Saturday 5 May 1990


The following article is an overview of the career of Croatian trumpet player and conductor Stanko Selak. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Selak, conducted by Bas Tukker in December 2010. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Stanko Selak's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2010

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Stanko Selak
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

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


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 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 5th child of a former Austro-Hungarian army officer, was born in Sarajevo, but grew up in Rijeka and, from his 7th 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 Conservatoire, 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.

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

In 1955-56, Stanko Selak worked in a professional classical orchestra for the first time, 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 2-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 Tchaikovsky 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.”

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 1961 for a one-month-engagement in Tanzpalladium Lido.

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

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 1959 and 1961, 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).

Conducting at the Zagrebfest, a Croatian song contest, in 1971

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 Conservatoire. 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 25 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.

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 Dalmatian island.

Stanko Selak passed away in Zagreb in 2015 at the age of 86.

At the conservatoire in Cologne, teaching his student Thorsten Benkenstein (c. 1993)


In the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest, oddly, the Cypriot entry 'Milas poli' was conducted by a Yugoslavian conductor - none other than Stanko Selak. As it turns out, Selak, who was not officially the musical director of the show, took on exactly that job at the request of the man who bore the title officially, classical conductor Igor Kuljerić.

“Some time during the fall of 1989, my good friend Igor Kuljerić paid me a visit," Stanko Selak recalls. "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 5 or 10 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.”

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 Eurovision orchestra in Zagreb rehearsing the Portuguese entry, 'Há sempre alguém' by Nucha

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!”

“In the week before the guest conductors and the artists arrived, I prepared all 22 items with the orchestra. When the conductor from Vienna, Herr Oesterreicher, 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, yes, those were the good old days of Eurovision!”

One day before the actual live broadcast, it was time for the usual dress rehearsal. This final walkthrough nearly became the scene of an unprecedented strike of all guest conductors. Selak has vivid memories of what happened. 

Unaware of the mayhem awaiting them during the live broadcast, the Spanish duo Azúcar Moreno during rehearsals in Zagreb

“One hour before the dress rehearsal was due to begin, one of the conductors – I do not remember who it was (other sources suggest that it might have been 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.”

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.”

Yugoslavia were represented in Zagreb by Tajči

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.

“I do not know why Terry Wogan and the Dutch commentator thought that I was conducting the orchestra," Vickers comments.  "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," Vicktesr continues. "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 concludes, “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 synthesisers 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.”

Cypriot entrant Anastazio (third from right) with his backing group in Zagreb, with composer John Vickers in the yellow T-shirt

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, though, there were many good songs in 1990. The winning song from Italy, ‘Insieme’, was brilliant! 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.”

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.

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

“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 realised 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 while 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, 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.”

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. You have to realise that 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!”


Trumpet player 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)


Country – Cyprus
Song title – “Milas poli”
Rendition – Anastazio (Charis Anastasiou) 
Lyrics – Charis Anastasiou
Composition – John Vickers
Studio arrangement – John Vickers / Christian Leibl
Live orchestration – Christian Leibl
Conductor – Stanko Selak (assistant-MD)
Score – 14th place (36 votes)

  • 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’
  • Photos courtesy of Stanko Selak & Ferry van der Zant


The following article is an overview of the career of Italian pianist, keyboard player, composer, and arranger Gianni Madonini. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Madonini, conducted by Bas Tukker in October 2023. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Gianni Madonini’s Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2023

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Gianni Madonini
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: December 30th, 1960, Milan (Italy)
Nationality: Italian


Aged just 29 at the time, Gianni Madonini arranged, orchestrated, and conducted the 1990 Italian Eurovision entry ‘Insieme 1992’, with which singer-songwriter Toto Cutugno won the international festival in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.


Gianni Madonini was born and raised in Milan. His father was a labourer in a machine factory. “Among other things, this factory produced machines which were used in Germany to make chocolate,” Gianni comments. “So my background is firmly working-class. Not a single relative of mine was a professional musician. I did have one cousin who was a keen amateur guitarist, though, and my father loved opera arias, so the environment in which I grew up was not wholly devoid of music. Quite the opposite, as a child, I once received a little guitar as a Christmas present… and the year after a little accordion. It was probably my father’s idea to give me those, because he was so fond of music himself. These were just toy versions, not real instruments, but I was later told that I didn’t want to let go of that accordion after I had unpacked it. I just took it in my hands and started playing. That was the moment I realised I liked music – and so did my parents. They decided to send me to a music teacher. This must have been when I was about seven years of age.”

“I was extremely fortunate that this teacher was Domenico Valente; an accomplished musician who had diplomas in piano and composition obtained at the Santa Cecilia Music Conservatoire in Rome. He taught me classical piano, but in a way which was attractive for a child. A couple of years later, there was another key event. At the cinema, I watched an American animation film called ‘The Aristocats’ (a Walt Disney production from 1970 – BT). In it, there are four cats who play in a jazz orchestra. Coming home, I told my mother determinedly, “I want to be like those cats!” This one film gave me even more motivation to study music than before. It became a real passion. On Sundays, when my friends dropped by to ask if I wanted to join them playing football, my reply would usually be that I preferred to study the piano. Over time, the friends I chose to hang out with usually were young guys who were also into music; who also studied the piano or some other instrument.”

“In my adolescence, I also developed an interest in aviation. For some years, I was in a school preparing youngsters for a future as a pilot. In 1974, though, I had also enrolled as a student at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatoire in Milan. Given that Valente had taught me so many things in the preceding years, I was allowed to start in the fifth year rather than at the bottom of the ladder. For a time, the two things existed side by side – the aviation school and the music academy, but it wasn’t very long before I realised that the attraction of music was stronger. Whenever I came home, my eyes were always drawn to that piano first. I just had to play it. So at some point, I decided to give up on everything else and focus on music completely.”

“I should add one thing here. When I was ten years old, my father passed away. From that time on, my mother had to support the entire family on her own. She had a very hard time. Still, in spite of everything, she steadfastly supported me in my ambition to become a musician. In such a situation, many other parents would have urged their children to choose a safer career path, but she was different. For some reason, she always seemed confident that I would somehow succeed. I owe a lot to her.”

Gianni (standing, far right) as a pupil in the third grade of elementary school (c. 1969)

“At the academy, I studied classical piano with various teachers, but all the while, I continued taking lessons with Domenico Valente privately. Because he was a teacher at the conservatoire as well, we regularly met to discuss music. He also taught me composition and harmony. Even at a young age, I realised that I didn’t want to be a concert pianist. My interest in the piano was primarily directed towards its role in larger set-ups, with various instruments playing together. To me, the piano has always been a means to create different types of music. I realised the piano played a completely different role in a classical symphony than in film music, for example. With Valente, I discussed those subjects. Towards the end of the 1970s, he also taught me my first conducting lessons. Valente had done a lot of work in the theatre, working with various conductors. He wasn’t an accomplished conductor himself, but he knew what was required of a conductor working with an orchestra. He taught me the basic techniques, the things orchestral musicians are looking for in a conductor.”

“All of this was very valuable given that, by that time, I was already working as a session player. Milan has always been the heart of the Italian recording industry. There were lots of studios where pop music was recorded. As it happened, I had a friend called Gigi Tonet. He was a founding member of Albatros and used to be the keyboard player for Lucio Dalla. Gigi also was one of the pioneers of electronic music in Italy. Because there was so much studio work, he was unable to accept all commissions coming his way. Now, Gigi knew that I was a piano student and a pretty good sight-reader. That’s why he asked me to replace him in a session with arranger Nini Carucci for an album with Christian, a popular singer in Italy at the time.”

“I couldn’t believe my luck… this was my dream come true! That was in 1977. I was just sixteen years old. Rather than being a musician on stage, a concept which had never much attracted me, I had always dreamt of working in the studio – and the figure which fascinated me most from the start was the arranger. On that record for Christian, I was simply one of the instrumentalists, but I knew right from the start that my aspiration was to create arrangements and lead those sessions myself. In that light, I felt I needed to know the basics of conducting, which Valente helped me with. I was hoping to put these abilities to use some time in the future.”

“After that session for Christian, Gigi Tonet got me another commission, a recording session in Rimini for an album with a singer from Naples, Edoardo Bennato. The arranger was Luca Orioli. With much enthusiasm, I travelled down to Rimini and took part in that recording as well. Back in Milan, I went to the agency of Gianmaria Berlendis, a violinist who helped studio arrangers finding session players – mainly string musicians, but also others. Via Berlendis’ agency, I was regularly contacted to work on sessions here and there. In Milan, there was so much work in the recording industry at the time… they could use anyone that was available. That’s how my career as a studio player gradually took off.”

As a sixteen-year-old, Gianni Madonini was a session player on Edoardo Bennato's album 'Burattino senza fili', recorded in Rimini (1977)

“As I got to know more and more other session musicians, they drew me into Milan’s jazz circuit. There were lots of bars where you could listen to jazz music and have a chat with your peers. This was a wonderful opportunity for a young and aspiring musician like me to meet older colleagues in an informal setting. I picked their brains about all kinds of things – and they were keen to share their musical and cultural background. There were also regular jam sessions in which you could try your abilities and improve your technique. I’m grateful to have lived during the times when this informal kind of music education still existed in Milan. Fortunately, at the music academy, light-entertainment music was pretty much accepted. I even followed jazz courses taught by a wonderful pianist called Giorgio Gaslini, who came to the conservatoire on Saturdays to work with students who were interested in the subject. I also joined a small student jazz band which he had formed. We played pretty interesting stuff. In retrospect, it’s a pity we never got to perform outside the academy walls.”

“All the while, I solemnly studied the piano. I may have been attracted to pop and jazz, but the love for classical music has always been in me. As a student, I was drawn to the great German classical composers… Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, but I also adored the modern French school; Debussy and Ravel, composers who created sounds which were quite close to jazz music. At home, I was constantly studying their work. I also liked listening to pop music, primarily American productions; George Benson, Tina Turner, but also Hollywood film scores.”

“In Italian music, my fascination wasn’t so much in certain artists, but more directed towards the arrangers. My favourite always was Celso Valli, a guy who had his studio in Bologna and never came to Milan… but all artists wanted to work with him, so they travelled to Bologna to work with him instead of the other way around. From the second half of the 1970s, he was Italy’s number-one arranger. Valli was the first in Italy who succeeded in combining traditional orchestrations with electronic elements, mainly derived from synthesisers. Listening closely to his arrangements for Matia Bazar, for example, you realise that he managed to create some sort of soundscape behind the real instruments. In the Italian context, he was a real moderniser – in the same way that Quincy Jones was in America with his productions for Michael Jackson. Another thing about Celso Valli was that he was able to work with artists from all corners of the industry, adapting his style to their needs. I was hugely fascinated by his work, aspiring to reach his level of musicianship as an arranger.”

“In 1980, when I was already involved as a keyboards player in studio sessions with many arrangers, I had to stop working completely for a year to perform my military service. I was sent to the parachutists’ corps in Pisa. When the new recruits had been gathered, a chaplain-lieutenant with a friendly smile walked in, asking leisurely if there happened to be anybody in our ranks who could play the organ in Sunday mass. I raised my hand… and this meant I didn’t have to go through the parachutists’ training! In fact, in that entire year in Pisa, the chaplain never once said mass, but all the same I could practise on that church organ to my heart’s content – which was good, because it allowed me to maintain the level of playing. When I came back to Milan after those twelve months, nothing I had left behind had been lost. I took up my studies, and my colleagues in the studio were happy to see me back. There was no question of me struggling for business. There was plenty of work and I had built up enough of a reputation in the years before to be remembered by others. Especially rhythm players were extremely sought after in those days. Before I knew, I was playing keyboards in as many studio sessions as before my spell in Pisa.”

The young soldier performing his military service (Pisa, 1980)

“In the Milan recording business, I became known as a synth specialist. In the early 1980s, everyone wanted to work with synthesisers, but very few people could actually play them. As a keyboard player, I had naturally followed developments in this field. In Milan, there was a music shop, Bosoni, with an incredible collection of keyboards and synthesisers; they offered some thirty different brands. As I had become friends with the owner of the shop, he allowed me to test new instruments. Oberheim, Minimum… and of course I was keen to try my hand at all of them. He even lent me synth machines if I told him I needed one for a certain recording session. Each instrument had its own particular sound colour. Thanks to Bosoni, I became an expert on almost all keyboards and synthesisers which were available on the market.”

“In those years, when you were a session player, you could work on four different recording projects on the same day. Morning, afternoon, evening, nighttime… work went on 24 hours a day. This wasn’t about pop music only. There were also sessions for jingles used for commercials, tunes for radio and TV programmes, film soundtracks, and so on. I would say that ninety percent of all Italian music was recorded in Milan in those years. It would often happen to me that I was walking the street and heard a radio playing from some window… and I would recognise myself playing along on some commercial. Even today, listening to the radio, I often think, “I must have played along on this record as well.” It was a bit like working on an assembly line. You studied the scores which you had been given in advance, you came down to the studio, did your best in the session, and that was it. You didn’t hear the final product until switching on your radio or TV set.”

“I must have graduated from the music academy sometime around 1982. During all those years, I had continued studying privately with Domenico Valente. In later years, his lessons could more accurately be described as dialogues between colleagues. After my graduation, I continued taking harmony and composition lessons with him for two or three years. With him as my guide, I worked my way through the two parts of Hector Berlioz’ standard work on classical instrumentation.”

“Around that same time, there was someone else who introduced me to contemporary arranging. His name was Sergio Parisini. He was an excellent jazz musician and had previously worked as a studio arranger with Roberto Vecchioni (accompanying Vecchioni as a conductor in the 1973 San Remo Festival – BT). By the time I met him, he was working as a composer for Canale 5, a private TV company, writing theme tunes and incidental music. He wanted to acquaint himself with the possibilities of the synthesiser – and a friend of his suggested getting in touch with me. For about a month, he came to my place on an almost daily basis. I shared my knowledge with him, but he was very happy to pass on his expertise as an arranger to me as well. It was the most fruitful exchange of ideas imaginable between two music professionals. Parisini was a real expert in big band arranging, a genius when it came to writing brass. Meeting him was a key moment in my life. He opened the door to realising my dream as an arranger. Moreover, he turned out to be a great guy and has remained a friend until the present day.”

“The first opportunities at shaping records rather than just playing along to them came along with the arrival of the Italodisco hype in the early 1980s… the famous Italian disco-dance. I worked on dozens of tracks with Tom Hooker, Daydino, and many others. Rather than songs, I would call them productions, which had to sound well on the radio and in discotheques. Two producers from Milan, Roberto Turatti and Miki Chieregato, were looking for young keys players who could programme and arrange those tracks, which were invariably done with synthetic instruments only. That’s where guys like Mario Natale and myself came in. By that time, we were experienced session players with enough musical background to build those tracks. Of course, those dance tracks weren’t my favourite type of music, but making them required a lot of creativity and we always had a good time thinking of funny sounds to make the tracks as quirky and danceable as possible. Italian dance was very successful at the time, not just domestically, but in the Benelux countries and France too.”

Righeira's backing group on their 1986 summer tour across Italy, from left: Paolo Cortellino, Maurizio Gianni, Sergio Conforti, Gianni Madonini, and Sergio Pescara

“Another involvement in those years was with Righeira (Italian duo who had huge international hits in the early 1980s with ‘Vamos a la playa’ and ‘No tengo dinero’ – BT). I wouldn’t describe their music as Italodisco, because they made real songs. I knew La Bionda, the duo who produced their records, and I did one studio album with them as a synth player. Subsequently, I was also part of the band which accompanied Righeira on their summer tour across Italy in 1986. This backing band included some of the best young studio musicians available in Milan at the time. We moved across the country in a minivan. Our schedule was gruelling; 72 gigs in three months. We had a great time, though, eating pizza in simple restaurants, swimming as much as we could if the cheap hotel we were staying in had access to a pool, and playing pranks on each other and on others… just what you would expect from a bunch of men in their mid-twenties. In fact, for us, that was the main attraction of being on the road; the gigs themselves, well, we accepted them as part of the package.”

“Following that tour, I was delighted to get back into the studio. There was more than enough work to do. In 1986, among many other things, I created the synth arrangements to the soundtrack of Naso di cane, a TV series about the Neapolitan mafia featuring Claudia Cardinale, for which Tullio De Piscopo had composed the music. Such commissions required a lot more of my creativity than playing the same tunes on stage night after night.”

“At some point, I became part of the nucleus of rhythm musicians who recorded all of the material arranged by Pinuccio Pirazzoli. Pinuccio was one of the most sought-after arrangers in Milan. He was the owner of the Bach Studios. The period in which I worked closely with Pinuccio lasted for some five years. I can honestly tell you that I spent more time with Pinuccio during that period than with my wife. Whatever Pinuccio was working on, I was there with him, recording stuff for Mina, Franco Califano, Peppino di Capri, Adriano Celentano, Adriano Celentano’s son, Adriano Celentano’s film, a film with Adriano Celentano’s daughter… and the list is much longer than this, actually. Pirazzoli is an adorable guy, a real friend. Given that he was about ten years my senior, he was some sort of a teacher too. Once he got to know me, he realised that I had the potential to become an arranger in my own right. Therefore, when a certain recording project was almost done, he allowed me to do the final sound mix; something he could have done on his own without any trouble, but he just wanted to give me the opportunity to learn.”

“In 1987, after the release of Adriano Celentano’s new album (‘La pubblica ottusità’ – BT), on which I had played the keys, Celentano did two concerts in Moscow. He was just about to release a film, which was scheduled to be screened in the Soviet Union too – so, commercially, going to Moscow was a shrewd idea. Adriano, however, suffered from a monumental fear of flying, and it took ages before he finally agreed. Pinuccio Pirazzoli brought together a great band of musicians – and all the guys who had played on the studio recording were chosen, including myself. In Moscow, the concerts were held in the Olympic Stadium, a huge indoor venue. Being on stage with Celentano was a great experience. He is the perfect example of an artist who was successful because he enjoyed what he was doing. He learnt his trade from the bottom upwards, which had helped him understand how to entertain audiences. A real professional and a great character… I would say he is an artist the like of which no longer exists today.”

During the recording sessions of Adriano Celentano's album 'La pubblica ottusità' (1987)

“At the time, Pinuccio Pirazzoli was also the arranger for all of Toto Cutugno’s material. This meant that he didn’t just do Toto’s own recordings, but all the artists produced by Toto as well; Fausto Leali, Loretta Goggi, and many others. As a record producer, nobody in Italy was more active than Toto. Often, we were working on several of those projects simultaneously. In the morning, we would record the rhythm tracks of two albums, while Pinuccio would do the brass parts or the guitars for one of them in the afternoon. This left me free to refine the keyboard lines of the second project in a studio next door. In the evening, we would listen to each other’s production and add little finishing touches here and there. Ours was a symbiotic partnership!”

“On one of those typical days with me and Pinuccio being hard at work in the studio together, Toto Cutugno popped in. He saw me while I was programming a synthesiser for one of Toto’s own productions. We had never previously met, so Toto asked Pinuccio, “Who is this guy?” – and Pinuccio told him that I was called Gianni Madonini, explaining that I was a keyboard player and an arranger. Cutugno then replied, “Well, alright, in that case I want Madonini by my side in the studio tomorrow morning!” The truth of the matter is that Pirazzoli had many other obligations around that time, meaning that he couldn’t be in the studio as often as Toto would have liked. Toto always wanted complete dedication from everyone around him, so a young and malleable guy with fresh musical ideas was exactly what he was looking for. This must have been towards the end of 1987, which was also around the period when Toto purchased Bach Studios from Pinuccio. I became Toto’s arranger, replacing Pinuccio for all of Toto’s own records as well as the artists he produced.”

“One of the first songs he asked me to arrange was a piece for Fiordaliso, a young singer from Piacenza. He had offered her one of his new songs, ‘Per noi’, and she had accepted to sing it at the San Remo Festival. One evening, when I had come to the studio on my own to record the keyboard parts for that song, Toto told me, “Listen, Gianni, Pinuccio is unavailable at the moment… why don’t you write the arrangement for this track? Fiordaliso is a young singer, you are young as well… think of an arrangement which suits her and the song.” He trusted me to do well and let me go about it as I saw fit. He must have been satisfied with the result, because I got to arrange one other song he had written for San Remo as well, ‘Io’, which was performed by Franco Califano. In all, at the 1988 San Remo Festival, I had a hand in three songs; apart from the two songs written by Toto, I had also arranged ‘Canta con noi’ for a group called Future, which went on to win the Nuove Proposte section, the category for aspiring new artists in the festival. That commission had been offered to me by Mario and Flaviano Tilesi, a father-and-son production duo who I worked with regularly at the time as well.”

“In the 1980s, there was no orchestra at the San Remo Festival. All entries were performed to a playback track. Still, the arrangers came to San Remo to attend rehearsals. The crucial thing was to get an evenly balanced sound mix of the vocals and the track; to create a sound which was about the same as in the studio. It is extremely hard to get the sound right for such a performance. Seated in the auditorium, if you noticed the sound was a bit off, you could be sure that it would sound absolutely atrocious on television. Let me put it politely, but the level of sound engineering at RAI (Italy’s public broadcaster – BT) left something to be desired! It was quite important to avoid the songs you had worked so hard on in the studio being butchered in the live broadcast due to a sloppy sound mix.”

Single release of 'Canta con noi', the song arranged by Gianni Madonini which won the Nuove Proposte section of the 1988 San Remo Festival

“Perhaps the most impressive thing about attending the San Remo Festival was the famous artists you would get to meet backstage. Every year, they invited some international stars to perform as guests. I distinctly remember standing face-to-face with Paul McCartney in the 1988 festival. You shake hands, have a little chat – and are so much in awe of the person in front of you that, when walking away, you don’t have a clue what the conversation was about. In the following years, I also got to meet Simply Red and Tina Turner, who was a particular idol of mine. It felt like such an honour that they took the time to talk to you. Still today, when thinking back to the time, I see me standing there in the hallways of the Ariston Theatre in San Remo, not knowing exactly what to say. What a memory!”

In the San Remo Festival of the following year, in 1989, I was involved as an arranger of four songs, all of them composed by Toto; tracks for Fiordaliso, Gigi Sabani, and Stefano Borgia, but also a song Toto performed himself, ‘Le mamme’. I found out pretty quickly that it was quite something different to work on a record Toto had written for somebody else than to arrange a song for one of his own records. Given that he was an accomplished musician himself, he knew what he wanted – and he also had a fixed idea of the way he wanted to get it done. So he was constantly looking over your shoulder, telling you how he wanted the strings to be done; or giving you suggestions on how to use the synths. He had already heard the piece in his head when he wrote it. Still, he was a real friend; he may have been very demanding, but you could tell him everything to his face. He would never be offended – and, as a fellow musician, he never took you or your ideas for granted.”

“Of course, Toto finished in second place in San Remo 1989. He virtually always came second. Toto had already won the festival once with ‘Solo noi’ and he was an established artist. In the dynamics of San Remo, victory usually went to an act which was unusual or striking. In 1989, nobody had ever expected Fausto Leali and Anna Oxa to share the stage in a duet, but they did – and that’s why they won the festival. Toto was never a surprise. People knew what to expect of him; well-written, accessible songs. He had a huge audience and he didn’t need San Remo to further his career, but he was simply so fond of the stage that he wanted to take part at all costs. In a way, it was his role to be the runner-up and he was ok with that.”

“Following San Remo 1989, I prepared the arrangements for the summer tours of Fiordaliso as well as Toto himself. At his request, I accompanied him on his tour in various European countries and in America. The schedule was pretty hectic. When we stepped off the plane in Toronto, Toto and I left the rest of the band behind for a couple of days to travel on to New York to meet Luis Miguel, because we wanted to discuss his new record. The day we came back to Italy, I rushed into the studio to prepare the rhythm tracks, which were practically finished when Luis himself arrived to record the vocal parts.”

Runner-up in San Remo 1989 - Toto Cutugno's 'Le mamme', also arranged by Gianni Madonini

“I told you I saw Pinuccio Pirazzoli more often than my own wife in the preceding period – but the partnership with Toto Cutugno went one step further. If you took a short holiday to spend some days at the seaside, you could expect Toto to call you at an impossibly late hour, telling you that he had an excellent idea for a song for Fausto Leali. The next day he would visit you at your seaside apartment to play it to you – and tell you that he wanted you to be back in the studio the next day to record the synth parts with him; and you didn’t dare to tell him no, because he wouldn’t accept that as an answer. He may sound rather despotic, but that wasn’t his style. He was passionate about music… and bear in mind that he was the producer of a huge catalogue of artists. Toto’s weakness was his lack of organisational skills. He was a bit chaotic – and as a result, he was always in a hurry to get things done.”

“Now that I was an arranger in my own right, I could gather my own group of session players around me. As such, I introduced a new generation of musicians to the studio business, guys like Luca Di Nunno, Eugenio Mori, and the great guitarist Luca Colombo. Until that time, I had practically always been the youngest person in any given recording project – but these were all guys who were four or five years younger than me. With them on board, I was assured of getting a contemporary sound; exactly what Toto Cutugno and other producers wanted from me.”

“Toto wanted to take part again in San Remo in 1990, but that festival proved to be something different. There was a new artistic director, Adriano Aragozzini, and he decided the festival needed a breath of fresh air. The festival had become a bit too predictable in the preceding years. Aragozzini wanted an event with credibility, with all music being played live. This idea went hand in hand with another suggestion of his, to change the venue of the festival to the Palafiori, a large event hall which was six times as big as Teatro Ariston. On such a huge podium, it would have been ridiculous to work with playback tracks. Artists would look lost on that stage. Somehow, Aragozzini scraped together the budget – and he commissioned Gianmaria Berlendis to form a huge orchestra, in which the very best of Milan’s session players were included. It was much larger than San Remo orchestras had been in the 1960s and 1970s; and I can safely say there has never been a better orchestra in the history of the festival. As a production, the 1990 festival really was a wonderful programme. Due to the setting, with this fantastic orchestra, there was an energy, also among artists, which hadn’t been there in the years before.”

“Given that there was going to be an orchestra, I knew I was going to be involved as a conductor of Toto’s songs. That was an exciting prospect. There was something else; all songs were going to be performed as a cover by an international artist as well – and for Toto’s song, ‘Gli amori’, they had somehow managed to book Ray Charles! After I had finished the orchestration, I sent it to America, where Ray’s own arranger (Bert Dovo – BT) adapted it, extending the string and brass parts a little bit – but essentially, he stuck to the version I had done. But then, just a couple of days before all the orchestrations had to be submitted to the organisation, Toto walked into the studio, telling me, “You know, Gianni, I don’t really like the chorus of the song as it is now. Let’s change it.” As it turned out, he felt the original chorus somehow lacked energy – and he had thought up a new version, in which the chorus really lifts the song. In doing so, he made the song more in line with what you would expect of a San Remo entry. As a result, the song certainly became more accessible, but I was left with a big problem. I had to rewrite the orchestration completely – and there were just one or two days left until the deadline. We ran the risk of being disqualified!”

Toto Cutugno with Ray Charles at the 1990 San Remo Festival

“This explains why the version Ray Charles performed on the San Remo stage (‘Good Love Gone Bad’ – BT) is so different from Toto’s own rendition. Of course, Toto came second again – and journalists wrote that the only reason he had come so close to winning was because of Ray Charles’ version. They thought Ray Charles had reworked the song. In reality, none of these journalists was aware that it was Ray Charles who sang the original version rather than Toto. If they felt Ray Charles’ performance was so much better, the reason behind it was that Ray Charles was a better artist than Toto. Nobody would deny that. He’s a world star! Moreover, this typical San Remo approach of Toto’s wouldn’t have suited Ray Charles at all. In a way, they both sang the version which suited them best. Of course I’m extremely proud that Ray Charles performed what could arguably be described as my arrangement. He received a standing ovation from the hall; and deservedly so. It was an unforgettable moment.”

“All the same, I arrived in San Remo rather stressed. Because of the long hours that had to be spent on the new version of Toto’s song, I had given away one of the other arrangements I was due to conduct; a song by Ricchi & Poveri for which I had done the orchestration. Instead, that song was done by Pinuccio Pirazzoli, who was there anyway to conduct several other songs. This left me with three songs; apart from ‘Gli amori’, I accompanied Sandro Giacobbe and Silvia Mezzanotte. The first time I walked onto that stage to do a live performance as a conductor in front of that huge audience in the hall, sweat was running down my back. I realised that the success of the performance depended on me counting in the orchestra in the correct tempo. Standing in front of an orchestra on stage is something completely different than conducting a group of session musicians in the studio. On stage, each performance has an emotion of its own. You need to focus for the full four minutes to make sure those fifty or sixty musicians in the orchestra give an inspired, well-coordinated performance. Each song was performed several times in the course of the festival week; and each time, the feeling of apprehension was exactly the same. I hope you agree I could be forgiven for feeling nervous. After all, I was only 29 years old!”

“After San Remo 1990, Toto represented Italy at the Eurofestival in Zagreb and won that festival. Subsequently, I accompanied him on a summer tour in Italy as well as two months of touring in America. That was about the end of our collaboration, which had lasted some three years. It ended simply because other producers and record companies wanted to work with me as well. After three years, I was keen to do different things. Moreover, Toto became less active as a recording artist and studio producer in the following years. Later on in his career, he took up writing songs and recording albums again, but somehow he never reached the level of success of the tunes arranged by Pinuccio Pirazzoli and me. Perhaps he didn’t sing as well as he had done previously. After all the success he had had in the past, Toto could have enjoyed a leisurely life, but he didn’t want that. He needed the stage. He wanted to do those concert tours of Eastern Europe, where he was still popular. Also in later years, he remained this same guy who was passionate about any music project he was working on. Until his dying day, Toto was an artist from top to toe.”

“You have to realise that during my time of being Toto Cutugno’s arranger, I didn’t exclusively work for him. Just as an example, the Silvia Mezzanotte song I conducted at San Remo was an EMI production for which the studio version was arranged by Lucio Fabbri. There also was an album with Adamo in 1987 for which I wrote the arrangements working with my old friends Mario Tilesi and Sergio Parisini. In 1989, I was commissioned to write the orchestrations to Enrico Ruggeri’s live tour across Italy. They had first asked Pinuccio Pirazzoli to take care of them, but when they found out he was unavailable, they turned to me. It is fair to say that those years between 1987 and 1990 were extremely busy. Looking back I can hardly understand how I coped.”

As a conductor at the 1990 San Remo Festival

“After that successful year of 1990, many producers were keen to work with me. With Giorgio Faletti, who became a close friend, I worked on several recording projects, the most high-profile of those perhaps being Gigliola Cinquetti’s album ‘Giovane vecchio cuore’, for which I wrote most of the charts. I also wrote the arrangements to a duets album recorded by Mina with Adriano Celentano. With Dario Baldan, I co-arranged his solo album (‘Il canto dell’umanità’ in 1996 – BT), upon which we formed a band and went on a tour across Italy. Still, that album was one of the last of its sort. In the 1990s, the studio business was gradually changing. Budgets for album projects were becoming smaller – and so were TV budgets. One of the reasons why I never took part in the San Remo Festival again after 1990 was the fact that spending a week there actually cost you a lot of money. RAI took over the organisation and their production teams refused to pay for your expenses. That’s the main reason why someone like Celso Valli hardly ever took part in San Remo, apart from some performances with high profile guest artists. To cut a long story short, working in the recording business, generally speaking, became a lot less profitable.”

“Fortunately, by that time, I had diversified my activities. Many musicians lost their job around the turn of the century. Why use violins when your computer can produce all of those sounds without asking to be paid for it? That’s the sad turn the recording industry took. As a keyboard player, I was lucky. I had always been interested in technology, experimenting with sounds. In the 1990s, I progressively turned to arranging film soundtracks and documentaries – invariably done with synthetic instruments.”

“In a field quite close to that, I managed to create a name for myself as a composer of soundtracks to audiobooks, especially audiobooks for children and teenagers. In fact, that has been my main working field since 2000. So, due to developments in the music business, the arranger became a composer! Starting from scratch and creating a soundscape is a job that I love. To me, writing music for youngsters – and writing music in general – means thinking in terms of colours. Just like a film composer, you have to be able to create music that gives character to the storyline without dominating it. The nice thing about working for children is that they are always brutally honest. When they tell you they like the book they’ve just listened to, you know they mean it… and what could be better than knowing that a child has just enjoyed himself listening to something you’ve created?”

“By the time I started working on those audiobooks, I already knew that I had a way of working with youngsters, because I had started teaching music – although I’m happy to point out that I’ve never been dependent on teaching to make a living. For years, I taught the basics to youngsters – and I’ve brought together my lessons in a book, ‘Lo schiacciatasti’, an introduction to the piano and music theory especially written for children. Nowadays, I’m a part-time teacher at the music school in Pavia, specialising in harmony courses directed at more advanced students who are keen to extend their knowledge of an instrument or who want to progress in the field of creating their own music. Most students are around seventeen, eighteen years old and they usually know exactly what they want. It’s very rewarding to help them on their way.”

Close-up, 2013

“Since 2015, I’ve had my own studiolo, a small in-house studio where I’ve gathered all the equipment required to create my own music. This means I no longer have to hire someone else’s studio to record my output. In 2022, I also started composing music for the sound library of an English firm, Soundreef. It’s an immensely gratifying feeling to be completely independent. I’m creating my own music, things that I like – without having to worry about satisfying an artist, who in turn has to satisfy his audience.”

“I haven’t cut my ties to pop music completely, though. Some years ago, at the request of a friend who runs a restaurant, I created a music group called Triade, consisting of myself on keyboards, my old friend Gabriele Oldrati on guitar, and my partner Nadia Agosti as vocalist. In the old days, she used to be a session singer, but is still working professionally as a voice actor. Once or twice a month, we do performances in restaurants and bars. Our repertoire mainly consists of Italian 1980s pop, the music that I was involved in so extensively in my previous life as a session player. We aren’t aiming at building a career as live musicians, but it’s not too bad to be back on the stage once in a while, playing for an audience. It makes for a nice change from my usual activities.”

“In retrospect, I was part of the last generation of session musicians in Italy. It’s a line of work that has simply evaporated. It’s a pity that young musicians nowadays don’t have the same opportunities that I had in the late 1970s, learning my trade by playing jazz in bars and exchanging ideas with older musicians. The entertainment music business has suffered enormously as a result. When listening to modern Italian pop music, it’s painfully obvious that younger musicians are unable to build a music piece and create interesting sounds. In fact, they’re still using samples of the music that I and my colleagues recorded back in the 1980s. What better proof could there be that creativity in Italian pop music is dead? Anyone with an innovative mindset would prefer to create something that is really new, but obviously the current generation finds itself unable to do so. It’s a situation that makes me angry and sad at the same time. Where are the new Claudio Baglioni and Vasco Rossi? They don’t exist. Even youngsters nowadays still adore Vasco Rossi, simply because there has never been someone after him equalling his level of creativity.”

“Of course I do miss working with real orchestras, but synthesisers are still getting better – and I’m dreaming of producing a soundtrack one day which has been created with electronic instruments completely, but manages to bring about the same emotions as a real symphony orchestra… something which Vangelis came very close to with his soundtrack to Conquest Of Paradise, a work I have huge admiration for. It’s simply a technological challenge that I love. I’ll probably never reach the grade of perfection that I have in mind… perhaps the concept of aiming to reach the level of Morricone without working with an orchestra is a silly idea in the first place, I don’t know. Still, I’m hoping to continue experimenting and composing as long as I can. The desire to invent new sounds has been in me since my childhood. Even after all these years, the passion to create music is still there. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything that I like doing more than that.”

At work in Milan's Bach Studios, flanked by two other session musicians - Moreno Boselli (left) and Luca Di Nunno (2022)


In 1990, Italian broadcaster RAI planned to send the winner of the San Remo Festival as its representative to the Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb; the previous year, when the contest had been held in Lausanne, the arrangement had been similar – Anna Oxa and Fausto Leali, who had won the San Remo Festival with ‘Ti lascerò’, took part in Switzerland with another song of their own choice, ‘Avrei voluto’. As it happened, though, Pooh, the group which won the 1990 San Remo Festival, turned down the offer to take part in Zagreb, allegedly because they had scheduled a world tour; thereupon, RAI officials turned to Toto Cutugno, who had finished runner-up in San Remo with ‘Gli amori’… and the rest is history, because Cutugno won the Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb with ‘Insieme 1992’. As in that year’s San Remo Festival, the arranger and conductor at his side in Yugoslavia was Gianni Madonini.

“It is true that Pooh rejected the offer to go to Zagreb,” Madonini recalls, “but I’m perfectly sure this had nothing to do with a tour, let alone a world tour. They were a group who hardly ever toured, apart from two or three big stadium venues in Italy. Look, their San Remo winner ‘Uomini soli’ was a nice enough song, but, to my mind, the only reason it won was that Pooh had never taken part in the festival before. Usually, in San Remo, victory goes to some unusual act, something unexpected. I don’t think this song would have won if it had been interpreted by somebody else.”

“The fact that Pooh usually didn’t take part in San Remo comes closer to the truth of why they turned down the opportunity to do the Eurofestival, although I’m just guessing now… but Pooh simply weren’t a festival group – and if taking part in San Remo was a risk, then the Eurofestival would have been even more so for them. Their fans wouldn’t have understood if they had finished in the second half of the scoreboard at the Eurofestival. For Toto Cutugno, things like that didn’t matter. He was a typical festival singer; he took part in San Remo every year and his popularity didn’t depend on winning or losing. Apart from that, he simply loved the stage. San Remo, the Eurofestival, any stage – given that he was so competitive, he liked throwing his hat in the ring and seeing how it would go. I don’t think he hesitated for a moment when RAI turned to him to go to Zagreb.”

“All well and good, but we now faced a new challenge, because there were only two months between San Remo and the Eurofestival in Zagreb. ‘Gli amori’ had already been released and was ineligible. Toto had about a month to come up with a song – and bear in mind that he had many other things to do in the meantime as a producer of other artists. But Toto was a clever guy, una bella volpe! Around that time, Europe was becoming one – so why not create a song about the United Europe? That was the starting point… twelve stars, twelve countries coming together, let’s make a song about that! He had that idea in his head right from the start; and hardly a week had passed after the San Remo Festival when we already found ourselves in Toto’s own Bach Studio in Milan to work on the track.”

Single release of 'Insieme: 1992'

“The idea for the music and the lyrics were completely Toto’s. He really believed in the message of a united Europe, although he never was a political person – and neither was any of us. Music was our politics! If we could just play, we were happy. To him, the message of a peaceful Europe united under the same flag went beyond simple politics. It was a sentiment that appealed to him. When he walked into the Bach Studios with the demo he had recorded in his small in-house studiolo, you couldn’t fail to notice that he was satisfied with what he had conceived.”

“In the Bach Studios, he let me hear a few fragments of the demo – not the entire song, just some bits. There were two or three parts of the song for which he had a specific idea which he wanted to explain to me. Otherwise, he left me free to write the arrangement the way I saw fit. The purpose was to create a song which was contemporary and directed towards a European audience rather than the Italian market. A signature tune for Europe! When you listen to Toto’s other hit songs from that era, ‘Figli’, ‘Le mamme’, and to a lesser extent also ‘Gli amori’, these were all songs constructed to fit the mould that the Italian public had come to expect of him. ‘Insieme 1992’ was not such a typical Toto song. It could have been sung by someone else – but of course Toto was very keen to do it himself.”

“Listening to Toto’s demo, I quickly realised that the song had potential. The chorus was very orecchiabile, very catchy. Moreover, it was obvious this was a song that would work well with an orchestra. Even listening to this rough first version which Toto had done, I already knew where I wanted to add strings and brass. For the record version, however, we only worked with keyboards and synthesisers. Because we were looking to get a modern sound, I specifically asked for the keyboard player from Mango’s band. His name was Rocco Petruzzi. When putting together the sound pattern for the record version, I had the keyboard lines in my head which he usually created for Mango’s records at that time – so why not ask the guy himself to record them? The result certainly sounded fresh; fresher than Toto’s usual output in those years, I would say.”

“Once we had recorded the song, I had to go on recreating the arrangement into a three-minute version with the full orchestra. Everything had to be done in a rush – I wasn’t even aware it was allowed to use backing tracks in the contest. I don’t know if we would have made use of them, if we had known… I don’t think we would, because this song was tailor-made to be played by an orchestra. The keyboard lines in the chorus could be played by the orchestra’s pianist, but with the brass section doubling those lines. The lower synth lines throughout the song could be recreated with strings. When making the record version, I already had the orchestra in my mind. The only thing left was to write out the orchestration in detail. All parts had to be written correctly, without any mistake, because I knew we would be in trouble in Zagreb if some corrections had to be made on the spot. The hardest part actually was to cut down the song to three minutes. The record version was a bit longer, and, when working with an orchestra, you can’t just allow a song to fade out… but I think we did a pretty good job on that.”

Toto Cutugno during his winning performance at Eurovision 1990 in Zagreb

Working on a shoestring budget, the Italian delegation did not bring a backing group along with Toto Cutugno to the Eurovision final in Zagreb. Instead, the singer worked with the Slovenian quintet Pepel & Kri – which, incidentally, had represented Yugoslavia in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest under the English name Ashes & Blood with ‘Dan ljubezni’. In the interview we did in 2010 with Stanko Selak, the assistant musical director of the 1990 contest in Zagreb, Mr Selak revealed that he had found and engaged the group on behalf of the Italian delegation. 

When asked about the matter, Gianni Madonini reacts, “I wasn’t involved in this, but there is no reason for me to doubt the statement of Mr Selak. Frankly speaking, Toto and I were worried about the prospect of not working with our trusted group of backing singers that we usually employed for our sessions in Milan. I suspect the record company refused to pay for the expenses of five extra delegates – and so they must have asked RAI to contact the Yugoslavian organisation to find them a group of five backing singers. Toto himself couldn’t have done that, because he didn’t have a network in Yugoslavia. We didn’t get to meet the backing singers until the first rehearsal in Zagreb. We wondered if their pronunciation would be good enough. Many Yugoslavs speak good Italian, but if the pronunciation is slightly off, it detracts from the song. As far as I recall, there were one or two details in their diction which required attention, but that was it. All five singers turned out to be excellent professionals and very nice to work with.”

“We only had two rehearsals to get the performance right. With the backing group doing a good job, I could now focus on the orchestra. When I was walking to the conductor’s platform for the first rehearsal, I noticed the two first violinists were laughing at me. Remember that I was only 29 years old and they were both seasoned classical musicians! They must have thought, “Who is this young guy who only knows about keyboards and pop music?” They couldn’t imagine I would do a good job with an orchestra. Moreover, we came on for this first rehearsal after they had rehearsed nine or ten other songs. They must have been tired and a bit bored. They could have been forgiven for being a bit sceptical about this ragazzo giovane wearing jeans stepping up to conduct them.”

“They weren’t aware that I had been taught the basics of conducting excellently by the private teacher from my young years, maestro Domenico Valente. He was a violinist who had worked in theatre orchestras for many years. He knew exactly what musicians in such orchestras were looking for in their conductor. I wouldn’t be able to conduct a classical symphony, but he did teach me about how to use your hands properly when giving cues and about the importance of looking at the orchestra players and not at your score while conducting. He also explained that violinists need an exact cue when they haven’t had anything to do for the past twenty bars… they won’t count those bars, because they trust you to give them a signal at the correct moment. When working as a session player, I noticed that some arrangers were very bad at conducting and more or less unable to convey their wishes to an orchestra – and I like to think I was a little better than many of them.”

Cutugno thanking Tonko Ninić, the concertmaster of the 1990 festival orchestra in Zagreb, after his Eurovision win

“I never asked the musicians in Zagreb what they thought of my conducting technique, but you could feel that this first rehearsal opened the eyes of many players in the orchestra and crew members of the Yugoslavian broadcasting service. People were looking at each other with a facial expression that betrayed they were positively surprised. They started thinking of us as a contender. The musicians in the orchestra were well prepared and they did a very good job on the arrangement, which already sounded very good in the first run-through. The sound patterns which I had been looking for were there from the start. After that first rehearsal was over, I withdrew into my dressing room. To my surprise, those two same violinists who had laughed at me, knocked on my door, asking me to accept their apologies for the way they had behaved. Of course, I gracefully shook their hands. I saw it as a good sign. We were beginning to be taken seriously.”

“So we had two rehearsals, a general rehearsal, and the concert on Saturday, which left us with quite a bit of free time in between. Apart from myself, Toto was accompanied by his wife, a sound engineer, and a representative of his record company – and together we walked around Zagreb for a bit, which was a very nice city. We didn’t notice anything which could have predicted the civil war in Yugoslavia which broke out the following year. To us, the atmosphere seemed perfectly normal. I don’t recall hanging out with competitors from other countries. I must admit that we were very focused on our own performance. Furthermore, as far as I remember, you weren’t allowed to attend the other rehearsals due to security reasons. Access to the theatre was restricted and there were bodyguards everywhere. It was something which we weren’t used to in San Remo, where everyone walked in and out during rehearsals.”

“When the evening of the concert arrived, I was extremely nervous – even more so than I had been when conducting in the San Remo Festival two months previously. This was just one song, one performance; and everything depended on me. If I made a mistake, giving a wrong cue or indicating the wrong tempo, I would be a laughing stock. Those are things you think of when walking onto that stage. Once I had counted in the orchestra, all the worries I might have felt subsided. I just did my job; and the orchestra played extremely well on the night. If the orchestration sounded well in the TV broadcast, rest assured that it was even better there in the auditorium. Live, the sound was absolutely spectacular.”

“Still, nobody in our delegation was thinking of winning. After we had done our performance, I went to my dressing room to take off my smoking jacket and wear something more comfortable. When I wanted to get back to the restaurant in the theatre where all the delegations were gathered, a bodyguard refused to let me in. I was wearing jeans and a shirt – and he obviously didn’t recognise me in this outfit. “Who are you? What do you want?”, he asked me. “Well,” I replied, “I am Toto Cutugno’s conductor” “Anyone could say that,” was his reaction. In the end, I was noticed by one of the interpreters who were present in the theatre. He recognised me and told the guard that I really was the conductor of the Italian delegation. Finally, I could get back to the table where Toto, his backing singers, and the other Italians were sitting.”

Toto Cutugno on the Eurovision stage in Zagreb with Oliver Mlakar, one of the hosts of the festival

“In that restaurant, each country’s delegation had been given its own table. The Yugoslavian organisation had prepared a dinner for all of them. So that’s what we did… we had our meal and we were chatting. We were hardly taking any notice of the voting procedure. In moments like this, you can see we were real Italians. Of course we weren’t interested in following the votes each country gave. We were enjoying our dinner and having a good time together. When the second-last jury gave us the maximum votes, we had won the contest, but Toto hadn’t noticed a thing – in fact, I was the first at our table to be aware of what had happened. “Toto, we’ve won! We’ve won the Eurofestival! Basta, finito, abbiamo vinto!” That’s when he and the others finally realised that we had pulled it off. Nobody in our delegation had been expecting this.”

“Before we knew it, the floor manager came to our table to tell us that we had to prepare to get back onto the stage as fast as we could to perform the song once again. I had to rush back to my dressing room to put on my smoking jacket again. Someone had emptied a bottle of champagne over Toto’s head. There were black stripes all over his jumper, which he tried to wipe off with a tissue. Before he walked back onto the stage, somebody had to give him a new jacket. All of it was very improvised. As soon as he was on stage, he walked to the orchestra to shake hands with the concertmaster (Tonko Ninić – BT) to thank him and the other musicians, which I thought was a very nice gesture of him. Then, he gave me a kiss on the cheek. When watching the images now, you can clearly see that both of us were rather shocked at what had happened. The last thing we had expected was to have to perform the song again. Typically, Toto walked into the audience during his reprise of the song. It was a spontaneous gesture; and once again it proved how much he loved performing.”

“After the reprise, those same two violinists came to me a second time to embrace me and congratulate me on our win. They simply said, “Grazie”. Somehow, I had managed to win their respect. After the show was over, we walked back into the restaurant, where we celebrated some more. I don’t remember shaking hands with any of the other competitors, but there were journalists from other countries who were keen to have a party with us – especially the younger ones. It started to dawn on us what we had just achieved. Obviously we couldn’t have felt any happier!”

“I couldn’t answer the question of whether we deserved to win. Without judging the other songs, I can say that our song was clearly one of the top candidates, given that the performance was so strong and convincing. On top of that, Toto was an artist with an international reputation and he had come up with a song which had a message that could be understood even by those who didn’t understand Italian. At the bottom of all of it, though, I think the main reason why we won was the fact that we took things as they came. Siamo in ballo – allora balliamo. We didn’t have the time to reflect on the things we were doing. We had to come up with a song in a matter of weeks; we made the recording, I wrote the orchestration, and then we just went to Zagreb to do the best we could. We arrived on the last train, so to speak – and we just did it. Somehow, it was just meant to be.”

Celebrating the success together - Gianni Madonini and Toto Cutugno on stage in Zagreb after Italy had been voted into first place by the international juries

“When we came back to Italy, we noticed that our victory had been picked up by the media. Finally, the man who always came second in San Remo had his win; that was the frame in which they put it. Usually, the Eurofestival didn’t attract much attention in Italy. In this country, musically speaking, audiences are more interested in the San Remo Festival; simply because it’s an event that is so much deeper ingrained in the Italian DNA. In Italy, the Eurofestival has never had the importance which it had in other parts of Europe. ‘Insieme 1992’ charted in many European countries, but not here in Italy. Still, Toto sang it on all the stops of his Italian summer tour, which had already been planned before there was even talk of the Eurofestival. Toto’s plans for the rest of 1990 remained the same. He didn’t travel the whole of Europe to perform his winning song. After the Italian summer season, we travelled to the USA and Canada to do a tour there which lasted two months; and that was it. He didn’t need to build on his festival win, because he already had an international career. He continued performing in Eastern European countries for many more years, but he had been popular there long before the Eurofestival because of ‘L’italiano’ and his other hits. No, nothing much changed for him. The Eurofestival was an isolated event in Toto’s career.”

“On the other hand, for me personally, the Eurofestival was quite important. It enhanced my reputation in the studio business considerably. Until then, I had been Toto Cutugno’s personal arranger. Now, I was a winning arranger; and I noticed that other producers started asking for me to work on their projects… so you don’t want a good arranger, you want an arranger who is successful; perhaps sadly, that’s how the business works. In a funny coincidence, some years later Giorgio Faletti asked me to work on an album he produced for Gigliola Cinquetti. In the studio, I was reminded by others that I could now boast having worked with the two Italian artists who had won the Eurofestival. It was just a joke, but you see, colleagues took notice of such things.”

“You know what the saddest thing of this whole episode in Zagreb was? During the week of rehearsals, we found ourselves in a restaurant somewhere in the city centre; Toto, me, and probably most other members of our delegation. There, we were approached by five local guys who told us they were a rock group. They knew that Toto was a producer of other artists; and they wondered if he was interested in producing them. They had a demo with them, which we listened to. It turned out they were excellent artists, bravissimi. Toto decided to invite them to the Bach Studios to do a session. The appointment was made. A couple of months later, they came over and I was there when they recorded some of their tracks. But then the war broke out… and the group fell apart, because they found themselves on different sides of the conflict. Apparently, they belonged to different ethnic groups. One of them even died in the war, if I remember correctly. Needless to say, the songs they recorded with us were never released. I’m friends with one of them on Facebook, Duško Rapotec Ute, who became an arranger and producer himself. We occasionally write each other messages about what could have been. It’s just a tragedy what happened in Yugoslavia.”

“These days, I don’t really follow San Remo or the Eurofestival. Occasionally, I watch the San Remo Festival when I know that some friend is taking part as a conductor or a member of the orchestra. The focus is San Remo is no longer on the songs, which is understandable, because almost all the entries are badly written and most of the singers taking part don’t deserve to be referred to as artists. I can understand why the decision was taken to take away the orchestra from the Eurofestival. In San Remo, there is still an orchestra, but to my mind it has become an anachronism. There are perhaps one or two entries each year which benefit from a real string section, but most songs today are written without an orchestral pattern in mind. Why do you need violins, violas, trumpets? There’s no longer an additional value in having them play along, because modern-day pop music has moved away so far from real instruments. I’m not saying that I’m happy with this development, but it’s a fact of life.”

Cutugno in the audience during the reprise of 'Insieme: 1992' - Lisinski Hall, Zagreb (Eurovision 1990)


So far, we have not gathered comments of other artists about Gianni Madonini.


Country – Italy
Song title – “Insieme 1992”
Rendition – Toto Cutugno
Lyrics – Salvatore “Toto” Cutugno
Composition – Salvatore “Toto” Cutugno
Studio arrangement – Gianni Madonini
Live orchestration – Gianni Madonini
Conductor – Gianni Madonini
Score – 1st place (149 votes)

  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Gianni Madonini, October 2023
  • A playlist of Gianni Madonini’s music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link
  • Photos courtesy of Gianni Madonini & Ferry van der Zant
  • Many thanks to Mark Coupar for proofreading the manuscript