Editorials & OpinionVienna 2015

NRK’s nod to orchestral past shows forward thinking

2015 is a year to celebrate Eurovision milestones, especially for Norway who claimed victories in 1985 and 1995. Announcing a revamp of Melodi Grand Prix for 2015, NRK are making significant changes to their national selection.
The 2015 edition of MGP will consist of just one show, likely to comprise 10 songs. This scraps the semifinal structure which in 2014 saw 15 entries whittled down to a 9-song final. NRK has received 800 submissions to the competition, an increase of some 30% from last year. Making the headlines this morning however, was the announcement that the Norwegian Radio Orchestra will perform live at the 2015 edition, seventeen years after their last appearance.
Acts appearing in MGP 2015 will have the option to utilise the orchestra fully, partially, or not at all. NRK quotes MGP Musical Director Vivi Stenberg as saying the presence of the orchestra will make the final more varied and exciting. It would be no surprise if the show also gives venerative acknowledgement to Eurovision’s sixty editions or the anniversaries Norwegian victories, with Bobbysocks‘ orchestral backed big-band sound and Secret Garden‘s ethereal acoustic sound. Interestingly though, ‘Nocturne’ was performed in Dublin with a majority backing track rather than making full use of the orchestra.
In 1979, Italian pop band Matia Bazar were the first Eurovision act to rely totally on a backing track of their own studio recording.
Thus Norway, temporarily at least, together with Macedonia, rejoin Albania, and Italy as nations with orchestral backing at the shows that provide their Eurovision entries.
The debate as to whether the loss of  live instruments, more specifically, orchestras, at Eurovision itself is at the detriment to the contest is one that has continued since their demise after 1998. Discourse is varied and the debate has rumbled on through the years since, where EBU regulation has stipulated that organisers are not obliged to provide an orchestra. The EBU is frank about the reasons for this change, boiling down to financial cost, stage space, musical diversity and artistic control.
Costs are of course a valid point; but as Europe hauls itself out of austerity, perhaps at least the more affluent organisers may wish to reverse this restriction and bring back an orchestra as the rules permit. So why hasn’t this seemed at all likely so far in the twenty first century?
It was probably of little coincidence that the demise of the orchestra coincided with the 1999 contest in Israel, where the tiny (by today’s standards) Ussishkin Auditorium at Jerusalem’s International Convention Centre would have struggled to fit an orchestra, given that an ensemble the size of NRK”s 54-piece Radio Orchestra requires approximately 120m² of floor space. Whilst the same venue hosted with an orchestra in 1979, technical equipment and security concerns were of a different league back then, so space was not at quite such a premium.
There is little doubt that the contest has seen a broadening of musical styles since the demise of the orchestra, yet as entries had the option to use partial or full backing tracks since 1973, so the argument for orchestras restricting diversity due to their inability to replicate certain sounds is a moot point.

Kudos to any orchestra that could take a stab at Igranka, the Montenegrin entry from 2013.
The ‘artistic control’ angle involves not just the sound, but also the look of a song.

  • What do you do with an orchestra during songs for which you don’t want to use them?
  • How do you make room for the ensemble, yet provide staging to suit all entries fairly, and keep the trend of having a standing audience at the stage’s edge?
  • If you do have a live orchestra and live vocals, how can you tell band members on stage that they cannot perform their own instruments live?
  • If they do, how do you manage the technical requirements of this within financial and time restrictions?

These are not easy questions, so it will be intriguing to see how NRK delivers on 14 March.
What the EBU qualify under the banner of artists being able to maintain full ‘artistic control’ over their performance is more to do with old-fashioned fuddy-duddy image that orchestras have; or had… For times they are a-changin’. Live musical performances are more part of a TV-watching popular music-consuming viewer’s regular diet than they were in the ’90s. In part this is due to the revival of TV talent shows, but also due to the significant increase in touring live performances from popular music acts. This change is facilitated by today’s efficient infrastructures but also made appealing in a world where for most artists, sales of albums and singles are no longer the route to financial success in comparison to tour revenues.
Back in the 1990s, very valid arguments were made for the abolishment of language rules and the presence of an orchestra.
Today, venues are often very large, so space is less often at a premium. There may be cost restrictions, but Eurovision event budgets have soared – it’s not a matter of how much money is available but what is prioritised for funding.
The Eurovision Song Contest promotes itself as a TV show more than as a musical festival or competition. If, moving forwards, it wishes to increase musical credibility, perhaps a return to a scenario which permits some element of live instrumental performance would benefit the live musical experience of the show. More than a few Eurovision acts (from Andrew Lloyd Webber to The Shin) have bemoaned the lack of an opportunity to play live at the contest, and some rock acts have declined to consider the event due to the obligation to use backing tracks instead of live guitars and drums. There’s no arguing that an orchestra is not essential in the way it was almost sixty years ago. But, what the likes of  Gina G or Who See ft Nina Zizic gain from backing tracks’ inorganic diverse sounds is countered by what is no doubt lost by the likes of Raphael Gualazzi or Rona Nishliu being obliged to use them, meaning their Eurovision performances lacked the instrumental depth and tone they held in their national finals. Likewise, requests from the ilk of Tinkara Kovac or maNga, who wished to bring to the Eurovision stage the live qualities that their instruments endow.
The next stage of increasing musical diversity and quality at Eurovision might be found in working out a potential solution to the questions posed above. The Italians and Albanians maintain integrity but also staid tradition in their approach to using live music in their Eurovision-related festivals, but let’s see whether the Norwegians can show a path forwards for Eurovision by striking the perfect balance between celebrating tradition and seducing the fans of the future.

Raphael Gualazzi performs fully live with band and orchestra in the final of the 2011 San Remo Festival
Conversely, Italian entrant from 1966, Dominico Modugno was a pioneer, being the first Eurovision act to fully shun an orchestra. After dissatisfaction with the orchestra in rehearsals, he insisted on his own instrumentalists, bringing early electronic sounds to the Eurovision stage.

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