didn’t meet her. We were a hippy group – and Vicky Leandros and hippy music were miles apart!”

In the voting, the Milestones did remarkably well and came fifth, obtaining a total of 100 jury marks. Subsequently, the group received invitations from several European countries. “Of course, we were invited to come to Germany,” Kolonovits recalls, “but there were other countries too, even Holland, where we performed in a television show. Suddenly, we realised how important our Eurovision participation had been. We were pushed onto a completely different, frankly much more professional level. We would never have been invited abroad without doing Eurovision. So, in retrospect, we looked back on our festival experience in a much more positive light than we could have imagined beforehand.”

Christian (middle, standing) with the Milestones (1972)

In spite of the Milestones doing so well in 1972, Austria declined to take part in the three following editions of the Eurovision Song Contest. When asked if he knows more about the backgrounds of this absence, Kolonovits comments, “I can only guess… as already mentioned, Eurovision wasn’t that important to the Austrian music scene or even, more broadly speaking, the Austrian public at that time. We didn’t have a Schlager tradition in the way Germany had. If we had any popular Schlager singers, such as Udo Jürgens, they left for Germany. Instead, the Austrian scene was dominated by Liedermacher, singer-songwriters… guys like Wolfgang Ambros and Georg Danzer, who wouldn’t have wanted to do Eurovision at any price. Our popular music was referred to as Austropop and the public loved it. I suppose we were very much an inward-looking country. If you wanted to be taken seriously as a musician, you couldn’t own up to listening to ABBA, for example. It would have killed your reputation instantly! Thinking back on it, it was incredible. ABBA were the biggest group on the continent. Even at ORF, hardly anyone was interested in Schlager music – or in Eurovision, for that matter. Nobody cared!”

When ORF finally returned to the competition, in 1976, they were represented by the duo Waterloo & Robinson and their bumpy, up-beat pop song ‘My Little World’, composed by Gerhard Heinz and conducted by Erich Kleinschuster. Like four years previously, Austria finished fifth. The live arrangement to ‘My Little World’ was done by Richard Oesterreicher, but his version drew heavily on the original record arrangement, done by… Christian Kolonovits. “By that time, I had left the Milestones,” Christian explains, “but I had been working with Waterloo & Robinson as an arranger for several years. In 1974, I had composed ‘Hollywood’, which was a huge international success for them. When they did Eurovision, I was already living and working in Frankfurt, but Austrian artists who wanted to record their material with me simply came over – and ‘My Little World’ was recorded in Germany. After that, Richie took my arrangement and enlarged it (at the request of Erich Kleinschuster, as Oesterreicher explained in the interview we did with him in 2006 – BT). The Eurovision orchestra was much bigger than the group of session musicians with whom I had recorded the studio version.”

Waterloo & Robinson in the studio, recording their Eurovision track ‘My Little World’ (1976)

In 1977, Austria came up with a Eurovision entry which astonished audiences across Europe, ‘Boom Boom Boomerang’, performed by the vocal quintet Schmetterlinge. The song is a fierce indictment of the greed displayed by record companies – and to make sure the message was understood as widely as possible, the first lines of the lyrics were in English: “Music is love for you and me / music is money for the record company”. The chorus consists of nothing more than a catalogue of meaningless expressions, ranging from ‘kangaroo’ and ‘didgeridoo’ to ‘ding dong’, making it the ultimate parody of a Eurovision song. All of this was reinforced by a rather alienating stage act, in which the four male members of the group wore masks of record company executives – each with a stack of banknotes in their hands – on their backs. The fifth member of the group was Beatrix Neundlinger, who had taken part in the festival five years before with the Milestones. The song was arranged and conducted by another former ‘Milestone’, Christian Kolonovits.

Why on earth were the Schmetterlinge group chosen to represent Austria at Eurovision? “As said, virtually nobody at ORF took the contest seriously,” Kolonovits explains. “I suppose they wanted to prove that Austrians were different from other European nationalities. In retrospect, this project was doomed to failure! I knew the Schmetterlinge guys well. They were already around in the Milestones days. Trixi joined them when the Milestones broke up. They often worked as backing vocalists in recording sessions for which I was the arranger and conductor. After I moved to Frankfurt, they often came to Germany to work with me. They were also the backing choir on my first solo album, ‘Life Is Just a Carnival’, which was released shortly before we went to Eurovision together. This group was even more intellectual and more left-wing in their approach than the Milestones. They were outright Stalinists! They had this outrageous album, ‘Proletenpassion’… and the dead-serious message of all the songs was that the eventual victory of communism was inevitable. Politically speaking, they were the teachers and the Milestones were little more than aspiring pupils.”

“Because they knew me so well, the guys wanted me to do the arrangement for Eurovision… and so they came to me with this incredible song. They had convinced themselves to go on a self-imposed mission to mock the contest – and the arrangement needed to reinforce that. The sound had to resemble a cliché Eurovision arrangement as closely as possible. The score I wrote was pompous and very brassy. I knew the commercial idiom well, because I worked on lots of hit records at the time… Supermax, Boney M, Costa Cordalis – you name it. Looking back, I agree it was kind of ironic to go to Eurovision with a group which rejected any form of commercial music in view of my own activities in Frankfurt. The left-wing dominated music scene in Vienna had a disdain for any music that was even slightly commercial – and anyone taking a moderately different view was venturing into dangerous territory. It was one of the reasons why I preferred working in Germany in those years. On the other hand, I was happy to work with friends who I had known for so long… and, frankly, I felt the way they approached Eurovision was rather funny too. In a way, I agreed with them – to put it mildly, I didn’t have a high regard of the contest either!”

Christian Kolonovits’ accreditation pass – Eurovision 1977, London

This time around, ORF did not insist on having the festival orchestra placed under the baton of their own conductor. For that reason, at the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, held in London’s Wembley’s Conference Centre, Christian Kolonovits, only twenty-five years old in 1977, conducted the orchestration to ‘Boom Boom Boomerang’ himself: “The question of having someone else step in to conduct for me was never raised. Erich Kleinschuster had left ORF to work at the Jazz Conservatoire in Graz, so he didn’t play any part. Furthermore, because Austropop was so incredibly popular and successful in Austria at the time, this new generation of pop musicians didn’t feel inclined any longer to make way for others, just because they were more experienced or better educated. The group must have told ORF that I would be conducting the orchestra – as far as I know, there was no further discussion.”

Journalists from all over Europe flocking to the contest in London were provided with extensive press information about all participants. The biographical notes given for the Austrian entry were a bit different in tone and content from most of the others. While the other delegations seemed to stress how successful their singers, songwriters, and conductors were, the biography of Lukas Resetarits, the lyricist of ‘Boom Boom Boomerang’, states that “he wrote the song for the Song Contest because he was short of money”, while Christian Kolonovits allegedly lived “in the foothills of the Alps with a group of fellow musicians.”

“I’m quite sure these notes were intended as a provocation,” Kolonovits comments. “These quotes are exactly in line with the zeitgeist of Austria’s music scene: don’t mix commerciality and art in any way! Perhaps Lukas wasn’t very rich at the time, but he certainly wasn’t living below the poverty threshold! As for me, reading those lines you might think I was living in a commune, but this wasn’t the case. I lived in Frankfurt at the time, but I still owned a villa in the Upper-Austrian Prealps. I had allowed a prog rock group, Halluzination Company, to live there; Falco was one of their band members. It was true that I was happy to open the doors of my house to creative minds, but it certainly wasn’t a commune. Maybe the writer of the press kit felt my life story could do with a little romanticising to paint it in as radical a light as possible?”

As it turned out, when the Austrian delegation arrived in London, local authorities were not so sure if a group of unapologetic Austrian communists should be allowed to move about freely, as Kolonovits recalls. “Upon arrival, we were separated from participants from other countries. Probably, the secret service in London knew we were friends with the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany. These were the days before the RAF turned violent, murdering Hanns-Martin Schleyer. To me, as well, supporting the RAF seemed perfectly normal – I even left RAF flyers in bars and discotheques in Frankfurt, which appealed to sympathisers to make a donation. When they turned violent, the world we knew fell apart, but this wasn’t the case yet when we came to London… and, in one way or another, we were identified as being close to the RAF. They were afraid we had plans to bomb the auditorium. After some talking, the group agreed to issue a statement that they rejected violence and terror, and that they were a perfectly well-behaved Eurovision act. For the first two days, it wasn’t even clear whether we would be given permission to take part in the contest. It was an incredible situation!” (Christian’s statement that the RAF didn’t use mortal violence until Schleyer’s abduction is not borne out by the facts; one of their earlier terror attacks was a siege of West Germany’s embassy in Stockholm in 1975, in which two staff members were killed by the perpetrators)

Austria’s representatives in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, Schmetterlinge, rehearsing their entry on stage in London’s Wembley Conference Centre

In the end, the police were reassured. Schmetterlinge and Christian Kolonovits were given the green light to start their rehearsals with Ronnie Hazlehurst’s orchestra. “As far as I remember, the rehearsals didn’t pose any problems, but, as you may understand after what had happened, our focus was elsewhere. Personally, I had been looking forward to returning to London after recording the arrangements of my solo album there the year before, which had been a really good experience. To me, England meant freedom, tolerance, feeling accepted... Nobody in London ever asked me why I was wearing my hair long. I found the Eurovision orchestra easy to work with. My conducting technique wasn’t exactly state of the art back then, but it was certainly good enough to guide an orchestra through my own arrangements. By then, I had been doing that in studio sessions for quite a few years. I don’t remember feeling particularly nervous.”

In the voting, Schmetterlinge finished second-last among seventeen participating acts, picking up eleven votes. “… and we were genuinely disappointed at that!”, Kolonovits admits, laughing out loud. “The group were really hoping to do well or even win the contest. They thought they could educate an audience at a stroke, convincing them of their political message. We really believed our song was brilliant and that we would go far. It just proves how naïve we all really were – there’s no way you’re going to be successful by going to Eurovision with a song which is the exact opposite of the style of music which has made the event so popular. Frankly, our approach was arrogant; all the way through, our hidden message was: “We are better and much more intelligent than all the others.” Moreover, because the music itself sounds rather typically Eurovision, audiences must have been confused – as a whole, I guess the different elements of the performance put together didn’t really make sense… but we only started seeing it in that light afterwards!”

“Quite apart from the result, to me, this Eurovision experience was not a bad one,” Kolonovits continues. “As a music professional, I enjoyed listening to what other countries had come up with. Some of the productions taking part were of a very high standard, although I don’t think I would have admitted it to anyone. In terms of organisation, it was a bit chaotic at times. Two years later, in 1979, I took part as a conductor at the Yamaha Festival in Tokyo (accompanying the Austrian singer Gisela ‘Gilla’ Wuchinger, who took part on behalf of West Germany with a song produced by Frank Farian – BT) and that was really something different. I had never been to Japan before and I was impressed by the level of perfectionism of the Japanese. The rehearsing schedule, the sound engineering… everything was just fantastic. To me, Tokyo was a culture shock, but in a very positive way.”

With Gilla Wuchinger at the 1979 Yamaha Festival, Tokyo

From 1978 onwards, Richard Oesterreicher took over as Austria’s conductor for the Eurovision Song Contest; until 1991, he was involved in all but two of the country’s festival entries. When asked if other arrangers felt frustrated about not being given the opportunity to conduct the Eurovision orchestra themselves, Kolonovits smiles. “Well, back then, I wasn’t particularly interested in taking part in the contest! I don’t think many people grumbled about Oesterreicher’s role. At ORF, he had an excellent reputation as a big band leader and arranger – and everybody liked him, because he is such a gentle and adorable man. It’s remarkable how he reinvented himself as a mouth-organ player later on in his career. About ten years ago, we met at some occasion, at which he spontaneously gave away his manuscript paper to me. He explained he no longer felt like writing arrangements. He wanted to fill the rest of his days playing music rather than writing it. It was Richie’s way of saying that it was now up to the younger generations to take over. It felt as a symbolic moment. I remember feeling extremely moved.”

After Oesterreicher stopped being involved in the contest, there was not one single conductor who took over his Eurovision job. In 1992, the German record company who produced Tony Wegas’ entry ‘Zusammen geh’n’, picked their own conductor, Frankfurt-based cellist and arranger Leon Ives. After his respectable result in the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest, finishing tenth, Tony Wegas was once more commissioned by the ORF to represent Austria the following year. Contrary to the year before, a televised national selection was organised. In it, Wegas performed seven songs, written by some of Austria’s most successful songwriters, including Marc Berry, Robby Musenbichler, and Wilfried Scheutz. The song picked for Eurovision was the vigorously up-tempo ‘Maria Magdalena’, composed by Christian Kolonovits and Johann Bertl with lyrics by Thomas Spitzer.

“By the time Tony was chosen to do Eurovision for a second time,” Kolonovits comments, “Thomas Spitzer, Johnny Bertl and I were already working on his first album, which wasn’t released until one year after the contest. Usually, such recording projects don’t take this long, but this was a particularly laborious one – all the more so because Thomas lived in Graz, while Johnny and I are from Vienna, so we didn’t meet all that often. We had been approached by Tony’s record company EMI. Tony had burst onto the Austrian scene. Suddenly, he was there and everybody was fascinated by his character. He knew what he wanted – a very independent-minded guy, endowed with a natural gypsy voice which was outstanding. A real musician who could sing almost anything. He had made a good impression representing Austria in Eurovision the year before, which is the reason why ORF approached him to do it again. As we were already working with him at the time, we decided to submit a song to the competition too. Why not? It was something we did without thinking too much of the album; writing the Eurovision song for Tony was a project in itself.”

“Thomas Spitzer, who was well-known for his involvement in EAV (the Austropop band Erste Allgemeine Verunsicherung – BT), wrote the lyrics first. Thomas is an excellent lyricist and writing a song about Mary Magdalene was a good idea. After all, she’s one of the most mysterious characters in the New Testament – and Thomas portrayed her not as a sinner, but as the powerful, confident woman by Jesus’ side. By inventing the lyrics, Thomas played the greater part in the songwriting process. Subsequently, Johnny Bertl and I wrote the music. I had first met Johnny in the early 1980s, when he was a young guitarist from the entourage of Ludwig Hirsch, a singer-songwriter for whom I was producing albums. Johnny had studied at the conservatory in Graz and it didn’t take me long to find that he was an excellent musician. Over time, we became friends and writing partners, creating arrangements together and co-producing a long list of albums. Johnny also became involved in writing arrangements for the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra Project.”

Christian with Tony Wegas (centre) and Johnny Bertl (right)

“The music to ‘Maria Magdalena’ really was the product of both of us – I sat at the piano, Johnny beside me with his guitar, exchanging ideas on how best to work from Thomas’ lyrics. Writing music with Johnny has always been very pleasant. There was never any rivalry among the two of us – neither of us has ever felt the urge to show off his abilities as a musician to the other. For this Eurovision song, we were simply looking to find a music style fitting the lyrics as well as Tony… and because we are both arrangers, the assignment became easier still – I mean style is as much about arrangement as it is about composition. As far as I remember, I wrote the string parts, while the brass was looked after by Johnny. The song fitted Tony well and I’m sure he liked it too.”

The 1993 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Ireland – not in Dublin, but in a large equestrian arena in Millstreet, a small town in the south of the country. Once ‘Maria Magdalena’ was chosen to represent Austria, it was obvious that, of the two arrangers of the song, Christian Kolonovits would conduct the Eurovision orchestra, given his considerable experience as a conductor at studio sessions and, more significantly perhaps, also of symphonic rock concerts. In Millstreet, Kolonovits rehearsed the song with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Significantly, even though ‘Maria Magdalena’ was an up-tempo song, Kolonovits and Bertl had taken the decision not to work with a backing track including the rhythm parts – as most other countries chose to do – but to have the arrangement played completely live by the orchestra.

“Of course, it would have been easier using a backing track, but pride played a part here… our pride as arrangers and as musicians in general. We didn’t take part just to do Eurovision, but to prove that we were capable of working on a certain level. We were confident the arrangement would work well. Furthermore, as we had such a good singer, we were sure we weren’t going to run into trouble. Looking back, we took a risk, because the song is rather complicated, with some unusual harmonic turns. Johnny Bertl was there with me all the time to check if the sound was right. We had to make sure not to offend the local sound engineers, but, as it turned out, there were no real problems. After some initial problems with timing, monitoring, and headphones, the rehearsals were good. The orchestra did a good job. Our arrangement was straightforward as could be – there was no swing or shuffle involved, styles which classically oriented musicians usually aren’t very good at.”

Press conference in Millstreet, Eurovision 1993 – Christian Kolonovits (middle, with sunglasses) flanked by (from left to right) Thomas Spitzer, Tony Wegas, Johnny Bertl and backing vocalist Mario Argandoña

In ‘Maria Magdalena’, an important part had to be played by the five-man backing choir, which included former Eurovision soloist Gary Lux. They had to perform the first lines of the song acapella. One of the five singers also played the ultra-short saxophone part in the arrangement. “That was Christian Felke, a German guy who I had known since the 1970s, when he played on my solo album ‘Life Is Just a Carnival’. Over the years, he played in countless studio sessions for me in Frankfurt and Vienna. He was also part of Rainhard Fendrich’s backing band. As far as I remember, we had to bring him because there was no saxophone available in the orchestra, but it was nice to have Christian with us anyway. He was a great friend. His role as a backing vocalist was rather limited. The other four guys really had to give it their all, vocally speaking, but they did remarkably well.”

For Christian Kolonovits, the contest in Millstreet heralded a return to the competition after an absence of sixteen years: “For me, the experience was a completely different one compared to my two participations in the 1970s. In 1977, we were isolated from the other contestants, as we were seen as a dangerous political cell. I think it’s fair to say that, now that I had grown a little older, I felt far more at ease doing Eurovision – more free on a personal level, but also as a musician. The song we took to the contest gave all of us such an energetic and positive feel! I was really proud of it, which wasn’t easy to say for an Austrian – because the image of the Eurovision Song Contest in Austria hadn’t really changed much since the 1970s. It was still very much looked down upon.”

“Our delegation was a happy bunch. I was good friends with Tony Wegas. In Austria, we also met privately on a regular basis at the time. It was great fun to travel abroad with him. It was one long, extended party. We were lucky to stay in a hotel which had a piano in the lobby. Tony sang with other contestants while I accompanied them at the piano. It was just one musical community – lots of musicians together having the time of their lives. There was lots of contact with other delegations and with locals. The Irish know how to celebrate an occasion, don’t they? I had never been to Ireland before, but I was in awe of their music culture, with lots of people gathering in pubs to make music together. The country itself was beautiful too, especially the southern part where the contest was held. I really enjoyed myself.”

Tony Wegas (seated) participating in a jam session with two members of the group representing Turkey, backstage at the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest in Millstreet

In the voting, Tony Wegas finished fourteenth, four places below the result he had obtained in Malmö the year before. Like Wegas, Christian Kolonovits had been hoping for a better result. “Yes, we were expecting to do much better, at least a place among the first ten. The entire Austrian crew was disappointed. With hindsight, I could have done a little better on the arrangement. The verses are really strong, but the transition to the chorus is lacking some dynamism. With the production techniques used nowadays, it would have been easier to accomplish. Because the song goes on in the same volume for three minutes, it was a little bit too much, I guess – but this is me trying to engage in self-criticism now, because I think the song in itself was good.”

“Tony was disappointed to find there was hardly any sign of sympathy for him in Austria after returning home from the contest. He expected the Austrian public to appreciate his performance – and that’s what he deserved, because he had done an excellent job at that. After the contest, the media almost completely ignored the song, which was typical of ORF at the time; they were used to dropping their own children when things didn’t go entirely according to plan. On top of that, ORF essentially considered doing the festival as a necessary evil. To satisfy intellectuals and Eurovision haters, there was a programme on the second channel which was broadcast while the contest was going on – in it, satirists poked fun at Eurovision. It just goes to show that Austrians didn’t really want to have anything to do with the contest. I think this is the reason why we decided not to include ‘Maria Magdalena’ on Tony’s album, which was released about one year after the contest. We wanted to work on a new image for him, staying away from Eurovision as far as possible. Unfortunately, not many copies were sold. Tony’s career never really took off after that… which is a pity, because he’s a great artist.”

Christian Kolonovits’ third Eurovision participation was also to be his last. What does he think about the way the contest has evolved in the last twenty years? “Well, on the one hand, all those incredible lightshows which accompany the entries nowadays annoy the hell out of me – I mean, is this about having the best lightshow or the best song? I would prefer to listen to the song without all the visuals. It would make it easier to reach a balanced judgment of the quality of the composition. All of this doesn’t mean that the contest used to be better than it is now. The music business has evolved. Nowadays, pop music is largely made up of electronics and sound effects, echoes… things we didn’t need in the past. In such a setup, there is little room for an orchestra, which cannot recreate such sounds live. To my mind, this was an inevitable development. From the point of view of the organisers, too, I can understand why they wanted to get rid of the orchestra. It was a legitimate choice. The absence of a live band means the show has become easier to produce. Very little can go wrong. Each country takes its own director, who puts his lightshow in a computer and that’s about it. There are no major sound problems in rehearsals, every rehearsal will end exactly on time… that’s the advantage of working with pre-produced backing tapes. Perhaps they should give the programme a different name, simply because it is so very far removed from what the Eurovision Song Contest used to be like in the old days.”

Tony Wegas performing ‘Maria Magdalena’ on the Eurovision stage in Millstreet

Other artists on Christian Kolonovits
So far, we have not gathered comments of other artists about Christian Kolonovits.

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Christian Kolonovits, subdivided in three separate sessions, December 2020.
  • A television interview with Christian Kolonovits (in German) can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link.
  • A playlist with some of Christian Kolonovits’ music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link.
  • Gordon Roxburgh, “Songs for Europe – The United Kingdom at the Eurovision Song Contest. Volume Two: the 1970s”, Telos: Canterbury 2014.
  • Photos courtesy of Christian Kolonovits and Ferry van der Zant.
  • Thanks due to Daniel Beach and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript; and to Edwin van Gorp for putting it online.

Website(s):
www.kolonovits.com  

  

Songs conducted
1977: Boom boom boomerang
1993: Maria Magdalena