Lev Zemlinski (Лев Земли́нский)

Born: March 8th, 1958, Moscow (Soviet Union, now: Russia)
Nationality: Russian

Eurovision record
Russian pianist and composer Lev Ilyich Zemlinski was the songwriter, arranger, and conductor for Russia’s first-ever Eurovision entry, ‘Vechni strannik’. Performed by Youddiph (stage name of Maria ‘Masha’ Katz), this song finished ninth in a field of twenty-five competitors in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.

Biography
Born in Moscow in 1958, Lev Zemlinski is the son of a father from the Ukrainian Black Sea coast and a mother who grew up in the countryside in the heart of Russia. Both of his parents were well educated. “My father was an engineer, who had earned a Ph.D. in electronics. He worked for the army, but I never found out exactly what his job was! He was born in Odessa, but when he was eight years old, the Germans invaded Ukraine and the family escaped on the last ship to Russia. My grandfather was an engineer too, so my dad followed in his footsteps. If my father’s family gave me my brains, mother gave me a strong will to achieve something in life. She ended up being a doctor of medicine, which was a miracle really because her grandfather had been branded an enemy of the people in the days of Stalin. He was a Christian priest in a small village – and, by the way, he also was Georgi Zhukov’s first teacher! In 1930, he was arrested and shot in the Solovki Prison Camp. As family members of someone deemed a traitor by Stalin’s regime, his children were barred from getting a proper education. Somehow, my mother managed to hide her origins and embarked on a medical study in 1953, the last year of Stalin’s life.”

“Even though neither of my parents were musicians, they were both very talented in this respect. My father had studied the cello at Odessa’s music school as a child for a short while before the war broke out. He played the balalaika, and very well too! Mother was quite a good guitarist. Every time friends came to visit, folk tunes were being sung. It’s fair to say that music was an integral part of our household. When I entered primary school at the age of seven, my parents wanted me to study music as well, but after my sense of rhythm had been tested, I was refused. Teachers said I had no good ear! The following year, I finally got in and I studied the piano until I was twelve. The lessons were exclusively classical, however, and extremely boring. After finishing primary school, I just wanted to forget about the piano. Perhaps I could have been a good classical musician, who knows, but in order to achieve that, the learning process shouldn’t be interrupted. Once I gave up on it, you could say I was lost to that world.”

“As a teenager, I was progressively drawn to rock ‘n’ roll. At first, this type of music was forbidden in the USSR. Slowly, however, records from the West trickled in. They were brought back mostly by diplomats who travelled abroad. Their children taped them. Those tapes were exchanged on an underground market. At some point, a radio DJ started playing the Beatles – and slowly, their music became some sort of acceptable. I remember the first recording from the West I could lay my hands on. It wasn’t even a vinyl, but a blue film attached to the last page of a magazine with a printed record of four Beatles songs; ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Ob la di, ob la da’, ‘Girl’, and ‘Can’t buy me love’. In the early 1970s, the first Russian rock bands appeared on the scene; most notably Time Machine and Resurrection. Just like practically all the boys of my age, I wanted to play the guitar. I actually put together my first guitar myself. I played it in school bands. By the time we were sixteen, seventeen, we were much in awe of hard rock from the West… Deep Purple and Nazareth. That type of music was unacceptable to communist authorities. It was very hard to come by their records.”

Lev’s parents Silva and Ilya

After completing his secondary education, Lev enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Telecommunication, studying electronic engineering (1975-80). “I would have preferred studying music,” he admits, “but my family was strictly against a career in music. My parents reckoned I wasn’t talented enough to make it. To me, studying engineering at the Radio and TV Faculty of the Institute of Telecommunication was the second-best choice. It was the way to satisfy my parents and stay near the world of music at the same time. I thought about becoming a professional sound engineer for television. As a student, I was taught how to record large orchestras for television broadcasts. I studied the equipment as well as the recording process itself.”

“During my student days, I spent many evenings at the recreation centre of the Moscow Institute of Physics. In Soviet days, every factory, scientific institute, school, etcetera, had its own recreation centre where employees or students could relax, attend performances, or follow courses. The recreation centre of the Institute of Physics was the only place in Moscow, and probably in the whole of the Soviet Union, where jazz music was being taught and where musicians who were interested in jazz music gathered. It was a nucleus of musicians and aspiring musicians. We called it the Experimental Jazz Studio and it really was a small island of freedom in the sea of Soviet musical totalitarianism. At this recreation centre, I followed various courses. I was also the pianist of a four-piece bebop ensemble. This was the time when jazz rock was the talk of the town in the West. We were heavily influenced by the group Weather Report – and later also by Chick Corea, of course. I was never exclusively a jazz man, though… my interests were always in between rock ‘n’ roll and jazz.”

“At some point, I began to play as a pianist in several bands, accompanying pop artists. I obtained an official certificate from Russia’s state concert organisation, allowing me to get a certain rate for each gig. That was great, but by that time I also wanted to become a student at an official music college. There was a college in Moscow which had a part-time jazz piano course which lasted five years, but only people who had a fixed job as a musician were allowed to enrol. I did some performances here and there, but I didn’t have an official appointment. The easiest way was to find a job vacancy at a recreation centre of some factory. There were opportunities to work there for musicians, choreographers, and other creative people.”

Lev as an aspiring musician, early 1980s

“After some time, a fellow student told me there was an institution on the far side of Moscow who were looking for a bandleader. After an initial telephone call I was invited over to sign a contract with the manager. The job interview was very pleasant. He offered me a contract to teach and lead two music groups. As I was about to leave, he suddenly asked, “Do you actually know what kind of an institution we are?” I actually couldn’t care less, as long as the job would help me get into the music academy. “Just look through that window,” he laughed. There, I saw a small courtyard where people all wearing the same grey suits were walking about… this was a prison! I got myself a job in a prison! The prisoners had a blues band, while the guards’ ensemble played pop music. It was an interesting experience, but I didn’t stay longer than strictly necessary. After about half a year, I had enough references to enter the academy.”

While studying jazz piano at the Moscow Music College (1979-84), Lev Zemlinski obtained his engineering diploma. Subsequently, he worked as a technical specialist with Russian State Television for three years (1980-83). “Due to my obligations as a student at the music academy during daytime, I worked mostly during night hours. Now, the Soviet Union was a big country with eight time zones. At midnight in Moscow, the TV programme for the Far Eastern areas began – and for that reason, technicians had to be on hand 24/7, even when there wasn’t much to do. The Ostankino Television Tower also had a channel to Western European countries, allowing us to clandestinely watch a film broadcast in England or France… and even entertainment shows! I remember watching the Eurovision Song Contest long before the Iron Curtain came down. Eventually, along with my fellow-technicians, I had collected an illegal library of large 2,5" video tapes, all from the West, just for our own entertainment during those nightly hours!”

“As an engineer, I had to work on all kinds of different programmes, including music programmes of course. I remember one particular instance of the International Tchaikovsky Competition for young and aspiring pianists. In the end, the jury awarded two first prizes, one to a Russian and one to an American pianist. The American gave a spectacular rendition of Stravinsky’s ‘Petrushka’. The question, who would be allowed to play last? Because whoever plays last is the real winner. While the programme was interrupted by a news block, we saw the Russian coming on stage first, which meant that the American guy would be allowed to finish the programme. This was a matter of national pride! The director took an immediate decision; he ordered me to make an edit in which the American musician played first and the Russian last. As a dutiful employee, I did what my superior asked of me – and I made an edit in which the order of appearance was reversed… and I was paid money for this!”

On a state concert tour somewhere in the USSR (1987)

Alongside his work in television and his jazz studies, Zemlinski worked as a pianist and keyboard player with various groups and solo artists in and around Moscow. In 1983, he decided to give up his engineering job to become a professional musician. “It was a natural development. I was asked by more and more artists to work with them. Once I got rid of my job at the Ostankino Tower, I could join them on tours further away from Moscow as well. There was a state concert system, which sent popular artists and their accompanying musicians to all corners of the country… Central Asia, Kamchatka, and even abroad, to some other socialist countries like Poland and Mongolia. It was certainly interesting to do so much travelling. I saw many of the Soviet Union’s biggest venues, because I worked with some really talented and popular artists, such as Yuri Loza, Xenia Georgiadi, and Olga Zarubina. I started out as a keyboard player, but thanks to my background in the academy, it wasn’t long before I was asked to write arrangements to new song material as well. I had never learnt how to write arrangements, but this type of work can be learned from practice. It wasn’t just live gigs… I also worked in the studio with many of the artists I accompanied on stage.”

“By 1989/90, the whole state concert system had collapsed. This was the time when the Soviet Union started falling apart. I must say I have quite good memories of those years, because I had just married, but all the same, all certainties in our life fell away one after the other. We had to get up very early in the morning to go to the supermarket – there were heavy food shortages in Moscow and people had to stand in line for simple products such as milk. In the music business, some interesting developments were going on, as independent producers started to appear, allowing for a more adventurous approach to music. In general, though, the level of popular music in Russia came crashing down. The going got tough, but I was never out of work.”

“In 1991, while the world around us was crumbling, I received an offer from a Russian producer to join a five-piece band accompanying a Russian-type circus show in America. This was the time when Cirque du Soleil was beginning to enjoy considerable international success – and other producers were looking to create something similar. This Russian guy had connections with America and got us the gig. After coming over to Maryland for a month of rehearsals, we were taken by bus all the way to Dallas in Texas, where we worked for some weeks, before eventually coming to Broadway in New York. There, we performed for about a month at the Gershwin Theatre.”

The Blues League’s lead singer Nikolai Arutyunov on top of Lev’s piano (1989)

“The musicians I played with were excellent professionals. Because of the lack of work in Russia at the time, this producer had managed to pick the best musicians in the country for his show. Liza Minnelli came to visit and some other famous people, but the show wasn’t really successful. The problem was that the music had been composed by an American jazz drummer who had little rapport with circus (Bobby Previte – BT). After the production came to an end, it was tempting to stay in America to try my luck there, but the music world in New York was very competitive. On top of this, coming to a Western country for the first time was a real culture shock, so I decided to come back to Moscow, where I had a certain reputation as a musician and more opportunities perhaps. In the USA, I was a perfect nobody.”

“Back in Russia, I decided I needed some more theoretical knowledge. Working with the circus show on Broadway had made me think about writing instrumental music. I was particularly eager to try my hand at film composing. I took lessons privately with a professor at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Leonid Bobylev, a good classical composer in his own right. I studied composition with him for about a year or two. There is really no such discipline as composition. He just gave me tasks, “Write ten pieces in the style of Chopin,” for example. Writing those pieces and discussing them with him helped me a lot. Throughout the 1980s, I had been thinking of composing, but I didn’t really know where to start. Bobylev taught me to stop thinking as a piano player exclusively… writing music means you have to take into account all different instruments.”

“Meanwhile, I made a living as a studio musician, playing keyboards and writing arrangements for different artists… Yuri Loza, Valeri Obodzinski, and quite a few others. I also worked with an excellent musician called Nikolai Arutyunov and his band, the Blues League (Лига Блюза in Russian – BT), performing with them on stage and co-producing their records. Their material was very interesting… a mix of traditional American blues and original songs written by Nikolai himself. The band enjoyed some success, though rather discreetly in the background. The group was a learning school for several young musicians and singers over the years. I had a little background in blues music myself, but it’s fair to say that I didn’t learn how it should be done properly until working with Nikolai. I stayed with the Blues League for two years. The early 1990s were an interesting time. The Yeltsin years in Russia were a bit chaotic, but in spite of all the troubles we had many possibilities that we don’t have nowadays. Let me just say that the country was more open than it is today.”

Zemlinski pictured in 1994

“While I was still studying with Bobylev, I was offered to join Russkaya Troika, a big video and computer graphics company, as a staff composer. My job was mainly to write background music for television commercials. This was never a conscious career move on my part, but just a way to earn an income. Advertisement isn’t an easy business to work in. Most of the clients aren’t very well educated in music and find it hard to explain what kind of composition they want from you. The result is you often end up creating several versions of a jingle, never knowing in advance which sound will satisfy them. After some years with Russkaya Troika, I went freelance, creating my own studio for advertisement music, but I can fortunately say that I stopped working in that corner of the music business long ago. In the 1990s, when there wasn’t that much work available in Russia, I wrote instrumental music for an American stock library, Flying Hands.”

“Also in the early 1990s, I was contacted by circus director and choreographer Valentin Gneushev, whom I had worked with on the Moscow Circus Show on Broadway. He was in the process of creating a new show for the Russian market and he didn’t want to work with that jazz drummer from America again. When he started thinking about the music, I was the first person he turned to. For the first show I composed, I wrote a short arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet ‘Petrushka’, done entirely with electronic instruments. Within a short time, composing circus music became one of my professional activities – and it has remained that way ever since.”

“In 1997, I started working with the Russian State Circus Company. Two years later, one of their choreographers, Susanna Rayanova, was hired by a Dutch producer team, Willem and Ilja Smitt. They were looking to create a modern show with Russian circus artists (marketed in the Netherlands as ‘Groot Russisch Staatscircus’ – BT), again following the trend which had been set by Cirque du Soleil. Following Susanna to the Netherlands, I created the music for the entire show and led an eight-piece combo of Russian musicians hand-picked by myself in Moscow. The show we put together was contemporary and attractive. The theme song of the show was interpreted by a Dutch singer, Nelly de la Rosa, who did an excellent job at it. Apart from Holland, we also performed the show in Belgium, Germany, and in Luxembourg where we enjoyed particular success. After that first show, which lasted for two years, we did a second one which lasted for another year. In all, it was a good experience.”

Conducting a rehearsal of the Nikulin Circus theatre orchestra – with the orchestra’s chief conductor Petr Dranovski behind him keeping a watchful eye (2017)

From 2003 onwards, Zemlinski has worked as a composer for the Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, alternatively known as the Nikulin Circus, the most popular circus theatre in Moscow. “When I started writing circus music, I worked mostly with synthesisers, but the Nikulin Circus have their own permanent big band orchestra. They were looking for someone who could write orchestral scores for them. It’s nice to work with a big band, but writing for such a set-up can be challenging. Here, my experience as a jazz musician and pop music arranger has come in useful. Writing music for circus shows requires a special mindset from a composer. A director invites you to the rehearsals to witness the choreography he has created for a certain act, expecting you to create a story in music around it. Some directors just say, “What do you feel when you watch this? Follow your emotions and express them in music!” Fortunately, most of them are able to give instructions which are a little more specific, but this type of work still requires a lot of imagination.”

In 2004, parts of an avantgarde show created by the Nikulin Circus, ‘Demiurge’, all with music composed by Lev Zemlinski, were submitted to the Monte Carlo Circus Festival, where they were awarded with third prize. Meanwhile, away from the world of theatrical music, Zemlinski continued his affiliation with pop music, writing the orchestrations for a concert tour by the popular teenager artist Alsou (2003), while, some years before, he had also been invited by classical conductor Yevgeni Svetlanov to take care of the arrangements for the so-called ‘Schlagers of the Twentieth Century’ Christmas Symphonic Concerts with vocalists Larisa Dolina and Alexander Gradski.

In 2004, a completely new challenge came Zemlinski’s way when he met Alexander Tatarski (1950-2007), a director of animation films who ran his own studio, ‘Pilot’. Commissioned by Tatarski, Zemlinski worked on several animation series, most notably ‘Gora samotsvetov’ (Pile of Gems). “I was lucky to meet Tatarski. He was a very interesting director. The way our partnership started was rather unusual. When I left him a CD of my work for the Nikulin Circus, I had little hope that he would listen to it. Producers receive piles of CDs from aspiring musicians. The following day, however, he called me back, telling me that he wanted to work with me. I couldn’t believe my ears. As it turned out, Tatarski was childhood friends with Yuri Nikulin’s son Maxim. As he told me, as soon as his eye met the description of the CD and saw that magic word ‘Nikulin’, I was in! Sometimes, you need a bit of luck to succeed in life, don’t you?”

Lev (squatting, front right) with the whole production team of the popular Russian animation series ‘Fiksiki’

“Sadly, Alexander passed away just a couple of years after we met, but we still managed to make a big bunch of short animations together in the ‘Pile of Gems’ series, which was Alexander’s brainchild. It’s a series of animations dedicated to folk tales of different tribes and people living across Russia and the former Soviet Union… Eskimos, Hutsuls, Russian Koreans, etcetera. Over the years, I’ve worked on dozens of episodes, working with different directors – and the series is still running today. The most attractive part of working on ‘Pile of Gems’ is the joy of immersing myself in folk traditions of all those different peoples, incorporating elements of their music into the films. Every episode is a completely separate entity, a short film standing on its own – so I don’t make use of a sound library of musical elements recurring in every episode. For each film, I have to start from scratch.”

Over the years, the ‘Pile of Gems’ animation series has enjoyed popularity with youthful audiences as well as meeting critical acclaim, being awarded with two Golden Eagles, Russia’s most important cinematographic award. Meanwhile, Zemlinski has built up an impressive reputation in composing for animated films, including ‘Multirossija’ and, from 2010 onwards, ‘Fiksiki’ (The Fixies). In ‘Fiksiki’, technical aspects of human life are explained to children.

“For example, they explain how a car works, but in a playful way,” Zemlinski comments. “Given the high pace at which those animation films are usually produced, the way a composer is required to work on the music is slightly different than with a regular movie film soundtrack. Whereas, for a feature film, a soundtrack composer is usually given the final edit, I often have to write the music for animations based on animatics, sketch versions. Working with a sequence of images, you have to acquire a feeling of the tempo and the emotions which a director wants to bring across. On the other hand, you have more freedom. The director asks you to compose a song for each character based on images of them – and then the animations are created flowing from the music. Still, it’s not always easy, because there’s always a risk that you don’t understand exactly what a director is looking for.”

Shooting a video clip of his own music in Cuba (2018)

In 2007, Zemlinski had the opportunity to write the soundtrack for a full-length feature film in the so-called slasher genre, an American-Russian co-production, ‘Trackman / Putevoy obhodchik’. “The film was released in the United States by Columbia Pictures, but didn’t meet with much success. Funnily enough, some ten years later, I received a telephone call from New York. It was the production assistant of a black comedy series, telling me they wanted to use one of the songs from that soundtrack. When composing ‘Trackman’, the American producers had asked me to include a scary children’s song in it. In one day, I wrote a piece, simply entitled ‘Lullaby’. My young daughter recorded the vocals, I gave it to the production team, and forgot about it. Given that the film had flopped, I wondered how the creators of this comedy series had found my song. When I asked, the voice on the other end of the line fell silent for a moment. “Don’t you know? That song has a million views on YouTube!” As it turned out, American youngsters had put the tune online. There were some funny remarks in the comments section, claiming that it was a folk song that all Russian parents sing to their children. At first, I didn’t know what to think of this. To me, it was a little element in a film I wasn’t particularly satisfied with. I never imagined that song would have a life of its own afterwards. It just goes to show that you can never tell in advance what will catch on with audiences, and what will not.”

“For the last twenty years, I’ve been doing the type of work I like most… writing instrumental music. The Nikulin Circus still is amongst my clients. Over the years, they’ve tried working with other composers, but they always returned to me. Last year (in 2020 – BT), when their regular conductor Petr Dranovski suddenly passed away, they even proposed that I take over the musical directorship of their big band, but I don’t want to do that. Being the chief conductor of a fifteen-piece theatre orchestra also involves a lot of organisational work… finding new musicians, making sure they receive their salaries on time, et cetera. I know how to do this, but I would regret spending less time on composing new music. I like sitting in my studio, writing a tune, and then recording it with good performers – though I usually record most of the instruments myself… piano, guitars, bass, even some flutes. For many of my film projects, I have to work with tight budgets but, even though using samples saves time and money, I prefer live instruments. Apart from the satisfaction of playing them myself, real instruments always give a recording more depth and nuance.”

When asked if he is satisfied with the career he has had as a musician so far, Zemlinski smiles ironically. “Well, of course I’m not satisfied… I’m never satisfied. I’m always looking for new possibilities, new challenges. A career always depends largely on where you live, and when. Obviously, I would love to have the opportunity to work in America and write soundtracks to Hollywood films. The possibilities to make it as a Russian composer in such a competitive environment are limited, however. Besides, I wouldn’t like the idea of moving away from Russia. I don’t live in Moscow, but in a garden community of former Soviet-time summer houses just a stone’s throw away from the city… I can see Moscow from the top window of my house. There is a forest within walking distance. I love the life I’m living here with my family. Moreover, I consider myself lucky being able to work with local Russian directors who give me the freedom to express myself as a creative person… because these guys know what I can do. Naturally, my career could have been better, but I don’t have regrets. That’s life!”

At work in his own recording studio (2019)

Lev Zemlinski in the Eurovision Song Contest
With six other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, Russia made its Eurovision debut in 1994. The first Russian entry, ‘Vechni strannik’ by Youddiph (stage name for Masha Katz), was composed and arranged by Lev Zemlinski. At the international festival final in Dublin, ‘Vechni strannik’ – a firm favourite with Eurovision followers at the time – picked up seventy votes, finishing ninth in a field of twenty-five competitors. Zemlinski, thirty-six years old at the time, conducted the Eurovision orchestra himself. Lev remembers his first and only Eurovision participation in detail.

“It all started back in 1993. A lady singer, who wasn’t very well-known in Russia, asked me to compose some songs for her. She had already found a company, TAU Productions, which agreed to pay for the recording. There was no talk of Eurovision yet… I didn’t even know the Russian broadcaster wanted to take part in the competition. I was studying composition, mainly with the aim to write instrumental music for film, but I was interested in pop music as well. At the time, I worked as a studio arranger for some Russian artists. When this singer requested me to write her some pop songs, I thought it was an interesting project. The Russian pop music at the time wasn’t to my liking, but I was given carte blanche. So why not? I was keen to transfer my songwriting ideas to a studio recording… and, first and foremost, I wanted to make music that I could listen to with pleasure myself! As I like epic ballads, I first wrote a song in that style, ‘Magic Word’, with English lyrics written by myself. In the following days, I composed some more songs – we were in the process of perhaps creating an album. After recording some of the pieces, however, the girl singer pulled out! I had to find another vocalist.”

“In those years, I worked extensively with a Russian band called the Blues League and their lead singer Nikolai Arutyunov. If you wanted to learn to play the blues, you had to work with Nikolai – and his group was some sort of school for young musicians who wanted to learn to play the blues. That was why I had joined Nikolai’s band in the first place! In the band, there were usually two or three girls providing background vocals in our concerts. I asked advice from my friend Andrei Shatunovski – an excellent drummer who later joined Alla Pugachova’s band – and after some discussion, we settled on two candidates. The first girl, however, just wanted to record her own compositions – and then I turned to Masha. Masha was pretty young, but she sang well. Her style of singing was derived from country music. She had a teacher who taught her some vocal techniques used by American country singers. Masha decided to give it a try and so we set out recording those songs, one by one, the first one being ‘We Can Be Friends’. To my mind, this was the song which she sang best. Naturally, given her inexperience, she sometimes had a hard time during the sessions, but she was willing to learn.”

“When we had recorded all the songs, one of the managers of TAU Productions unexpectedly gave me a call. He told me that Russia would participate in Eurovision and that RTR (Russia’s state broadcaster – BT) were looking for songs for a national final. I was astonished. I remember I had just reached the conclusion that Masha’s versions were good enough to start thinking about releasing an album. I had never thought about entering a competition, let alone Eurovision! The manager put a small budget at our disposal for the Eurovision project. It was an opportunity. There was not much for us to lose. I decided I wanted to submit ‘Magic Word’ but, following the rules of Eurovision, we had to create lyrics in our native language. In just one night, Masha herself translated my lyrics into Russian… and she did a really good job on that. That’s how ‘Magic Word’ became ‘Vechni strannik’, which, in English, means, ‘Eternal Wanderer’. We submitted a cassette – yes, a cassette… it was that long ago! – to the TV editor who was responsible for the Eurovision programme. The following day, we received the news that we had been admitted to the final.”

Single release of ‘Magic Word’, the original English studio version of ‘Vechni strannik’

“When I first saw the list of the other participants, I realised that we were the only entry fit to be sent to Dublin. Any other choice would either have been a disgrace to our country – the leavened patriotism of Vyka Tsyganova, the failed strip act of Alisa Mon, or the pathological group Nogu Svelo – or simply incomprehensible to foreign ears – Andrei Misin, with his thoughtful lyrics about Russia, and the band Megapolis really good guys who I like personally, but they aren’t musically sensitive enough. At least, that’s what I felt. One thing I am sure of, however, is that this is perhaps the only time that the Russian Eurovision entry was chosen in a way which was completely fair. There was a professional jury with some really good musicians in it… the composer Yuri Saulsky, for example. We didn’t pay them anything to cast their votes for us. We were also helped by the circumstance that no really popular singer took part in the final. From behind-the-scenes conversations, I found out that some of our so-called pop stars had been offered to go to Eurovision for Russia, but all had refused. Their reasons can only be guessed at. It was only when RTR couldn’t find a high-profile artist that the decision had been taken to have an open selection.”

“As I said, having heard the other entrants, I believed we had the best song on the night… but, given that there is no justice in our human world, I couldn’t be completely sure! Fortunately, the jury voted for us and we won. To myself and Masha, it was quite something! This Russian final was a real hype and we were sure to get lots of press attention as a result. Backstage, in Masha’s dressing room, we uncorked a bottle of champagne, pouring the liquid into plastic cups. Suddenly, the door opened and the television producers and a large part of their crew entered the room. They were all looking very depressed. One of them stepped forward and said, “Alright, you won, but now you must somehow find the money to take us all to Dublin!” As it turned out, they had been hoping for Vika Tsyganova or Nogu Svelo to win. They told us the Cossacks (Tsyganova had Cossack forbears on her mother’s side of the family – BT) had promised to pay an amount of 50,000 dollars if Vika won, while Nogu Svelo bandmembers had good connections in the world of television.”

“At first, I was shocked. These people were angry we hadn’t promised them anything in case of a win. In fact, in the following days, I started looking for sponsors, but then I gave up on that, realising that Masha and I would go anyway. “Let them look after themselves,” I thought. In the end, Sergei Krylov (a pop singer and showman, who had watched Masha win the Russian final on television and was impressed by her performance) found some people willing to pay for the expenses of an extended delegation of Russian television tourists to go to Eurovision.”

“Meanwhile, I had other issues to worry about. The song urgently needed an orchestration – contrary to the usual practice in most other countries, our national final had taken place without orchestral accompaniment. The main reason why I was keen to participate in the pre-selection in Moscow when the opportunity arose was the prospect of working with a full orchestra. I think I was one of the few people in Russia who knew what kind of programme the Eurovision Song Contest really was. Back in the early 1980s, I worked as an engineer at the Ostankino Television Tower. Much of our work hours took place during the night, because technicians had to be on hand when broadcasts went out to the time zones in the Far East of the Soviet Union. The tower had a channel to Western European countries, allowing us to clandestinely watch a film broadcast in England or France… and even entertainment shows. I remember watching the Eurovision Song Contest long before the Iron Curtain came down. Eventually, along with my fellow-technicians, I had collected an illegal library of large 2,5" video tapes, all from the West, just for our own entertainment during those nightly hours!”

Photo taken during the shooting of the video clip of ‘Vechni strannik’ with Masha Katz

“Already when watching those Eurovision editions in the early 1980s, I found the orchestra the most interesting part of the show. The level of the songs in the competition varied, but the orchestras always sounded good. As an engineer, I had to work on recordings with big television orchestras regularly back then, which was why I took an interest from a professional viewpoint but, more importantly, I liked listening to such entertainment orchestras. At the time, I couldn’t imagine I would take part in this contest one day! Once I won the Russian final, I started thinking back over my impressions when watching Eurovision in the 1980s. When choosing the song we wanted to submit for the Russian final, I had picked ‘Magic Word’ as the composition with the biggest potential in an orchestral setup. Given my memories of Eurovision being a family show with ‘decent’ orchestral performances, the song needed to be reworked dramatically. The studio version was more rock ‘n’ roll oriented. A rhythm and blues approach wouldn’t have worked in Eurovision, though – and putting electric guitars with amplifiers live on stage wasn’t a good idea either. It would have been impossible to get the sound balance right. Furthermore, the song had to be abridged to fit in with the three-minute rule of the Eurovision Song Contest, although I had no idea how strictly it would be applied in Dublin.”

“Of course there was the option of using a backing track, but I didn’t want to do that. When using backing tracks, you very often lose the vibe of a performance. When working with the Russian circus orchestra in the USA in 1990, we were expected to play along to a backing track, but in the end I and the other musicians simply refused. With a backing track, our drummer had to follow a click, but a real performance never follows this steady click exactly… and besides, why would you need a pre-recorded track when there is an orchestra? The Eurovision Song Contest was to take place in Dublin and, knowing the level of musicianship on the British Isles, I was sure it was going to be a fine orchestra. At the same time, though I was quite experienced as a studio arranger, I hadn’t written a lot for large orchestral setups yet. I was kind of nervous about the orchestration, but I wanted to test my abilities as an arranger.”

“In order to create the best possible sound, I consulted a symphonic conductor. He was a friend of relatives of mine. He gave me advice on how best to achieve those big brass chords that create a wall of sound. As well as the orchestra, I wanted to have two acoustic guitarists playing live on stage. The first I chose was Igor Khomich, who played in the Blues League, and the second was a very young classical guitar student called Vadim Chebanov. Later onwards in his career, he specialised in modern instrumental music played in classical style. A great musician really! Once the orchestration was ready, there was no way of testing it in Russia. I didn’t have an orchestra at my disposal. As best I could, I rehearsed with Igor, Vadim, and Masha. She wasn’t always easy to work with. After winning the Russian final, she found it hard to put her talent as a singer in the correct perspective – let’s put it that way. One thing I was sure of; I was going to conduct the orchestra in Dublin myself. I wasn’t a trained conductor in any way, but conducting a pop song has nothing to do with the abilities needed to guide an orchestra through a classical symphony. If you have a good drummer, he makes sure you play the correct tempo. All that remains to be done is giving the cues to the various musicians. I was confident I could do that without too much trouble.”

“At last, we were on the plane to Ireland. Our following consisted of three or four newspaper journalists and about twenty-five to thirty television officials. Some of them were accredited as translators, which was bizarre. I doubt if they spoke a word of English. Once we arrived in Dublin, most of them rushed into the city-centre to go shopping. Some of them I only saw again when travelling back to Moscow. On our way to Dublin, there was a little problem. When we made a stopover in London, it turned out English authorities demanded a transit visa from us, which we didn’t have. Somehow, the problem was settled and we were allowed to complete our journey.”

Another image of Masha (Youddiph) in the video clip of her Eurovision entry

“While most of the others set out to do some sightseeing in Dublin, I stayed in the hotel with the two guitarists. The first rehearsal was to happen on the day after our arrival. After having hastily swallowed our Irish breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, Vadim and Igor withdrew into one of their rooms to practice, while I sat down in my room, diligently studying every detail of the score. As mentioned, this was the first time the arrangement was going to be played. Though I already had a computer at the time, I had done the arrangement with pencil and paper. Having arrived in Dublin, I wanted to be one-hundred percent sure that there wasn’t some little mistake left in the transcription for the various instruments. Once that was done, my last nerves subsided. I knew that I had written a good orchestration. I was ready for this.”

“Each country was given two rehearsals, then there was a general run-through with an audience in the auditorium, and lastly the live broadcast on Saturday. Each of the rehearsals lasted 45 minutes exactly, of which the first fifteen minutes cannot be used to play, but just for instructions. In the remaining half hour, if you are lucky, you can play the song three times and give some comments to the musicians in between. At the first rehearsal, I was introduced to the musicians by the musical director (Noel Kelehan – BT). For some reason, he gave the impression of being nervous – for what reason, I don’t know, because I assume he must have been a talented man to be given the lead of such an orchestra. When looking at the orchestra, it was plainly obvious the musicians were exhausted. It was 4pm and they had started rehearsing at 9am. In one day, twelve countries rehearsed their songs, and we were among the last. The string players were sipping tea from thermo flasks. They were hardly able to move their bows. Only the rhythm group were playing well. The rest of them were half asleep.”

“Under these conditions, I got the first rehearsal underway. After some first instructions, I counted them in, 1-2-3-4, but they didn’t start playing! Fortunately, as an engineering student, I had taught myself to speak English, otherwise it would have been very hard to understand what was going on here. One of the musicians explained me that they were used to be counted in 1-2 and then 1-2-3-4. No problem of course, but I can’t imagine how long it would have taken to get this misunderstanding out of the way without the common ground of the English language. The following year, when Eurovision took place in Dublin once more, Philip Kirkorov represented Russia. He took a very good Belarusian conductor with him, Mikhail Finberg, but Finberg doesn’t speak English, I suppose. In the broadcast, I noticed that Kirkorov was singing a bar behind the orchestra in the first verse – and the orchestra didn’t play very well. It may have been down to the fact that Finberg puzzled the musicians by using the Russian method of counting in the orchestra. It’s important to get this type of thing out of the way in rehearsals.”

“Honestly speaking, our first rehearsal was a disaster from start to finish. The string and brass parts sounded awful. Then, there was the practical problem that Masha and the two guitarists were fifty metres away from me on the central stage. In between them and me was a large television camera, obstructing my view of the stage and vice versa. Now, in the orchestration, Vadim and Igor had to play from the first bar, starting simultaneously with the drummer and percussionist in the orchestra. I had to bow down underneath the camera, using one hand for the guitarists on stage and the other for the rhythm players in the orchestra, in order for all four of them to see me giving the signal.”

Masha Katz with her then-husband Oleg backstage at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin

“Due to these circumstances, Masha had a nervous breakdown. She was standing there with her microphone on stage, while I was trying to manage all those little issues. She started yelling, and loudly so. She didn’t understand why I couldn’t count in the orchestra just like that – kind of logical when taking into account her youth and inexperience. I had performed in rock festivals in Russia with an audience of 25,000 people. She had never been on such a big stage before. While she was freaking out, the orchestral players looked at me in bewilderment. I just pretended that this kind of behaviour is part and parcel of every rehearsal on the Russian music scene.”

“In spite of all that had gone wrong in those 45 minutes, I wasn’t even that dissatisfied. The main thing was that there were no mistakes in the score, although I needed to speed up the orchestra a little bit to stay within the maximum of three minutes. As it turned out, even one second over would result in disqualification! I knew that the orchestra would be in a better condition for the second rehearsal, which was scheduled early in the morning, two days later. Irish television, unlike ours, was very well organised. There was even an assistant with a walkie-talkie who accompanied me from my dressing room to the conductor’s platform for each rehearsal and finally for the live show as well. Each time, he showed me exactly where to stand and when to start. All rehearsals were recorded, upon which you were taken to a room backstage to be shown the video. There were some officials making notes of our comments on the sound and the images.”

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only person in the room. It turned out that part of our delegation had managed to free themselves from the temptations of all shops and bars in downtown Dublin and had actually come down to attend the rehearsal. Sitting among them in that small viewing room, for some reason I felt as if I was at a Komsomol (the Soviet Union’s Communist Youth League – BT) meeting, about to be heavily criticised for something I had done which wasn’t in line with state ideology… and, as it turned out, that was exactly what happened. With long faces, expressing the fullness of their responsibility, they spoke to each other over my head, “The arrangement is hopeless – what are we going to do now?” I decided not to answer any of their comments. I knew they wouldn’t want to listen to my explanations anyway… there was no point in talking to them. What was more, I found out our rehearsal had been broadcast to Russia, where a team of eminent composers had expressed serious criticism. After that first rehearsal, I was bluntly ignored by the Russian TV crew. They simply pretended I no longer existed.”

“The following day, Masha and the crew of Russian television representatives went on an excursion to the Irish countryside. Vadim, Igor and I weren’t even invited to come along. The morning after, at our second rehearsal, I found the orchestra fresh, just as I had been expecting. In fact, they played brilliantly – and, with some effort from me and them, also avoided crossing the three-minute deadline. Given how good the orchestra sounded, all of a sudden the Russian representatives in the auditorium cheered up. Afterwards, they all commented to me how good my arrangement really was. The Head of Delegation even gave me a smile and the others made it known by their behaviour that I was no longer some sort of outcast.”

“Now finally able to relax a bit, I took the opportunity to discover what Dublin was like. Our hotel was in the heart of the city, near Trinity College. There were students everywhere. On a bridge over the River Liffey, there was a quote of James Joyce – and I enjoyed standing there, feeling the sea breeze on my face. The city had its own unique charm and atmosphere – and I was enjoying myself. I fell in love with Dublin and its inhabitants. There were receptions at local clubs and pubs every night. Now, you have to know that I like Irish music very much. Many bars had a discotheque on the top floor, but on the ground floor you could enjoy folk musicians playing their tunes… and it was so nice sitting down among the locals, enjoying listening to those excellent musicians.”

Masha Katz showcasing the dress designed for her by Pavel Kaplevich – in her act, she made references to Gustav Klimt’s renowned painting of the biblical figure Judith

“Among the Russian journalists, there was just one who spoke English. One of the others was a girl who worked for MK, one of the biggest newspapers in Russia. During receptions and parties, she dragged me everywhere to translate on her behalf – and because there were parties every night, I couldn’t get rid of her. One evening, I was dutifully translating her questions while she interviewed a local screenwriter. Suddenly, this guy said he could introduce us to Bono of U2 if we wanted. Apparently, Bono was in a bar nearby – and he knew him privately. So we went to this bar and there he was… Bono. In the pub, there was a family atmosphere, with children running around and cakes with candles on the tables. This was a private party! To me, it was obvious this wasn’t the right moment to approach him. I tried to leave, but this Russian girl grabbed the screenwriter and me, inevitably dragging us to the barstool where Bono was seated.”

“After we had been introduced to him, the girl started firing offensive questions at him. “Do you know that your music isn’t very popular in Russia?” His facial expression betrayed how bored he was by this woman. After a couple more questions, he just asked her, “Would you care for a drink?” She said, “Yes, I’d like a martini!” Stretching out his hand at the bar immediately, he had a martini in his hand – from where, I don’t have a clue. Anyhow, he just gave her the martini and turned his back on us. The interview was over! With the greatest difficulty, I managed to explain to her that Bono was no longer willing to talk. She refused to believe it. It had just been plain stupidity on her part to offend him. He had been polite enough to talk to us – and in other circumstances, I could perhaps have had an interesting conversation with him, but apparently it wasn’t to be…”

“Back in the auditorium, I had the opportunity to sit in on the rehearsals of some of the other countries as well. Some used backing tracks, but the majority worked completely live. I liked the Irish song which went on to win the competition. It was minimalistic, just very charming. The songwriter (Brendan Graham – BT) was chief of the Musicians’ Union of Ireland. I had a chat with him sometime during the week. Apart from the Irish song, here were some other good entries as well; Hungary and Poland spring to mind. I was pleased to note that delegates from some other countries looked at us as serious rivals for first place.”

“On the night of the live broadcast, I wasn’t nervous. I was focused and that helped me a lot in getting the best from the orchestra. One distinct memory is the moment when I turned to the audience to take a bow. This audience was different from the Eurovision audience today. I just saw black and white. Black costumes, white blouses, and lights from jewels on the ladies’ evening gowns. It was an impressive sight… and it took a long time before the applause died out. The assistant who had accompanied me to my place in front of the orchestra made frantic gestures, indicating that I was supposed to start the music without any delay, but I wanted the audience to quiet down first. Remember, the drummer and the percussionist in the orchestra and my two guitarists far away on the main stage had to start at the same time! I wanted to make sure that Vadim and Igor were focused on me rather than on the audience applauding them. In such a situation, mistakes can happen very easily… but fortunately not in our case.” (that year’s Bosnian entrant Dejan Lazarević was not so lucky – due to audience applauding him loudly and lengthily, he failed to hear the orchestra playing the first bars of his song, resulting in him joining in late – BT)

Lev Zemlinski on the conductor’s platform at Dublin’s Point Theatre, 1994 (picture by Valeri Plotnikov)

“I was satisfied with the performance. I’m convinced that I did what I could, but not everything depended on me. There were sound engineers, orchestral musicians, and of course Masha. In the end, she managed the situation well and did a very good job. The intricate dress and the act around it weren’t her idea. In fact, we had hired an artistic director, Valentin Gneushev – the same guy who I had worked with on Broadway some years before – and he invited a designer (Pavel Kaplevich – BT) to create a dress. Valentin worked on the act with Masha and the result wasn’t bad. Somehow, I would have liked something more from Masha’s performance, but I cannot clearly explain what. Perhaps I would have wanted another singer? But then, maybe I should have written a better song? In all, taking into account that Russia took part in Eurovision for the first time, I think we made quite a good impression.”

“Honestly speaking, I had expected a little more in the voting than a ninth place… I knew we wouldn’t win, but I was quite sure we would at least come fourth or fifth. Things were a little prejudiced by political voting here and there… for instance, Poland gave Russia ten votes, I guess because my surname sounds Polish. The casting of votes certainly wasn’t completely objective, but I can’t say I feel much grief about this. It was a show, it was supposed to be fun. After the broadcast, musicians from the orchestra came to me to compliment me on my style of conducting. They said that I managed to give the orchestra a good sound. That was very complimentary, because it isn’t that easy with so little rehearsal time. Musicians have to feel they like a conductor. You must inspire the musicians to do well for you personally.”

“When coming back to Russia, it turned out many people had watched the contest. In the newspapers, some pop stars gave bad comments. Alla Pugachova felt we had done badly, but some other respected figures were much more positive. Masha’s album with my English songs didn’t sell that well. On the other hand, that one Eurovision song, which meanwhile has been largely forgotten by the general public in Russia, was covered by artists in various European countries. It didn’t bring me that much… just a couple of thousand dollars. With that money, I bought myself a new computer! Strikingly, Youddiph’s version of the song was and still is popular among Eurovision fans throughout Europe. It’s funny to note how many good comments the video of ‘Vechni strannik’ on YouTube is still getting.”

“Taking part in Eurovision gave Masha’s career some impetus in Russia, although she never really became a nationally popular figure. She has been working on the club stage, while making a living as a vocal teacher simultaneously. I never worked with her again after Eurovision, simply because I didn’t have that many aspirations on the Russian pop stage any longer. My ambition was to write instrumental music – and that’s what I have been doing since, basically. By the way, one funny anecdote related to this story is about my father. Ever since my teenage years, he had frowned upon me becoming a musician. After I left my job at Russian television in the early 1980s to become a band musician with pop artists, he kept on asking me when I would start a real profession. The day after Eurovision, however, the chief at his work asked him if the man who had been conducting the Russian entry in the Eurovision Song Contest was his son – and my father confirmed that I was. That was the moment when he finally believed I was a real musician!”

Masha Katz (Youddiph) during her Eurovision performance

“The Eurovision Song Contest was the first time in my life I conducted an orchestra on stage. In that sense, it was an important moment… and a good experience to work with a fine orchestra and to have my work performed to a European audience. In the following years, I regularly conducted big orchestras in Moscow, but only in rehearsals. I wrote arrangements for symphonic concerts with pop artists like Larisa Dolina, Alexander Gradski, and Alsou. To see if the arrangements sounded right, I conducted the rehearsals myself, but the staff conductor always took over for the concert. I prefer to stay in the background and write music. The Nikulin Circus once asked me to become the conductor of their theatre orchestra, but I turned them down.”

“I never made an attempt to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest again. It was a certain stage of my career which I passed – and there was little point in doing it a second time. It’s in my character to want to go further and have new experiences. A second point is the method of choosing a Eurovision entry here in Russia. After that first participation in 1994, we never had a fair selection process again. I’m pretty sure we were the first and last to win the ticket to Eurovision for this country without paying a generous sum of money to Russian television.”

“Furthermore, the Eurovision Song Contest has changed profoundly since the time I took part – the main point being that there no longer is an orchestra. As a result, I really lost interest. It’s a pity that we have all those freaks taking part in Eurovision these days. It has become a competition of stage designers and directors, rather than of good music. I’m not saying that my song is the best Russian entry ever, but it’s certainly among the best. All the drivel that we have sent to Europe in the last twenty years… I remember being shocked at how bad Mumiy Troll’s song in Eurovision was (in 2001 – BT), but I have to admit that there have been many entries since which were much, much worse. If you love listening to this kind of music, you perhaps have to wonder if everything is alright with you.”

“Eurovision is still popular with a certain kind of audience here in Russia… people who don’t have much fun in their ordinary life and want to watch the familiar faces of Russian showbiz on the international stage. Politically, the contest is of secondary importance in this country. Politicians will only take an interest if Russia wins. My overriding emotion is how sad it is that Europe has more or less lost its tradition of pop music… the tradition of the Beatles, ABBA, and others. The Internet has changed the music industry completely. Good pop music, music that I like, still exists, but you have to look for it carefully in some obscure corners and outposts.”

Other artists on Lev Zemlinski
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Lev conducting the Nikulin Circus theatre orchestra during rehearsals (2017)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Lev Zemlinski, April 2021.
  • A playlist of Lev Zemlinski’s music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link.
  • Photos courtesy of Lev Zemlinski and Ferry van der Zant.
  • Thanks to Lily Beatrice Cooper and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript; and to Edwin van Gorp for putting it online.

Website(s):
www.lev-zemlinski.ru  

  

Songs conducted
1994: Vechni stranik