Pierre Cao

Born: December 22nd, 1937, Dudelange (Luxembourg)
Nationality: Luxembourgian

Eurovision record
Although a purely classically trained orchestra leader, Pierre Cao was the resident conductor for the Eurovision Song Contests of 1973 and 1984, which were both held in the Municipal Theatre in Luxembourg. Apart from the overtures of both festivals, Cao was called upon to conduct three competing entries, the winning ‘Tu te reconnaîtras’, the home effort in 1973, as well as ‘Aufrecht geh’n’ and ‘Anna-Mari Elena’, the songs representing West Germany and Cyprus in the 1984 edition.

Pierre Cao was born in a workers’ family in the heavily industrialized southern region of Luxembourg. His father was an Italian communist who found refuge in the grand duchy in the 1920s, having escaped the fascist Mussolini regime in his native country. In 1937, the year Pierre was born, father Cao joined International Brigades to fight as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, whence he returned in early ’39. When the Germans occupied Luxembourg the year after, Cao Sr. was taken away to a prisoner camp in Italy, from which he fled in 1942. The remainder of the war, he was an active member of the partisan resistance force. Pierre Cao about his parents: “In a way, my father was lucky to be taken away to Italy. Conditions in German camps were much worse and he probably would not have survived the war if he had been sent to one of the concentration camps in the Reich. He stayed in Italy for four more years after the war had ended. He could have made a political career there, but my mother did not want to leave Luxembourg for him, so in the end he came back. By that time, my mom had had to take care of me and my two brothers on her own for more than ten years. It was most difficult for her to bring us up, as we were very poor. Nothing pointed towards me making a career in music. In my family, everyone worked in the iron and steel factories and, after primary school, that was exactly what I started doing.”

“But thank God”, Pierre Cao continues enigmatically, “I fell gravely ill when I was thirteen. It was a problem with my lungs. For nine months, my doctors forced me to refrain from working. It was then that I started studying the piano at the local music school in Dudelange. When it was thought I had recuperated, I worked for two or three years in a mill which produced washing machines. It then turned out, however, that my health had deteriorated even further. Suffering from pneumonia and tuberculosis, I was operated and then sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland straightaway. It is a miracle I survived! I spent almost four years in this sanatorium in La Rösa in Graubünden. There was hardly an opportunity to study music; the only thing I did was reading books from the sanatorium library.”

Cao returned from Switzerland in 1958, aged twenty. Two years before, during a short spell back in Luxembourg, although lacking any formal education, he had already led the Dudelange Workers’ Choir in a couple of performances and it was obvious that it was his ambition to study music. His parents finally succumbed to this idea in ’58. Thanks to the money both of his working brothers brought in, the family could afford to let Pierre study at the Royal Music Conservatory in Brussels (1959-1967). He took courses in counterpoint, fugue, harmony, and conducting. Upon his graduation, Cao’s Belgian professors awarded him with a first prize in conducting. Cao: “I was too old to study a particular music instrument, so I chose conducting. No, I never studied choral direction and I did not specialize in composing or arranging. I never felt the urge to create music myself.”

In 1968, Pierre Cao won second prize at the International Conducting Contest ‘Nicolai Malko’ in Copenhagen. This was a most important moment in his career, because, as a direct result of this, he was invited to become the assistant to chief conductor Louis de Froment at the RTL Grand Symphony Orchestra, where he stayed for twelve years (1968-1980). With the orchestra, Cao performed in countless radio broadcasts as well as concerts of classical music in Luxembourg and abroad. In 1972, he wrote the only arrangement in his career, to the oratorio ‘Der Geiger von Echternach’, a work by Luxembourgian composer Lou Koster. In 1969 and 1971, the orchestra in the Grand Prix RTL International, a music festival organized by Radio Luxembourg, was led by Cao. In 1976, he conducted the recording sessions in Luxembourg of the historical spectacle ‘Paris Populi’, composed by Francis Lemarque with arrangements by Michel Legrand.

Although he had a contract for life with RTL, Pierre Cao decided to leave in 1980. He found a new passion, teaching, becoming a professor of choral direction at the Luxembourg Conservatory of Music. During his tenure as an assistant conductor at RTL, Cao had always continued working with amateur choirs in Luxembourg and abroad, which made him the right man for the job. Apart from choral direction, Cao also briefly taught harmony at the Luxembourg conservatory, where he stayed on until 1998. During the same period, he worked at the Esch-sur-Alzette conservatory as well. As his reputation as a teacher grew, he was invited to teach courses and master classes abroad as well, most notably in Namur (Belgium) and in Paris. Between 1999 and 2004, Cao was a professor of conducting and choral direction at the newly founded Catalonia College of Music (ESMUC) in Barcelona, Spain. Moreover, he has been the director of the orchestra department of the Higher School of Music of the Basque Country (Centro Superior de Música del País Vasco) in San Sebastián since September 2010.

Parallel to his activities as a teacher, Pierre Cao further specialized in performing vocal works, ranging from the Renaissance to modern, teaming up with professional and amateur choirs in Luxembourg and beyond, including the Luxembourg Vocal Ensemble, the ‘Les Musiciens’ Chamber Orchestra (both in Luxembourg), the Concerto Cologne, the Choir of the Coblenz Music Institute (Germany), La Psalette de Lorraine (Metz, France), and the Namur Chamber Choir (Belgium). In 1991, he founded the European Institute of Choral Singing (INECC), an interregional foundation with branches in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France, organizing concerts and founding the Robert Schuman Choir. Moreover, Pierre Cao conducted several classical orchestras as a guest, including the Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra as well as the Andorra National Chamber Orchestra.

Pierre Cao was given the opportunity to found a professional choir of his own in 1998, when the cultural ministry of the regional government in Burgundy, France, asked his advice about their plans to found a choir. In the end, he was offered the post of leader of the new choir, which was given the name Arsys Bourgogne. Cao: “We started from scratch, organizing auditions for potential vocalists. I aimed at creating a group able to perform the works of Bach to perfection. So far, some thousand vocalists have auditioned, enabling me to pick those best suited for our choir. The choir has given me the opportunity to fulfil my dreams as a musician. It is always inspirational to work with my singers and I hope to be able to continue working with them for many years to come.”

Pierre Cao turned Arsys Bourgogne, with its home base in Vézelay, into one of Europe’s most reputed classical choirs. Regularly, the choir has teamed up with classical orchestras for combined concerts, in which Cao brings in his experience as an orchestra conductor. In 2000, on the occasion of the Bach Year, for the first time the Rencontres Musicales de Vézelay (Musical Encounters of Vézelay) were organized, a festival of classical music. The manifestation is Pierre Cao’s brainchild. It has been held annually ever since in the month of August, attracting music ensembles from all over Europe. Since he became leader of Arsys, Cao has received invitations to conduct professional choirs as a guest in numerous productions; these include La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre de Roy, Stradivaria (France), Ricercar Consort, La Fenice (Belgium), the Concerto Armonico Budapest (Hungary), the Fribourg University Chamber Choir (Switzerland), and the Camerata Salzburg (Austria).

Pierre Cao in the Eurovision Song Contest
In 1973 and 1984, when the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Luxembourg’s Municipal Theatre, Pierre Cao was the musical director of the festival. The 1973 contest is one of the most mythical editions of the contest, with many entries which became international hit records, most notably ‘Eres tú’ and ‘Power to all our friends’. As the home conductor, Cao led the orchestra for the Luxembourg entry ‘Tu te reconnaîtras’, sung by Anne-Marie David, who eventually won the contest.

On the two previous occasions when the festival was staged in the Grand-Duchy (1962 and 1966), Jean Roderes was the resident conductor. Why was he replaced by Pierre Cao now? Cao comments: “In the 1960s, I was not working for the RTL Grand Symphony Orchestra yet. Its conductor Louis de Froment was only interested in classical music and would never have agreed to work on the Eurovision Song Contest. Moreover, Jean Roderes was a specialist of light entertainment music, so he was the right man for the job. Jean, however, was no RTL employee and they would have had to pay him to lead the orchestra. Luckily, he was there in 1973 as the pianist of the orchestra. He was by far the best pianist available in Luxembourg, so not asking him for the job was simply impossible! I was very proud to have him. I would not have blamed Jean if he felt a little unhappy about the situation, because, in reality, he would have made a far more suitable conductor than me, because I am not the expert of pop and jazz music that he was.”

“The fact that I belonged ‘to the house’, was the reason RTL wanted me for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1973”, Cao continues. “Luxembourg won the contest the year before and RTL had to organize it now… so they asked me. It is true that I had very little experience in light entertainment music. We had done a couple of programmes for television with the orchestra playing symphonic jazz, because I simply wanted to try new things – but this did not happen very often. No, I never thought of turning down the offer to work on the Eurovision Song Contest… I have never looked down upon pop music. Moreover, it was a new experience and I looked forward to trying my hand at this. I did the best I could and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

How was a classical orchestra turned into an ensemble able to accompany the songs of the Eurovision Song Contest? “For this festival”, Cao explains, “several great musicians from other fields of music were added to the orchestra. Jean Roderes, of course, at the piano, but also André Arpino from Paris on drums… and there was this marvellous electrical guitarist Francis Darizcuren! Darizcuren was the solo violinist of the Orchestra of the Republican Guard in Paris at that time, but he was a genius on the guitar as well. We also recruited the first trumpeter and some saxophonists from elsewhere. Especially the rhythm section with Roderes, Arpino, and Darizcuren was fantastic!”

“Before the rehearsals started, I went through the scores of all participating songs with the orchestra. During those rehearsals in the theatre, the orchestra was conducted by the respective arrangers from the other countries. Even in those days, the EBU organized everything into the smallest detail. Every country was allowed forty or forty-five minutes of rehearsing time and not one second longer. There were even specific rules as to how many violins and how many brass players there had to be in the orchestra. Moreover, there were draconic security measures. The theatre was turned into some sort of fortress. For us in Luxembourg, this was a totally new experience.”

As mentioned in the above, Cao was part of the winning Luxembourg team, conducting Anne-Marie David’s song ‘Tu te reconnaîtras’ (arranged by Raymond Donnez). “Obviously overcome with emotions, Anne-Marie David told me immediately after the TV broadcast of the contest was over that I had conducted very well: Tu as dirigé très bien, Pierre!”, Cao laughs. “I thought this was rather unexpected! In those days, I often conducted earnest classical pieces, such as the Mahler symphonies – very demanding music requiring the utmost of a conductor’s technique. So accepting this compliment from Anne-Marie after only having conducted a three-minute-song was somewhat hard! But then again, pop music brought difficulties for a classical conductor, such as I was, too. Counting in the orchestra for those songs in the right tempo was not always easy. Making all kinds of impressive gestures while the orchestra is playing pop music is ridiculous. The most important thing is indicating the correct tempo at the beginning. During the remainder of the song, it is best for a conductor to keep a low profile.”

Ten years later, in 1983, Luxembourg won its fifth Eurovision Song Contest, this time with Corinne Hermes and ‘Si la vie est cadeau’. By consequence, RTL became the organizer of the 1984 edition, which was once again held in the Municipal Theatre in the Grand-Duchy’s capital. Although Pierre Cao had left the RTL Grand Symphony Orchestra four years earlier, he was offered the opportunity to be the resident conductor of the contest for the second time. “The production team wanted me to do the job again”, Cao explains, “because they remembered I had done it in 1973. Moreover, I still conducted the symphony orchestra as a guest once in a while, so – although I had severed the ties with RTL some years before – I knew all of the musicians quite well. Once more, there were professional jazz and pop music professionals from France added to the orchestra. Jean Roderes was not in it; the pianist in 1984 was a guy from Paris.”

Just like in 1973, Cao went through all the music scores with the orchestra before the rehearsals started. Although the festival was held in the same hall as eleven years before, the orchestra was not on stage this time, but in the orchestra pit between the stage and the audience. Cao was responsible for conducting the intro music, a compilation of six Luxembourg Eurovision songs of the past, amongst which all five winning entries. Host of the night was nineteen-year-old Desirée Nosbusch, who introduced Cao as follows: “There is someone down in the orchestra pit who is smiling at me now, but, not so long ago, he did not have any reason to smile at me at all, because he was my teacher at school.” Cao explains: “I taught Desirée solfège at the conservatory in Esch-sur-Alzette. Moreover, she is from the small village where I also live, Ehlange, so we were no strangers to each other when we did the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest. Desirée was a most suitable choice to present the programme, because she spoke English fluently.”

This time around, Pierre Cao did not conduct the Luxembourg entry, for which the orchestra was placed under the direction of the French arranger Pascal Stive. There were two delegations, however, who had travelled to Luxembourg without a conductor and for whom Cao jumped in to conduct the orchestra: Cyprus and West Germany. The Cypriot entry was ‘Anna Mari-Elena’, a piece composed and sung by a Cypriot living in the UK, Andy Paul. Writing the arrangement of the song must have been a complicated affair, as no fewer than five people were credited, including Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Johnny Worth. Johnny Worth (real name: Giannis Scoradalides, but always working under pseudonyms, such as John Worsley and Les Vandyke) was the singer’s choice to conduct the orchestra for him in Luxembourg. Andy Paul was quite upset when a conflict between Worth and the Cypriot broadcaster CyBBC resulted in the former refusing to conduct the entry. Andy Paul: “The reason that this great talent, Johnny Worth, was not with me on the big night in Luxembourg was that his expenses were deemed too much. CyBBC did not want to pay him the amount of money he asked. I even offered to pay him out of my pocket, but Johnny refused on principle, because he was offended by the way he had been treated. In Luxembourg, however, I found out Mr Cao was a very pleasant guy!”

The West German entry ‘Aufrecht geh’n’ was an impressive ballad composed by Michael Reinecke and performed by the experienced Mary Roos. In the West German pre-selection, all participating songs were conducted by Dieter Reith, who, like on previous occasions when he was involved in the German Vorentscheid, did not accompany the winning act to the international contest. Although, originally, Reinecke planned to conduct the orchestra himself, in the end, he decided he did not want to go through all the stress, ceding his place to Cao, the resident conductor of the festival.

Pierre Cao himself only remembers the Portuguese vocalist from 1984, Maria Guinot: “Ms Guinot used to be a member of the Gulbenkian Chorus in Lisbon. The conductor of that ensemble was Michel Corboz from Switzerland. I have known Corboz for a very long time, because he and I were in the same sanatorium in Graubünden in the 1950s. It was a funny coincidence that I got to meet one of his singers at the Eurovision Song Contest.” And, concluding: “Well, I may not have been the best conductor for pop music, but I suspect I am the only musician in the world who can say he conducted Bach’s Saint-Matthew Passion as well as the Eurovision Song Contest… or perhaps I should say: who conducted Bach and won the Eurovision Song Contest! Classical music has always been my main interest, but I would not have wanted to miss those two Eurovisions!”

Other artists on Pierre Cao
Pierre Ragu is the clarinettist of the Orchestra of the Republican Guard in Paris: “I worked with Pierre Cao once, when I played in Nicolas Brochot’s ensemble Sine Qua Non. Pierre conducted it as a guest and we performed Schönberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ and Honegger’s ‘Roi David’. Although, unfortunately, I never worked with him again, I can say that he had all the artistic and human qualities which are required of a classical conductor. He knew how to draw from the musicians the desire to play together and to do more than just performing a piece of music rigorously. It was a joy working with him!”

Anne-Marie David about the role of Pierre Cao in her Eurovision victory in ’73: “He was extremely helpful and modest, excusing himself for having discovered light entertainment at a relatively late stage in his career. It was obvious that he took great pride in being the conductor of this event. After the general rehearsal, he asked: “Have I not played your song too slowly?” When I answered: “Not at all, it was perfect”, he added modestly in a strong, yet delicious Luxembourgian accent: “You have to understand, yesterday evening, I conducted Wagner’s ‘Tannhäuser’!” Of course it was a difficult task for him to adapt to the totally different style required for a song festival, but as he showed himself capable of doing so, he proved the true talent of a musician: excelling in all genres.” (2012)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Pierre Cao at the Luxembourg Conservatory of Music, March 2011.
  • Much information about Pierre Cao and the choir Arsys Bourgogne can be found at www.arsysbourgogne.com, which, moreover, contains some interesting videos showing Pierre Cao in action during rehearsals with the choir and in master classes with young conductors.
  • The website of Rencontres Musicales de Vézelay, of which Pierre Cao is the artistic director: www.rencontresmusicalesdevezelay.com. All photos in this article are from the period 2009-2011, with Cao conducting his choir.
  • Pierre Cao was interviewed for France 24 by Melissa Bell in August 2010: in French or in English.
  • Many thanks to Andy Paul and Michael Reinecke for their comments about the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest.

www.arsysbourgogne.com Arsys Bourgogne


Songs conducted
1973: Tu te reconnaîtras
1984: Anna Mari-Elena
1984: Aufrecht geh'n

Musical director
1973: Luxembourg
1984: Luxembourg