Stanko Selak

Born: May 29th, 1928, Sarajevo (Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes; nowadays: Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Died: February 27th, 2015, Zagreb (Croatia)
Nationality: Croatian

Eurovision record
Officially, the musical director of the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb was Igor Kuljerić. Kuljerić, however, who was a classical conductor, chose Stanko Selak as his ‘assistant’, which in practice meant bringing together the musicians to form a suitable orchestra as well as rehearsing all entries. During the live broadcast, Selak – an accomplished trumpeter in both classical and popular music – conducted the Cypriot entry ‘Milas poli’, since the delegation from Cyprus was the only one not to have brought a guest conductor along to Zagreb.

Professor Stanislav ‘Stanko’ Selak, the fifth child of a former Austro-Hungarian army officer, was born in Sarajevo, but grew up in Rijeka and, from his seventh year onwards, in Zagreb, where he finished grammar school in 1947. As a young boy, he was taught the piano by his half-sister Eleonore; however, it was not until a couple of years later that his fascination for music really awoke when, upon the end of World War II, he had the opportunity to listen to American jazz music for the first time in his life. He immediately bought himself a trumpet and taught himself the basic principles.

Selak quickly became involved in the Zagreb music scene, playing the trumpet in Miljenko Prohaska’s Big Band as well as writing some arrangements for it. “But I discovered that writing was not my passion”, Selak comments, “I was not the kind of person to sit at home at my desk in my pyjamas, penning those arrangements. My ambition was to be on stage dressed in smoking. That was the life for me!” In the late 1940s, Selak was the conductor of his own variety orchestra, which he led for two years and with which he accompanied many show artists from Yugoslavia and abroad. Gradually, however, both jazz music and variety entertainment were suppressed by the communists and Selak was forced to disband his ensemble. Meanwhile, he had entered the Zagreb Conservatory, where he studied the trumpet as well as the piano, harmony, counterpoint, and musical form, graduating in 1954. Some years later, he continued his studies with Professor Franz Dengler at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, where he obtained his diploma in 1959.

In 1955-’56, Stanko Selak for the first time worked in a professional classical orchestra, playing the principal trumpet in the RTV Zagreb Chamber Orchestra of resident conductor Antonio Janigro. Belgian maestro Vanray Mortell took Selak and the orchestra with him on a two-month-tour across Europe. After a short spell with the Symphony Orchestra of Yugoslavian Radio (1956), Selak was engaged as the solo trumpeter with the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra. With this classical ensemble, led by Milan Horvat, Selak played in countless concerts and made several recordings for Philips Records; with the Zagreb Symphony Orchestra and pianist Stjepan Radić, Selak recorded the Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra by Dimitri Shostakovich. During those years, Selak worked with such acclaimed maestros as Lovro von Matačić, Carlo Cechi, Kirill Kondrashin, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, and Claudio Abbado.

In 1966, Stanko Selak decided to leave the Zagreb Philharmonic. Why did he do so? “As a musician, I have always thought of myself as a hermaphrodite”, Selak jests, “because during my career I have never been able to make a choice between classical music on the one hand and jazz and entertainment music on the other. You can say that these two sides were continually fighting a battle in me. So that is why I told Milan Horvat that I had enough of classical music for the moment, having played the whole oeuvre of Tchaikovski and Brahms at least ten times. I wanted to have a go at jazz again. He shook his head, but he knew he could not stop me. Upon that, I moved to Munich to join the Hugo Strasser Band.”

Performing for SDR Television, Stuttgart, West Germany (1960s)

This was by no means the first time Selak travelled to West Germany. In the early 1950s, just after his variety orchestra had been banned by Yugoslavian authorities, he was granted permission to leave the country with a newly formed band, with which he played in bars in Düsseldorf and Hamburg. Afterwards, Selak worked as an instrumentalist in the ensemble of Austrian violinist Willy Horn – mainly for American soldiers based in West Germany – as well as in the Joe Wick Orchestra, which had an engagement in the Haus Vaterland theatre in Hamburg at that time. Later onwards in the 1950s and early 1960s, Selak regularly returned to West Germany for freelance work and performed with various orchestra leaders, including Lutz Dietmar and Max Greger. In 1959, Selak formed a band – including Miljenko Prohaska on the double-bass – with which he replaced Johannes Fehring’s orchestra in Vienna’s Volksgarten for one month, while he took the same ensemble to Hamburg in ’61 for a one-month-engagement in Tanzpalladium Lido.

Selak performed with a self-formed band in Vienna (1959) and Hamburg (1961). Playing the double-bass: Miljenko Prohaska

Between 1966 and 1968, Selak was the principal trumpeter in Hugo Strasser’s band, which played dance music in various hotels and bars in Munich. Strasser introduced him to the world of studio recording and it was not long before Selak was signed by the Electrola label; Electrola released his solo instrumental recordings, including the album ‘Sonne über Dalmatien’ and the singles ‘Monte Rosa’ and ‘The end of a wonderful day’ – the latter composed by Selak himself in collaboration with Hugo Strasser. With Ray Anthony, Heinz Schachtner, and Milo Pavlović, Selak formed the studio quartet The Golden Trumpets, of which several albums were successfully marketed in West Germany and beyond; recordings featuring Selak were also sold in the USA and Japan. Moreover, he was a session musician for Esther & Abi Ofarim on multiple occasions and went on a two-month-tour with Vicky Leandros. Selak returned to Zagreb in 1968.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Stanko Selak developed a wide range of activities in Yugoslavia. With the same orchestra he had taken to Austria and West Germany in ’59 and ‘61, he recorded a string of big band titles for RTV Belgrade. From 1961 onwards, he was involved as a performer in virtually every edition of the Music Biennale Zagreb, an international festival for contemporary classical music. For RTV Zagreb, Selak and pianist Vladimir Krpan recorded the piece ‘Sonata for trumpet and piano’, which composer Stjepan Šulek had written with Selak’s abilities as a trumpet player in mind. In 1971, Yugoslavian national radio awarded Selak with the prize for best solo recording for his interpretation of Igor Kuljerić’s new composition ‘Figurazioni con tromba’; that year, this concerto, in which Selak played four different brass instruments, was performed live on two occasions: first with the RTV Zagreb Symphony Orchestra and later with the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1971, Stanko Selak, who had been invited by Quincy Jones to perform with his jazz orchestra in Rome a couple of years earlier, formed a progressive jazz ensemble. In the field of light entertainment music, he often worked as a trumpeter and conductor in studio sessions, recording albums with the likes of Mišo Kovač and Ivo Robić. The 1979 album ‘YU Disco Expres’ by pianist and keyboard-player Igor Šavin and the Stanko Selak Orchestra is one of the most interesting examples of experimental pop music in former Yugoslavia. Selak was the musical director of the 1971 Zagrebfest of Popular Music and three consecutive editions of the Festival Melodije Istre i Kvarnera in Opatija (1972, 1973, and 1974).

Selak conducting at the Festival Melodije Istre i Kvarnera, Opatija

The most important feature of the latter part of Stanko Selak’s professional career is constituted by his activities as a trumpet teacher at various conservatories and music schools. Between 1962 and 1966, he was an honorary teacher at the Ljubljana Music and Ballet Conservatory. Amongst his students there was Anton Grčar, who took over Selak’s position at this academy in ’66. Grčar and Selak later performed together on stage, playing Vivaldi’s ‘Concerto for Two Trumpets’. In 1968, upon his return from West Germany, Selak started his long association with the Zagreb Academy of Music, initially as a lecturer, but subsequently as a professor. At the academy, Selak introduced brass choir as a compulsory subject; in 1972, he formed the Stanko Selak Big Band, consisting of his own students. Many of his graduates found their way into Yugoslavia’s top classical orchestras. His reputation extended beyond the borders of Yugoslavia, being invited by Professor Roger Delmotte to be a jury member in the International Toulon Trumpet Competition on two occasions (1976, 1981). Selak’s tenure at the academy ended after twenty-five years, when he was pensioned off in 1993.

Between 1985 and 1987, Selak worked as an honorary professor at the Sarajevo Music Academy. Moreover, in 1985 and 1986, he was invited to lecture at the Cologne University of Music, West Germany’s largest conservatory. This led to a permanent appointment as a professor; Selak taught classical trumpet as well as instrumental pedagogy in Cologne between 1987 and 1994.

Teaching in Cologne. To the left, Selak’s student Thorsten Benkenstein

Stanko Selak was the artistic director of the annual summer music festival held on the island of Vis between 1985 and 1991, organizing ten concerts of classical, jazz, and popular music each year. After Croatia’s independence, Selak became the conductor of the Brass Ensemble of the Croatian Army Symphony Wind Orchestra. Having previously been responsible for writing the trumpet course for the newly founded Zagreb Jazz Institute, Selak published a textbook on brass instruments methodology in 2011, which was immediately included in the curriculum of the conservatories in Zagreb and Ljubljana. In that same year, he was awarded with the Town of Vis Prize in recognition of his indefatigability in promoting cultural life on the island.

Stanko Selak in the Eurovision Song Contest
“Sometime during the fall of 1989”, Stanko Selak recalls, “my good friend Igor Kuljerić paid me a visit. He told me he had just been named artistic director of the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb. ‘And I would like you to be the host conductor of the show, who, on my behalf, will be responsible for the quality of the orchestra’, he said. I thought that was strange – I mean, because he was the artistic director, it was his duty to form an orchestra and conduct it. However, he was a strictly classical conductor; apparently, he thought it was best to choose someone with experience in light entertainment music to be the host conductor. So, officially, Igor was the artistic director and musical director of the contest, while I was merely his assistant. In reality, however, he never conducted anything at all – not even the intro music. During the rehearsals, he sometimes dropped in, only to leave again five or ten minutes later. Nevertheless, I had no problems whatsoever to be the assistant of Igor Kuljerić: he was a great musician, a genius! Why he was chosen to be the musical director of the contest in the first place? I am not sure, but I think it was a decision of the General Director of RTV Zagreb. Of course, this was a very important communist party official without any knowledge of music. This fellow must have thought Igor Kuljerić, who was widely known as one of Croatia’s finest modern composers and conductors, was the man for the job.”

Although it never was his main source of income, Stanko Selak did quite some conducting during his career. Here he is, guiding the orchestra for the 1971 edition of the Zagrebfest of Popular Music

In 1989, Yugoslavia had won the Eurovision Song Contest in Lausanne with Croatian group Riva and the song ‘Rock me’. Subsequently, it was decided upon to organize the 1990 festival in the Vatroslav Lisinski Hall in Zagreb, Croatia. In hindsight, 1990 was the last year before hostilities started which sounded the death knell for Yugoslavia; as the situation was already quite tense at that time, it came as no surprise that the festival was organized completely by RTV Zagreb, with no role whatsoever for any broadcaster from the other republics constituting Yugoslavia – least of all RTV Belgrade.

The first thing Stanko Selak had to do after having accepted Kuljerić’s proposal, was finding the right musicians to form the Eurovision orchestra. “Without a carte blanche to choose whoever I wanted, I would never have accepted the job anyway”, Selak comments. “I exactly knew which musicians I wanted for the orchestra. The string section consisted of the best elements of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the entire Zagreb Chamber Instrumental Ensemble, including its concertmaster, Tonko Ninić. Almost all musicians were from Zagreb, but there were three exceptions. My former student, the great Anton Grčar, became the solo trumpet-player of my orchestra. Because I myself had to conduct and hence was not able to play the principal trumpet at the same time, I invited Thomas Vogel, a musician from West Germany whom I knew from my work at the Cologne Music Academy. He was what I like to call a high-blower trumpet-player – and a very good one too! Lastly, the drummer was also from Germany; a great professional who later worked at the Starlight Express in Bochum. The result was a fantastic grand orchestra of which I was extremely proud!”

Tonko Ninić, concertmaster of the Zagreb Chamber Instrumental Ensemble, joined Selak’s Eurovision orchestra

Selak continues: “In the week before the guest conductors and the artists arrived, I prepared all twenty-two items with the orchestra. When the conductor from Vienna, Herr Österreicher, had rehearsed the Austrian entry for the first time, he was so satisfied, that he came up to me and said: ‘Stanko, you have prepared our score so thoroughly, that my job is simply to count the orchestra in – there is no need to give any further instructions’. It goes without saying that I was thrilled by these kind words!”

Although Stanko Selak was proud of his orchestra, there was one musician who turned out to be below par: “The score of the Israeli entry included a bongo part. So I needed a bongo player for this one song. The only person I could find was one Željko Požarić; I did not really want him, but I thought it would not be a problem because he only had to play in this one song. This guy came to the first rehearsals wearing white gloves; ‘Um Gottes Willen’, I thought, ‘that is not looking good!’ On top of that, his performance was simply unsatisfactory. After that rehearsal, my German percussionist came up to me and told me that he would catch the first plane back to Germany if I did not give that bongo player his marching orders immediately! And that is exactly what I did: I sent this Požarić away. When the Israeli guest conductor (Rami Levin, BT) arrived, I told him about the problem. But he told me not to worry: ‘No problem, I will make a telephone-call to Tel Aviv to get a first-class bongo player from Israel.’ And that is exactly what happened! A musician from Israel was especially flown in to play this bongo part. Ha ha, those were the good old days of Eurovision!”

One day before the actual live broadcast (May 5th, 1990), it was time for the usual dress rehearsal. This final walkthrough nearly became the scene of an unprecedented strike of all guest conductors. Selak: “One hour before the dress rehearsal was due to begin, one of the conductors – I do not remember who it was (other sources reveal that it was Ireland’s Noel Kelehan, BT) – came up to me, telling me that they had just heard that the director of the contest had decided to leave out the usual moment at the beginning of each song when the country’s conductor was introduced to the television audience. I had not been told anything about that! Can you imagine: this television director, who was so arrogant that he did not even say ‘hello’ to me or to the guys in my orchestra – the finest musicians in Croatia! – when walking by, said it was not possible to introduce the conductors, because he needed that time to show picture postcards of the city of Zagreb. Keine Minute für die Dirigenten!. Without any respect for those fine conductors who had travelled to Zagreb from all over Europe to accompany the singers, he wanted to abolish this tradition of many decades! There was not a moment of hesitation in me and the only thing on my mind was getting this ridiculous decision undone! I rushed to the first telephone I could find and immediately called the General Director of RTV Zagreb, explaining the situation to him. He immediately agreed with me and promised to solve the problem. Two minutes later, the director returned to tell me that the conductors would be shown on screen after all! Of course, the General Director had just told him bluntly that his ideas about the conductors were unacceptable! Looking back on this unbelievable situation now, you can say that this was the beginning of the end for the orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest. These TV people could not care less about musicians and conductors.”

The 1990 Yugoslavian entry was ‘Hajde da ludujemo’

In most editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, the musical director conducted the host country’s entry, but this was not the case in 1990. For the Yugoslavian song, Tajči’s ‘Hajde da ludujemo’, the orchestra was not placed under the direction of Stanko Selak, but of Stjepan Mihaljinec. Selak did not take this as an offence: “When it came about that I was going to be the musical director of the contest, a minor revolution broke out in Zagreb’s light entertainment scene. Other conductors – think of musicians such as Nikica Kalogjera – were slightly upset they had been overlooked. That might have been the reason why I was not allowed to conduct this song. But it was a rather logical decision too, because Stjepan Mihaljinec was involved with the singers and the composer of the item. Mihaljinec has always been a good friend of mine and he was a fine pianist and arranger; so I did not feel hurt for a moment about this.”

In spite of this, Stanko Selak was given the opportunity to conduct an entry in the actual live broadcast of the contest after all: the up-tempo ‘Milas poli’, sung by Anastazio, that year’s Cypriot entry, which finished fourteenth. Strangely, some of the commentators – at least two, UK’s Terry Wogan and the usually very well-informed Willem van Beusekom from the Netherlands – announced that the song’s composer, John Vickers, was going to conduct the orchestra for Cyprus. Vickers, a British citizen living in Cyprus, was very surprised when he heard about the mistake which had been made by the commentators:

The record sleeve of ‘Milas poli’, the 1990 Cypriot entry which was conducted by Stanko Selak

“I do not know why Terry Wogan and the Dutch commentator thought that I was conducting the orchestra. Probably the TV people in Zagreb simply gave them wrong information. I have to say that my mother, who was watching the show in England, was horrified when Wogan announced me and Mr Selak was shown counting in the orchestra. ‘That is not our John!’, was heard halfway down the street where she lives! I only discovered that Wogan had said this when I was told by the family. In truth, there was never any question of me doing the orchestra. First of all, I could never have done it myself as I am not a trained musician, just a self-taught songwriter and guitarist. Secondly, in those days a backing track was allowed but any instruments on it had to be represented on stage. This meant that, as well as doing the backing vocals, I was obliged to pretend to be playing electronic drums! As a result of this we had to find someone to conduct the orchestra. I do not think we knew anyone in Cyprus who could do this – there was not even a professional state orchestra here on the island at that time – and since everyone had the option to use the ‘resident conductor’, this seemed like the best option for us.”

“As for Mr Selak”, Vickers continues, “I only met him for the first time when our first rehearsal was about to begin. I was very anxious about how the song would sound with an orchestra. After all, we had recorded the song with a very professional producer in Munich, Christian Leibl, who had used synthesizers and modern recording equipment. I was thrilled by Leibl’s version and was worried if the same result could be achieved with an orchestra. However, when I heard the orchestration played by Mr Selak and his men for the first time, I relaxed, because they did a great job with the song. This allowed me to concentrate on the backing vocals. Mr Selak was very polite and friendly to me and. Afterwards, I thanked him for his good work.”

Anastazio performing 'Milas poli' for Cyprus in the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest. By mistake, Netherlands' commentator Willem van Beusekom introduces composer John Vickers as the conductor, while, in reality, the orchestra for this entry was led by Stanko Selak.

Stanko Selak does not remember much about the one Eurovision entry he conducted: “I was simply told that Cyprus was the only delegation without a conductor and that I therefore had to conduct their entry. The composer was a friendly guy, really pleasant. His song was not amongst the strongest compositions in the festival. To be fair, there were many good songs in 1990. The winning song from Italy, ‘Insieme’, was briljant! I had helped the Italian singer Toto Cutugno by finding suitable background singers for him. From Slovenia, I engaged this quintet of singers, Pepel & Kri (this group took part in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest for Yugoslavia, BT). During the rehearsals, there was much talk of this song in the corridors: many people felt its message of a united Europe was some sort of message for the times ahead… although, at that time, nobody knew the word ‘globalisation’ yet! It did not come as a surprise to me when so many juries voted for it.”

One of the most memorable moments in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest was when a technical failure occurred at the start of the first song of the 1990 festival, Spain’s ‘Bandido’. Due to a mistake in the control-room, the Spanish conductor Eduardo Leiva was not able to hear the clicks which preceded the backing track that was used alongside the live orchestra. Hence, he could not count the orchestra in at the right moment. In despair, singing duo Azúcar Moreno left the stage. The song was restarted and, the second time around, everything went well. Stanko Selak was backstage while all of this happened. Understandably, being responsible for the music part of the show, he did not feel very happy: “My goodness, I was half dead – it was a catastrophe and the adrenaline was rushing through my veins. Someone must have switched off the sound. At that time, there was talk that it was a conscious sabotage, but I never believed that. It was simply a hideous technical mistake. Luckily, the Spanish song did well in the voting, because it was a strong piece of music which deserved a good score.”

The Spanish duo Azúcar Moreno rehearsing in Zagreb

There was another minor incident during the Netherlands’ entry, Maywood’s ‘Ik wil alles met je delen’: the trumpet solo during the bridge of the song could not by heard by TV viewers. For Stanko Selak, this was a very tragic moment: “It was a solo for a piccolo trumpet player. This baroque-sounding trumpet solo was a very good idea; mind you, the piccolo trumpet features in some of the best Beatles’ songs as well! While I was preparing the arrangements and read the score of the Netherlands’ entry, I realized that there was only one man who was capable of playing this solo to perfection: Anton Grčar, my former student, who played in the Ljubljana Philharmonic. I suggested to Toni that he should stand up whilst playing this solo, so that the audience could see him. He immediately liked the idea and so, during the live broadcast, he rose from his chair. At that very moment, however, he stepped on the cable which was linked to a small microphone that had been attached to the bell of his trumpet. As a result of that, the microphone was flung from his instrument and his beautiful solo could only be heard by the audience present in the theatre, not by TV viewers. Anton himself was very depressed about it. This solo was the reason I had invited him to be in the Eurovision orchestra in the first place! The guy is a virtuoso who won second prize in the important trumpet competition in Genève; in short, one of the best classical musicians around. It was most unfortunate that this had to happen to him.”

Anton Grčar experiencing a tragic moment, playing the solo in the 1990 Netherlands entry just after having lost the microphone in his piccolo trumpet

In spite of these incidents, Stanko Selak enjoys looking back on his Eurovision involvement: “Oh yes, it was certainly one of the highlights in my career. I had a fantastic orchestra at my disposal with hand-picked music professionals. And what is more: it was not very often that I was given the opportunity to work as a conductor in a live concert… and my passion was never composing or arranging – it was being on stage, performing for an audience! I think that, having said that, there is no need to explain any further why I thoroughly enjoyed working on the Eurovision Song Contest!”

Other artists on Stanko Selak
Trumpeter Thomas Vogel from Germany was one of the foreign musicians flown in to play in the 1990 Eurovision orchestra compiled by Selak: “Professionally, I only worked with Stanko once, when he asked me to join the orchestra for the Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb. I knew him from my time as a student in Cologne. I studied jazz trumpet there, and although Stanko taught classical trumpet only, we became good friends. Being the great storyteller that he is, he shared many of his experiences and memories with us, the students of the academy. I have wonderful memories of him from our time in Cologne.” (2011)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Stanko Selak, December 2010.
  • An interview with Stanko Selak in Croatian by Ivica Župan was published in WAM (= Webzine about Audio and Music) no. 13 (2002). This article also offers a short career overview of Selak.
  • Many thanks to John Vickers (composer of the Cypriot entry in 1990) for his valuable additional comments, and to Thomas Vogel for sharing his memories about Stanko Selak with us.
  • Several pieces of Igor Šavin’s album ‘YU Disco Expres’ (with Stanko Selak’s orchestra) can be found on YouTube, including the spectacular piece ‘Alfa’.
  • All pictures courtesy of Stanko Selak, except for the photo of Azúcar Moreno (courtesy of Peter Langenberg).


Songs conducted
1990: Milas poli