Jan StulenBorn: January 7th, 1942, Amsterdam (the Netherlands)
Upon graduation at the Hervormd Lyceum in 1960, Jan Stulen became a student at the Amsterdam Conservatory of the Muzieklyceum Society. He was taught the piano by Karel Hilsum and orchestral conducting by Peter Erős; at the institute, he also followed courses in singing, the violin, as well as a wide range of obligatory theoretical subjects. Stulen, who graduated in 1964, has only good memories of his days as a student: “The Muzieklyceum was a small school with some one hundred fifty students, no more – a big plus for us, the students, because our teachers were able to pay much attention to the individual. Peter Erős was a young musician from Budapest who had fled his country in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of ’56. In Amsterdam, he was Associate Conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. His trademark was an absolutely reliable and functional conducting technique, which he was able to bring across to his students excellently. Jaap Spaanderman was the other conducting teacher at the institute, an older musician brought up in the great nineteenth century romantic tradition of classical music. I was taught the violin by Louis Metz, while the headmaster, Everard van Rooyen, was adamant that we learnt about Renaissance and Baroque music long before this historical movement of the revival of ancient instruments such as the harpsichord began; it was an important part of my musical upbringing. Peter Erős taught me instrumentation as well. No, I did not take any courses in composition… I have never had the ambition to make my mark as a creative musician. I do not believe I am the right person to add interesting creations to all the wonderful music that has been written before me.”
At the advice of Erős, Jan Stulen, who during his time at the conservatory had regularly worked as a church organist and a répétiteur for choirs in Amsterdam, wrote applications to several opera theatres in West Germany. He was contracted by the Münster Municipal Theatre, where he worked for six years (1964-1970) in various capacities. Stulen: “Erős advised me soundly: he knew that, in Germany, young conductors were given more opportunities than in the Netherlands. In Münster, I started out as the répétiteur for ballet performances… and, indeed, within a year, the theatre’s musical director thought the time was ripe to allow me my first performance as a conductor of a ballet. Slowly but gradually, I was given more and more opportunities to conduct. In the end, I became the assistant musical director of the theatre, rehearsing and conducting opera and operetta productions of my own, the first one being ‘My fair lady’. In what turned out to be my last season in Münster, a Dutch TV crew filmed an item about me while I was working on Tchaikovsky’s opera ‘Eugene Onegin’. As a result of this, I was invited by the Netherlands’ Dance Theatre to do some guest performances with their orchestra. After a couple of months, I was offered the position of musical director there. In 1970, I returned to Amsterdam.”
Between 1970 and 1976, Stulen worked at the Netherlands’ Dance Theatre, initially as the musical director and conductor of the Netherlands’ Ballet Orchestra and the Dance Theatre (1970-’72) and continuing to work solely with the last-mentioned ensemble for another four years (1972-’76). In international productions with the Dance Theatre, Stulen conducted the New Opera Orchestra in London, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, and the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra as well as at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. “In one production with the Ballet Orchestra”, Stulen comments, “some players of the Residential Orchestra or The Hague Philharmonic had been added to the orchestra, which led to me being invited to work on a concert with the Residential Orchestra… one thing led to the other, because this performance was broadcast on radio and drew the attention of the artistic leadership of the Promenade Orchestra, one of the many classical ensembles of Dutch radio at that time. This orchestra specialized in light classical music, mainly operettas. In 1971, I conducted my first radio concert as a guest with the Promenade Orchestra. When the orchestra’s chief conductor Gijsbert Nieuwland passed away quite suddenly in ’75, I became the deputy for some time. One year later, the broadcaster’s musical director of classical music, Piet Heuwekemeijer, told me the orchestra wanted me to take over Nieuwland’s position once and for all. Of course, I accepted!”
Between 1976 and 1992, Jan Stulen was under contract to the public broadcasting stations in Hilversum, being the resident conductor of the Promenade Orchestra (1976-’84) and the Netherlands Radio Symphony (1984-’92), a merger of the Promenade Orchestra and the Broadcasting Orchestra. Stulen: “Originally, I was contracted for the Promenade Orchestra only, but after one or two years, the terms of the contract were changed to the effect that I was supposed to work with all orchestras of the broadcaster, mainly the Radio Philharmonic and the Radio Chamber Orchestra. My main job was to rehearse and conduct concerts for nationwide radio. Thanks to one excellent producer, Joop de Roo, who set up exchange programmes with broadcasting services abroad, I was given the opportunity to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra in London and the WDR Broadcasting Orchestra in Cologne as a guest on several occasions. In the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, because of many commitments elsewhere, my conducting commissions for Dutch radio became increasingly few and far between, until it was agreed upon by mutual consent to tear up the contract in ’92. Since, I have continued working with the broadcasting orchestras as a guest.”
Apart from his radio work for the public broadcasting service, Jan Stulen conducted in several TV programmes, most notably ‘Jonge Mensen op het Concertpodium’ (Young People on the Concert Stage), which ran for many years in the 1980s and early 1990s. Stulen: “‘Jonge Mensen op het Concertpodium’ offered a stage to fledgling young musicians who were about to graduate from conservatories or had just successfully participated in international competitions for soloists. Our producer Jos Cleber roamed the Netherlands and other countries looking for talent. Musicians who later won international fame, such as flute player Emmanuel Pahud and cellist Colin Carr, performed in our programme. The Promenade Orchestra, and later the Radio Symphonic, conducted by me accompanied the soloists. There was a passionate team working on the programme with director Joop Stokkermans and host Cees van Drongelen… all in all, it was a delight to be involved in this production.”
Several years later, when Stulen was no longer under contract to the broadcaster, he got involved in the immensely popular TV show ‘Una Voce Particolare’ for thirteen consecutive seasons (1997-2010). “This was a fundamentally different programme when compared to ‘Jonge Mensen’”, Stulen explains. “In ‘Una Voce Particolare’, we worked with talented amateur vocalists who sang parts from light classical works or musicals. Most of them had never seen, let alone worked with an orchestra, which meant it was up to me to help them feeling comfortable working with us, the orchestra musicians. Initially, for this show, I conducted the Dutch Promenade Orchestra – this ensemble should not be confused with the orchestra bearing the same name which I conducted in the 1970s and 1980s – and, from 2003 onwards, L’Orchestra Particolare, a freelance orchestra especially brought together to work on this television programme. Sometimes, working on ‘Una Voce Particolare’ proved slightly problematic. For a start, most of the production crew were no musicians, but people who did not understand the orchestra needed time to rehearse the pieces properly. The schedule of rehearsals, occasionally even with two programmes being recorded in one day, required superhuman stamina. Nevertheless, we nearly always managed to pull it off properly.”
From 1976 onwards, when Dolf van der Linden invited Jan Stulen to replace him as the chief conductor of the Eurovision Song Contest held in The Hague, Stulen regularly worked with the Metropole Orchestra, the light-entertainment orchestra of the Dutch broadcaster. When Rogier van Otterloo took over the leadership of the orchestra from Van der Linden (1980), Stulen regularly replaced him for operetta performances. In 1987, he conducted the orchestra in a radio performance of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with piano virtuoso Alan Makowicz, while he also led it for the recordings of a CD with André Popp’s mood music creations, ‘La musique qui fait Popp’, in 1993. With the Metropole Orchestra, Stulen recorded a host of soundtracks for television and the cinema, including ‘Zwarte sneeuw’ (1996), ‘Wilhelmina’ (2001), ‘Kees de jongen’ (2003), ‘In Oranje’ (2004) and ‘Pluk van de Petteflet’ (2004). These were by no means Stulen’s first experiences as a conductor of soundtracks, as he had already conducted the Promenade Orchestra for the musical accompaniment to TV series such as ‘Hollands glorie’ (1976), ‘De zevensprong’ (1982), and ‘Willem van Oranje’ (1984).
For an impressive ten years (1986-’96), Jan Stulen was the permanent conductor of the WDR Broadcasting Orchestra in Cologne, West Germany; simultaneously, he worked as a regular guest conductor at the NDR Broadcasting Orchestra in Hanover. “The Germans knew of me thanks to the exchange programmes between the radio services in Hilversum and West Germany”, says Stulen. “In those days, the broadcasters of each of the states of West Germany had its own orchestra for Gehobene Unterhaltungsmusik or ‘sophisticated entertainment music’. In Cologne, the conducting was usually done by Heinz Geese and Curt Cremer; these two guys were well versed in light entertainment music, but they were there because they were the producers of the radio programmes with the orchestra – in other words, no trained conductors. The orchestra members were keen to get a classical conductor on board and that is where I came in. Apart from my regular work with the NDR orchestra in Hanover, I performed as a guest with the radio orchestras in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.” Besides his work for German radio, Stulen was the director of the German Chamber Orchestra in Frankfurt from 1989 to 2000. Moreover, he has continued performing as a guest conductor across Germany, working with classical orchestras in Gelsenkirchen, Hilchenbach, Coblenz, Ludwigshafen, Gießen, Kaiserslautern, and Leipzig.
From the 1990s onwards, Stulen has conducted orchestras and opera companies throughout Europe and beyond. Since 1997, he has been the regular guest conductor of the Transylvania State Philharmonic in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, while he has held the same position at the Flanders Symphonic in Bruges, Belgium, from 1998. As a guest, he also performed with ensembles in Switzerland, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. “In Vietnam, I taught some conducting master classes as well”, Stulen comments. “Admittedly, all these international commissions just crossed my path; I have never consciously looked for them. ‘Do not pursue things, but embrace things coming in your direction’, is the creed of a good friend of mine, jazz pianist Louis van Dijk – and I agree with him. One should not run away from interesting opportunities coming one’s way. I am proud to have been involved with renowned orchestras, especially the Transylvania State Philharmonic, which is an excellent group of one hundred and twenty musicians.”
As a freelance conductor, Jan Stulen has performed with all professional classical orchestras in the Netherlands, most notably the Limburg Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and the Brabants Orkest. With the LSO, he embarked on two tours with Boudewijn de Groot, one of the Netherlands’ most popular singer-songwriters. Besides, he was the artistic advisor of the Opera Forum in Enschede for several years.
Jan Stulen, who has long engaged in teaching private conducting lessons and workshops in the Netherlands and beyond, was a professor of orchestral conducting at the Maastricht Academy of Music between 1988 and 2007, whilst he was affiliated to the Rotterdam Conservatory in the same capacity from 2003 to 2007; moreover, in Maastricht, he combined his teaching activities with the function of artistic director for almost ten years (1993-2002). “This was another thing that came my way”, Stulen explains. “Anton Kersjes, head professor of conducting at the Maastricht Academy, was a good friend of mine. As he was about to be pensioned off, he wondered if I was interested to follow in his footsteps. Because I had been involved in private teaching, mainly for studio arrangers of pop projects who needed to master the basic conducting techniques, I had some experience in this field. Looking forward to the prospect, I accepted the job in Maastricht and worked there for twenty happy years. As the institute’s artistic director, I checked on the courses of all teachers and presided over the examination commissions. In Rotterdam, headmaster George Wiegel invited me to assist conducting teacher Hans Leenders, who, at that time, lacked the experience to manage on his own. Since reaching the pensionable age, I have continued teaching in Maastricht and elsewhere as a guest.”
In 2012, Jan Stulen published a book about his experiences as a conductor and teacher, ‘De Tao van het dirigeren. Een andere kijk op (muzikaal) leiderschap’ (= The Tao of Conducting. A Different View on (Musical) Leadership). Stulen about his publication: “Over the years, I have collected notes and ideas about conducting and about my experiences and ideas on how to handle an orchestra and rehearse a piece of music properly. Though, originally, these notes were purely intended for private use, after a while I realized it might be an interesting idea to put these ideas together coherently. When I put myself to this, it struck me that there are interesting parallels between conducting an orchestra and the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. To my mind, a key element of being a good conductor is not to force natural processes. In fact, there are many similarities between conducting and managing a company. In one of my master classes in Vietnam for young conductors, the session was attended by a large number of Vietnamese and Dutch business managers. Apparently, my vision of leadership transcends the world of music!”
Jan Stulen in the Eurovision Song Contest
The chief conductor of the Metropole Orchestra between its foundation in 1945 and 1980 was Dolf van der Linden, who had been the regular conductor for the Netherlands in the Eurovision Song Contest until 1971. In ’72, the record companies had insisted on having Van der Linden replaced by their own favourite, Harry van Hoof, a move about which Van der Linden felt both astonished and insulted. Van Hoof conducted every Dutch Eurovision representation between 1972 and 1979. Nonetheless, with Harry van Hoof being a studio arranger, who at that time had no other involvement with the Metropole Orchestra than just being the musical director of the Dutch pre-selection programmes, Dolf van der Linden himself was the obvious choice to be the musical director of the international final of 1976, due to be held on April 3rd in The Hague’s Congresgebouw. What was the exact reason Van der Linden was replaced by Stulen for this prestigious television project?
Jan Stulen: “It was Dolf van der Linden himself who wanted me to take over for this commission of musical director of the Eurovision Song Contest! Frankly speaking, Dolf admitted he was fed up with the festival. The year before, he had had a conflict with Vicky Leandros, who, in the rehearsals for some television show, had arrogantly tried to explain him how she wanted him to conduct the orchestra for her. He felt genuinely insulted, for who was Vicky Leandros to tell him, with decades of experience under his belt, how to handle a group of musicians? Dolf frowned upon being lectured for an entire week by self-willed teenage pop singers – and to my mind, he had every right to say so. Therefore, he declined working on the Eurovision Song Contest in ’76. For some strange reason, Dolf wanted me to stand in. Feeling responsible for his orchestra, he suggested me to the organizing committee. He must have seen me at work with other broadcasting orchestras and felt that this young talent should be given the opportunity of working with his orchestra. It was only a couple of months later that I was contracted by the broadcaster, meaning they had to pay me for this Eurovision commission, but apparently that was not a problem.”
Did Jan Stulen, the serious classical conductor, have any second thoughts about accepting to work on a pop music competition which was frowned upon in certain circles? “No, my reaction was: why not?”, Stulen comments. “Never in my life have I been a conscious career builder. In this case, I relished the opportunity to work with such an interesting ensemble as the Metropole Orchestra. Most of the players were much older than I. The generation of musicians who had been in the orchestra for decades, such as pianist Dick Schallies, sax player Kees Verschoor, and violinists Benny Behr and Sem Nijveen, was still there, while some young eager beavers had recently strengthened the ensemble, most notably concertmaster Ernö Olah. To prepare the contest properly, Dolf van der Linden invited me over to his house in Hilversum, explaining certain details. Judging by his advice, it was abundantly clear he was extremely experienced in this kind of television projects. Apparently, he did not want to take any chances with me, for he had rehearsed the intro music and the finale with the orchestra! I thought that was adorable of him – he really wanted to make life easy for me! There are not many conductors who would have wanted to do so much work for a colleague, but that was Dolf’s character! In the run-up to the contest, I was allowed one rehearsal with the orchestra to play the music a couple of times, but their rendition was flawless from the beginning. My job was the easiest one imaginable!”
As the Netherlands’ entry ‘The party is over’ was conducted by its arranger, Harry van Hoof, and all other delegations had brought along a conductor as well, Stulen did not conduct any of the participating songs. This makes Stulen one of only four maestros in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest who did not conduct one single entry, the other ones being Malcolm Lockyer, Yitzhak Graziani, and Igor Kuljerić. The interval music was played by Peter Schilperoort’s Dutch Swing College Band, meaning Stulen’s main job in the rehearsal week was to help out the guest conductors from all participating countries if need be: “No, we did not rehearse the songs before the guest conductors arrived. I am not sure whether Dolf had taken care of this as well or if it was up to the guest conductors to familiarize the orchestra’s musicians with their respective scores. My duty was to be there while the guest conductors rehearsed. Amazingly, strict care was taken that all countries were given exactly the same amount of time to rehearse their songs… fifteen or twenty minutes a day. All delegations were expected to rehearse their respective items within the time which had been allotted to them – and not one second more. After all, the Eurovision Song Contest is a competition and even a suspicion of bias had to be avoided!”
During the week of rehearsals, Stulen observed the guest conductors at work: “I was the watchdog, so to speak, who had to avoid any hiccups from occurring. One guest was more successful than the other, but no disasters happened. The pieces that did not go well on Monday yet, sounded well on Tuesday. Mostly, in a Eurovision Song Contest, the arrangers conducted the songs – usually excellent musicians, but no trained conductors… and conducting is a profession! These pop songs are usually played in one tempo; if a conductor counts in the orchestra correctly and the drummer picks up the right tempo, virtually nothing can go wrong. For such simple songs, musicians hardly pay attention to the conductor… they need a conductor for changes of tempo; for example, ballads with rubato, in other words: a slight speeding up and slowing down of the tempo, require strict guidance from a conductor – the rhythm section cannot help out in such cases! But even when a guest conductor lacked the required technique, the Metropole Orchestra players were extremely skilled in guiding themselves through the music…
“In the course of the week”, Stulen continues, “the contact with the orchestra musicians got closer and closer. This was nice – after all, they had never worked with me before. During the rehearsals, I was there all the time and there was ample time for a chat. When they had just had to work with one of those non-conductors, some of them asked me for my opinion. “This guy was hopeless… can’t you teach him a lesson?”, is what some of them wondered. Somewhat differently from what I was used to with musicians from symphony orchestras, they liked being quite informal. The worst conductor they had to work with for this contest was without a doubt Les Humphries, who participated for West Germany with his vocal group. He was extremely bad-tempered, venting his dissatisfaction about the orchestra, but about his own singers as well; they were rebuked by him in the rudest of manners. At the same time, his conducting technique was nothing to speak of… with his antics in front of the orchestra, he gave the impression of a lumberjack rather than a conductor.”
“What struck me most about this Eurovision Song Contest”, Stulen recalls, “was the huge number of security officers walking around in and outside the concert hall. Nowadays, every musician is perfectly used to having to show an accreditation before being allowed into the hall, but in those days, it was a totally new experience. With Israel participating in the contest just four years after the massacre at the Munich Olympics, our local authorities were not keen to leave anything to chance. All those cocktail parties and receptions were a new feature for me as well… and I was expected to turn up on all these occasions. I believe I never drank more alcohol in one week!”
In the international final, Jan Stulen conducted the opening tune and finale, both of which had been composed and arranged by Bert Paige, one of the most experienced arrangers to work for the Metropole Orchestra in those years. When Stulen was introduced to the international television audience by host Corry Brokken, he looked quite tense. “Appearances can be deceptive!”, Stulen comments. “I cannot remember being nervous. The most difficult part of my task was to make sure the overture had to be played in tune with the introduction film which opened the programme. This can be a tricky business – much later in my career, I conducted countless film scores on stage with the Brabants Orkest while the film itself was running. If you discover, just sixteen bars before the end of the piece, that you are trailing the image by eight bars or that you have played it eight bars too fast, you find yourself in a nasty situation. In the Eurovision Song Contest, however, everything went exactly according to plan”.
Looking back, Stulen adds: “In a way, this Eurovision Song Contest was a special moment in my working life. Quite opposite to nowadays, the programme used to have a huge status; I could not help but noticing this in the days and weeks after the programme, when my wife came home telling me that all kinds of acquaintances had told her how they had seen her husband on television in the Eurovision Song Contest – they probably thought I could not rise much higher than that. Realistically speaking, I had not done more than conducting two nice pieces of music which had been composed and arranged by someone else… that was it. The best part of the whole episode was that Dolf van der Linden was apparently pleased by my performance, because, in the months and years which followed, he regularly invited me to perform as a guest with his Metropole Orchestra. For radio programmes, he simply gave me a list of music pieces which he thought were appropriate, including audio cassettes of all existing recordings of these pieces – that was so sweet of him! He realized I was not familiar with the light entertainment repertoire he was so well versed in. Much later, I was told that Dolf would have wanted me to succeed him as the orchestra’s chief conductor, but I would not have accepted anyway. For me, the Metropole Orchestra has always been an interesting ensemble to work with as a guest, but my main passion is and always will be classical music.”
Other artists on Jan Stulen
Dick Bakker was the musical director and chief conductor of the Metropole Orchestra between 1991 and 2005: “Jan Stulen is an extremely skilful conductor with a very lucid conducting technique. He has a singular reputation with classical orchestras of all styles in the Netherlands and abroad. Apart from his generally acknowledged abilities in the classical world, Jan has won experience in all genres of light entertainment music as well. For decades, he has been regularly invited to conduct the Metropole Orchestra. Working on jazz and pop productions, Jan has the ability to give musicians the necessary amount of freedom, while exactly knowing when to take the orchestra by the hand at crucial moments. Because of this, he has won universal respect amongst musicians. Being so versatile, he is an example to any conductor.” (2012)