Gert-Ove AnderssonBorn: April 30th, 1930, Malmö (Sweden)
Died: July 15th, 2020, Stockholm (Sweden)
It was not long before the childhood prodigy discovered a piano in a park pavilion. “This instrument fascinated me”, Andersson recalls, “and I begged my parents to go to that pavilion over and over again, because we did not have a piano at home. I do not know how, but just like with the accordion, I could play that piano instantly. That was the moment my father must have thought: this boy must become a professional pianist! Though he had never attended a classical concert or listened to Mozart or Beethoven, he took me to the Malmö Music Conservatory. I was eight years old. Luckily, I was allowed to study for free; people at the music school knew my parents lacked the means to pay for my studies. My father spent 200 Swedish crowns, which was more than he earned in a month, to buy me a second-hand-piano allowing me to practice at home too.”
Young Gert-Ove, who thanks to his radio performances had already become a celebrity in Skåne, studied the piano at the Malmö conservatory between 1938 and 1946, his exam being to play Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. During those same years, he managed to successfully finish his secondary education. In 1939 and 1940, he participated in the Swedish national accordion championships for juniors, earning second and first prize respectively. In 1947, he won the senior version of this competition.
Having obtained his diploma in Malmö, Andersson decided to continue his studies elsewhere. Between 1947 and 1949, he studied the piano with Hermann D. Koppel (1908-1998), professor at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, whilst also following lessons in composition, counterpoint, and conducting with John Fernström, a Swedish composer living in Lund. In 1949-1950, Andersson followed piano and composition courses at the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm. In 1950, unsatisfied with the studies there, he returned to Skåne and was taught by Koppel in Copenhagen for two more years.
Although it was his ambition to be a concert pianist, Gert-Ove Andersson did not forget other fields of music. For two seasons (1947-’48), he was the pianist in the renowned Harry Arnold Big Band in Malmö. Later, Andersson was asked to become the pianist in Thore Ehrling’s Big Band in Stockholm, the best jazz ensemble in Sweden at that time, but he declined the offer, preferring to stick with his classical studies instead. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he also regularly appeared in the Swedish version of ‘Music While You Work’ on nationwide radio, playing the piano live in sessions of twenty-five minutes. Meanwhile, Andersson had started performing as a classical pianist, giving his first recital in Malmö in 1948. Two years later, he played his own composition ‘Piano Sonata 1950’ on Swedish radio, whilst making his debut in the Stockholm Concert Hall in 1952, playing music by Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók, and Ravel. In 1952 and 1953, he performed on stage as a piano soloist interpreting works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Franck with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, and the Nordic Youth Orchestra in Lund.
In 1953, Gert-Ove Andersson became the répétiteur of the Malmö City Theatre, rehearsing dramatic plays, operas, operettas, musicals and ballets. “I had worked as a répétiteur in the same theatre on an on-and-off basis for several years already”, Andersson comments, ”and one of the ballet choreographer with whom I worked used to be unhappy about the way the pieces we had rehearsed so thoroughly, were played by the orchestra and its conductor during the eventual stage performance. He said to me: ‘Why do you not conduct it? You always manage to get the tempi right!’ That was the first time I even considered conducting an orchestra. At that time, I would not have been able to do it, though John Fernström had taught me the basics and I later took a conducting master class with an American maestro called Dean Dixon (1915-1976). Somewhere in 1952, my ambition to be successful as a pianist vanished into thin air. From that moment onwards, conducting was all that mattered to me – do not ask me why! Being a répétiteur might not sound very exciting, but for me it was the best school I could get, practicing with different kinds of artists. Moreover, there was a choir of sixty elements and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra had its concerts in our theatre as well, performing with famous guest conductors such as Albert Wolff, Hermann Scherchen, and Igor Markevitch – for a young and coming musician like me, it was pure paradise!”
“Still in 1953”, Andersson continues, “the regular conductor of the Malmö Symphonic asked me if I wanted to conduct some performances of Kálmán’s Viennese operetta ‘The Circus Princess’. Being a typical classical conductor, mainly interested in symphonic works and operas, he was not very keen on working on operettas. Of course, I agreed… so there I was, 23 years old, entering the stage to lead this huge symphonic orchestra. The theatre was packed with 1,700 spectators. Ah, I felt like Toscanini and Tchaikovsky in one person! After that performance, I could not sleep. There was so much adrenalin rushing through my veins. I suppose a sportsman feels the same after having played an important match. On top of that, my arms hurt because of all the enormous gestures I had made… but at the same time I was convinced that conducting was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!”
The year 1955 was an important one in Andersson’s career. First, as a pianist and conductor, he went on a unique tour in the Soviet Union, which was part of a cultural exchange between Sweden and the USSR, performing for an audience of 20,000 in Moscow’s Gorky Park on the opening night. That same year, Andersson became the regular conductor of the Malmö City Theatre, mostly conducting musicals, ballets, and operettas. He worked in Malmö until 1961, teaming up with later famous artists such as director Ingmar Bergman and actor Max von Sydow. “During my six years as the main conductor at the Malmö Theatre”, Andersson adds, “I learnt how to lead an orchestra. I made many mistakes, but, becoming more and more experienced, I learnt from each one of them. Leading an orchestra also requires lots of psychology.”
Between 1958 and 1961, Gert-Ove Andersson, who never said goodbye to entertainment music entirely, led the Light Music Ensemble in Malmö, which he had formed at the request of Swedish Radio’s head of entertainment, Tage Danielsson. Much of the material that was played by this band was arranged by Andersson himself. Simultaneously, he was regularly invited to conduct the SR Underhållningsorkester, the light entertainment of the Swedish broadcaster in Stockholm, which was usually led by William Lind, while also recording radio programmes with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1962, Andersson accepted the offer of becoming the musical director and first conductor of the Oscars Theatre, a legendary operetta venue in Stockholm. This career move involved leaving the Skåne region behind once and for all. Andersson worked at the Oscars Theatre between 1963 and 1990. In his first years at the Oscars, his main task was to rejuvenate the orchestra, replacing most of the original instrumentalists with younger musicians. During his long spell at the theatre, he conducted thousands of performances, ranging from classical operettas such as Lehár’s ‘The Merry Widow’, to new musicals from West End and Broadway, including ‘West Side Story’, ‘A Chorus Line’, and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. In 1966, he made his debut as an opera conductor with Karl Birger Blomdahl’s work ‘Herr von Hancken’ at Stockholm’s Royal Opera House. At the Royal Opera, Andersson also worked as a répétiteur for several years.
In 1970, when the Oscars Theatre was renovated and Andersson conducted operas at smaller venues in Stockholm for a while, he started working as a répétiteur again, this time at Stockholm’s Opera High School (Operahögskolan, OHS). There, he continued working until 2002, moreover being the academy’s rector between 1973 and 1976. Andersson: “From the first day, I loved working with those young and coming singers, because most of them were so eager to learn. Many of them became international stars. Having worked as a theatre conductor for many years, I was able to bring in my experience with professional opera singers. My task at OHS was to rehearse opera repertoire with the students, ranging from standard operas such as ‘Carmen’ to works of Stravinsky and other modern composers. I felt it was my main duty to make the students understand what they were singing. Interpreting a work technically is not enough… you have to have a thorough understanding of the content. If you do not sing or play music with your heart, you will fail to bring across your message. Without passion you are nowhere – whichever style of music you are playing!”
Besides his work at the Oscars Theatre and the Opera High School, Gert-Ove Andersson made many appearances as a guest conductor in Sweden and abroad. On home soil, he worked with the symphony orchestras from Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Norrköping, Helsingborg, Gävle, and Örebro. He also appeared on stage with classical ensembles in several other European countries, including Denmark, the Soviet Union, and West Germany. In the 1970s, he was involved in some ambitious television productions, accompanying jazz singer Alice Babs in a programme with songs by Duke Ellington as well as conducting the SR Symphony Orchestra in a concert with American trumpet legend Clark Terry playing compositions by Bengt-Arne Wallin. Meanwhile, Andersson’s symphonic entertainment compositions were part of the repertoire of orchestras in Sweden and across Europe.
In 2002, at 72 years, Gert-Ove Andersson retired from the Opera High School, having ceased working at the Oscars Theatre twelve years before already. Since, he has divided his time between Stockholm and his winter house on the Spanish coast. In 2010-’11, he took up composing again, writing a fully fledged concerto for accordion and symphony orchestra. Andersson about this unusual piece of music: “I thought: why not start composing again? Writing a classical piece for accordion seemed a fitting tribute to the instrument of my young years. My inspiration came from the famous Swedish waltz by Carl Jularbo, ‘Livet i Finnskogarna’, as well as from Ástor Piazzolla, one of my favourite musicians. It took me one year composing the work. It does not really matter if it will ever be performed, because I had so much fun during the composing process… I suspect I will go on composing forever!”
Gert-Ove Andersson in the Eurovision Song Contest
We talked to Bengt-Arne Wallin (1926-), the composer and arranger of ‘Nygammal vals’, about his song and his choice for Gert-Ove Andersson as his musical director: “That year, SR invited composers to submit a song for the pre-selection and I was one. Björn Lindroth and I were never going to compete with a typical Eurovision song; we usually hated the way these were written! So we decided to create something that was in direct opposition to that, a burlesque… I cannot begin to describe you how surprised we were when our creation, which started as a joke, was chosen as the most suitable song to represent Sweden in Luxembourg! Björn and I looked at each other in total amazement. As for Gert-Ove, he is a very good conductor. I had watched him conducting musicals with huge orchestras at the Oscars Theatre… ‘My Fair Lady’ for example… and I was impressed by his way of working on those projects. It is true, I could have conducted ‘Nygammal vals’ myself in Luxembourg, but I felt that Björn Lindroth and I had already done the hard work by writing the song. In Luxembourg, we just wanted to have a good time and let Gert-Ove do the work! With his abilities as a conductor, I knew that I did not have to worry about a thing.”
Gert-Ove Andersson: “Both Bengt-Arne and Ulf Björlin, composer of ‘Var finns du?’, knew that I loved conducting all kinds of music, not just classical works. I did not arrange either of those songs; they simply wanted me to conduct their score. Moreover, I had ample experience with the SR Underhållningsorkester, which accompanied all songs in the Swedish selection programme; I had worked with them on many broadcasts before as an arranger and conductor. But there I was… because all of a sudden I had to go to Luxembourg! At that time, I conducted ‘West Side Story’ at the Oscars Theatre and ‘Herr von Hancken’, a modern Swedish opera by Karl Birger Blomdahl, at the Royal Opera House. Especially that opera was a very difficult piece of music with many dissonances… and to find myself conducting a three-minute-song in Luxembourg the next day was the starkest contrast imaginable!”
“However, that does not mean that working on Eurovision was a routine!”, Andersson adds. “After all, it was quite a new experience. I had not worked abroad as a conductor since my tour in the USSR in ’55 and Luxembourg was really something to remember. We were there for four days, with one rehearsal and one or two dress rehearsals. A large part of the orchestra consisted of classical instrumentalists. Many of them usually are not particularly fond of playing light entertainment music and they tended to look down upon the arrangers of those Eurovision songs who stepped up to conduct the orchestra in their own particular style. When they saw me conducting, however, I heard one of them whispering: ‘He is a real conductor!’ Of course he meant to say my style betrayed me as a conductor with a classical background. It was very nice they instantly appreciated me and rehearsing with them was pure joy. There was just the drummer of the orchestra (Fausti Cima, BT) who had a hard time mastering the jazz waltz rhythm of our song, but Svante Thuresson, who is a jazz drummer himself, was able to instruct him very easily. Both Svante and Lill Lindfors are fantastic jazz singers and they performed the song to perfection!”
Andersson was delighted when the Swedish song did so well, finishing second behind Austria’s ‘Merci chérie’: “We knew we had a wonderful song, but it was quite modern as well – a bit jazzy and with comical lyrics. When we were backstage and the votes had come in, the contestants from the Mediterranean countries laughed when they found out we had finished in second place. They could not understand what the attraction of our song was; it was so far removed from their music culture! In truth, it was quite obvious they were angry… although that may also have had to do with the Scandinavian countries sharing the votes amongst each other!”
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