Saturday 3 April 1993


Born: March 6th, 1958, Bucharest (Romania)
Nationality: Romanian

In due course, the short impression below will be replaced with a more extensive career overview


George Natsis is a Romanian pianist of Greek descent, who is the pianist of the Radio Romania Big Band and assistant-conductor to Ionel Tudor. He wrote arrangements for musical saw virtuoso Benedict Popescu as well as for religious music. In light music, he composed children’s songs. In 2010, he was the president of the jury in the Romanian Eurovision Song Contest heats.


George Natsis conducted the orchestra for Dida Dragan, who represented Romania in the 1993 preselection held in Ljubljana for seven Eastern European countries that wanted to enter the Eurovision Song Contest final in Millstreet, the programme being entitled Kvalifikacija za Millstreet. Dragan sang ‘Nu pleca’, which finished last and thus did not qualify. Each of the 7 competing acts presented a second song; for Dida Dragan's dramatic rendition of 'Blestem' (The Curse), Natsis sat down at the piano instead of conducting the orchestra.


Country – Romania
Song title – “Nu pleca”
Rendition – Dida Drăgan
Lyrics – Dida Drăgan
Composition – Adrian Ordean
Studio arrangement – unknown (probably Adrian Ordean)
Live orchestration – unknown (probably George Natsis)
Conductor semi-final – George Natsis
Score semi-final – 7th place (38 votes) & DNQ


Born: January 12th, 1944, Zagreb, Croatia (Yugoslavia)
Died: September 14th, 2001, Ljubljana (Slovenia)
Nationality: Slovene

In due course, the short impression below will be replaced with a more extensive career overview


Petar ‘Pero’ Ugrin studied the trumpet and violin at the Ljubljana Music Academy. He became Yugoslavia’s best-known jazz trumpeter, playing in the ensembles of Josip Forenbacher, Janez Gregorc (with whom he performed at the Bled Jazz Festival), and Silvije Glojnarić. In 1972, Ugrin joined Jože Privšek’s Ljubljana Radio and Television Big Band. In 1979, he released a modern jazz album, ‘Samo muzika’, for which he sang and moreover played the trumpet, flugelhorn, electric violin, and tambourine; some pieces on this album were written by Privšek, while Slobodan Marković took care of the synthesizer. Ugrin was a member of progressive jazz band September. As a session musician, he worked with artists such as Tihomir Asanović and Aska.


Petar Ugrin was the musical director of Kvalifikacija za Millstreet, the pre-selection in which seven new EBU members from Eastern Europe vied for three places in the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest final in Millstreet. He conducted the RTV Ljubljana Big Band for the Slovenian and Hungarian entries, ‘Tih deževen dan’ and ‘Árva reggel’ respectively, of which the former qualified. Ugrin, however, did not accompany the Slovene group 1 X Band to the Eurovision final, where ‘Tih deževen dan’ was conducted by its arranger, Jože Privšek.


Country – Hungary
Song title – “Árva reggel”
Rendition – Andrea Szulák
Lyrics – György Jakab / Emese Hatvani
Composition – László Pásztor / György Jakab
Studio arrangement (demo) – László Pásztor / György Jakab
Live orchestration – Miklós Malek
Conductor semi-final – Petar Ugrin (MD)
Score semi-final – 6th place (44 votes) & DNQ

Country – Slovenia
Song title – “Tih deževen dan”
Rendition – 1 X Band (Cole Moretti / Andrej Bedjanić / Tomaž Kosec feat. Urška Gestrin / Sandra Zupanc / Barbara Šinigoj)
Lyrics – Tomaž Kosec
Composition – Cole Moretti
Studio arrangement – Jože Privšek
(Festival Orchestra RTV Slovenia conducted by Petar Ugrin)
Live orchestration – Jože Privšek
Conductor semi-final – Petar Ugrin (MD)
Conductor final – Jože Privšek
Score semi-final – 1st place (54 votes)
Score final – 23rd place (9 votes)


The following article is an overview of the career of Estonian conductor Peeter Lilje. Important sources of information are interviews with various artists who worked with Peeter Lilje, but most notably a wealth of recollections provided by his widow Maia, a music history teacher. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Peeter Lilje'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 Peeter Lilje
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: October 13th, 1950, Valga, Estonia (Soviet Union)
Died: October 27th, 1993, Oulu (Finland)
Nationality: Estonian


Peeter Lilje was the conductor of Estonia’s first Eurovision attempt, in 1993, when the country submitted the song ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’, performed by Janika Sillamaa, in the qualification round for countries new to the contest, held in Ljubljana. Unfortunately, this Estonian entry failed to qualify for the international final in Millstreet.


Born in 1950, Peeter Lilje grew up in the town of Valga in the far south of what was then the Estonian SSR, on the border with Latvia. He completed his violin studies at Valga’s Children’s Music School in 1964, where he also acquainted himself with the piano, trumpet, as well as several other brass instruments. His music talent being plainly obvious, Lilje was allowed to continue his studies at the Tartu Music School, making his first steps as a choral conductor under the guidance of Vaike Uibopuu and Valve Lepik.

In Tartu, Peeter met his future wife Maia, who was a fellow music student. “When we got to know each other, Peeter wasn’t sure yet if he wanted to be a professional musician,” she recalls. “He also considered studying mathematics and even becoming a sailor! Even though neither of his parents were professional musicians, it’s fair to say that they passed the music gene onto him. His mother played the piano, while his father was a fine violinist. Together, they performed in various dance and ballroom ensembles. Playing music was something which came natural not only to Peeter, but to his siblings as well. His elder brother Karl played the clarinet; and the youngest, Riho, was a guitarist in the pop group Radar, in which Peeter’s lifelong friend Jaak Joala was the lead vocalist. Radar were successful in Estonia, but in other parts of the Soviet Union as well. Riho later turned to teaching the guitar.”

“As a student in Tartu, Peeter already had a very good ear and an excellent musical memory,” Maia continues. “As a result, he really stood out; and he enjoyed playing and listening to music, whatever it was. The seeds of his ambition to progress as a conductor were sown when he started listening to records with symphonic music as a teenager. Ultimately, that’s what inspired him to progress in music and move to Tallinn to study choral and orchestral conducting.”

Peeter Lilje seated at the Weltmeister clavinet with pop group Credo (1972)

Graduating in Tartu in 1969, Peeter Lilje moved to Estonia’s capital to continue his choral conducting studies at the Tallinn State Conservatoire under the guidance of Arvo Ratassepp, graduating in 1974. During his time at the conservatoire in Tallinn, he also studied orchestral conducting with Roman Matsov; Matsov was a conductor of considerable reputation, having been the chief of the Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra between 1950 and 1963, when he had been deposed due to criticism from communist authorities for having performed works by Mahler – deemed a bourgeois composer at that time – with his orchestra.

In spite of his purely classical upbringing, Peeter Lilje showed an interest in light-entertainment music from his young years onwards, earning some extra money as a jazz pianist in bars in Tartu during his time as a student there. In fact, as a teenager, he loved listening to songs by The Beatles. Later on, in Tallinn, he performed as a pianist with several jazz and pop ensembles, including the group Collage. 

“Collage was the first vocal and instrumental group in Estonia which performed jazz and folk arrangements,” Maia Lilje explains. “In those days, jazz music was already very popular in Estonia. Peeter was never an integral group member of Collage, but he accompanied them as a pianist on stage, even on foreign tours in Poland and Czechoslovakia. To him, jazz, pop, and classical music were no separate entities. As a boy, he had done his first performances playing dance music at the side of his mother – and he simply continued doing so in bars and the students’ club of Tartu’s University.”

“Peeter never felt pop music was below his standards,” Maia stresses. “As a student in Tartu, and later also in Tallinn, he wrote arrangements for Jaak Joala, our most popular singer in those days, and possibly for Ivo Linna too. He also helped out local pop groups. You have to realise we couldn’t buy sheet music of Western pop music here in Estonia in those days, so Peeter wrote down those scores by listening to the records, which allowed his friends in Estonian pop bands to play cover versions of popular songs from the West. As a student, he really enjoyed writing those arrangements, but also listening to pop and jazz – ranging from Oscar Peterson to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. After his graduation, his schedule as a conductor became too demanding to continue writing arrangements, but even so, until the end of his life, he took every opportunity that presented itself to play jazz music with the instrumentalists in his orchestra; just for the fun of playing.”

During a jazz improvisation with fellow student Olav Ehala (1973)

In the 1970s, apart from his involvement in pop and jazz music, Peeter Lilje regularly teamed up with opera singers as a piano accompanist as well. While studying at the conservatoire, in 1973, Lilje was asked to take over as choirmaster at the Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Estonian SSR, being appointed the assistant to principal conductor Neeme Järvi two years later. The opera orchestra in Tallinn did not just perform classical works, but operettas and even American musicals as well – the scores of which were smuggled into Estonia from neighbouring Finland.

Alongside his position at the opera house, Järvi was also the chief conductor of the Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra, having succeeded the aforementioned Roman Matsov in this capacity in 1963. On the initiative of Järvi, Lilje was given the opportunity to conduct the symphony orchestra for the first time in rehearsal in 1975, while his first public performance as a conductor with this ensemble followed one year later in Tartu with a programme which included Eduard Tubin’s Symphony No. 9, nicknamed Sinfonia semplice, a work composed in 1969. As it happened, Tubin, who lived in Sweden but was of Estonian origin, was visiting Estonia at the time, dropping by at the Tartu Concert Hall during rehearsals to give the young conductor some last advice on his debut performance. Recognised as an extremely talented musician, Peeter Lilje was awarded with the Laureate’s Title at the Young Musicians’ and Actors’ Festival of the Soviet Union later that same year.

While regularly performing with the opera and symphony orchestras in Tallinn, Lilje continued his studies as a postgraduate at the Leningrad Conservatoire under the aegis of young Latvian master conductor Mariss Jansons and his father Arvīds Jansons. In 1978, as part of his studies, Lilje made his debut at the Leningrad Kirov Opera, conducting Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

“It was in St. Petersburg that his qualities as a conductor really came to the fore,” Maia Lilje states. “The conducting class there was full of exceptional talents, but Peeter really overshadowed the others with his exceptional memory and conducting technique. The most promising young conductor in the Soviet Union, that’s how he was regarded at the time. Professor Arvīds Jansons was a fatherly figure to him and his son Mariss was like a good colleague – not just a teacher, but a friend first and foremost. Peeter and I were on really good terms with both of them, paying them private visits in Leningrad and also receiving them and their partners at our place in Tallinn.”

Peeter Lilje looking on as his mentor Mariss Jansons is taking an interview after Lilje's final exam as conductor with the Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra in Leningrad (1980)

Early in 1980, choosing to escape the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Neeme Järvi emigrated to the United States. Lilje, who was in his final postgraduate year in Leningrad, took over all of Järvi’s duties as a conductor for the 1979-80 theatre season with the symphony orchestra as well as in Tallinn’s Concert and Opera House. In May of that same year, he passed the final exams of the Leningrad Conservatoire by leading the Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra in a rendition of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 at the Grand Auditorium of the Leningrad Academic Philharmonia. On the occasion, one of the professors judging the performance, Ilya Mussin, commented, “This is a most demanding piece of work, very difficult to grasp and represent as an entirety. As for Peeter Lilje, Sibelius’ music seems to suit him well. The rendition of Symphony No. 2 by the Estonian Symphony Orchestra was, in my estimation, one of the all-time best interpretations of Sibelius’ work.”

Only months after his graduation, in August 1980, at the unusually young age of 29, Lilje was officially appointed principal conductor of the Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra. Years later, reflecting on his appointment, he commented, “It is a great piece of luck for a conductor to take charge of an orchestra at an early age. For to become a conductor you have to work in front of the orchestra, just like in order to swim you have to plunge into the water. Without the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra, I would not have become the kind of conductor that I am.”

“Of course, the departure of Neeme Järvi presented Peeter with an unexpected opportunity,” Maia Lilje recalls. “The main reason why Järvi decided to leave was that Soviet authorities had always forbidden him to take his wife with him on foreign tours as a conductor. Thirteen years older than Peeter, Järvi had been one of his mentors. He had encouraged him to study in Leningrad. Their relationship always remained collegial and friendly, even though their characters were fundamentally different. By nature, Peeter was much more serious, much more tragic than Neeme Järvi – and his musical preferences reflected those traits. Contrary to Järvi, Peeter never seriously considered escaping the USSR. Our parents and friends all lived here in Estonia, and Peeter was completely immersed in his work with the State Symphony Orchestra.” 

In the course of the 1980s, Lilje and the symphony orchestra performed in over 400 concerts with a wide-ranging repertoire including works by his favourite composers Brahms, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. From the outset, audiences and music critics reacted positively to the young conductor’s approach. Commenting on a rendition of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Helju Tauk wrote in a review, “As always, Peeter Lilje’s conducting was notable for its precision and utmost respect for the original score. It was touching to witness the subtlety and care with which the tiniest of details were brought to the fore and then blended into the general fabric of the piece. (…) The lucidity of concept, the fineness of texture, the brightness of the orchestral sound – these were the cue-words of the remarkable performance that, for everybody present, turned into a wonderful musical gift (…).”

Conducting the Leningrad Philharmonia (1981)

Perhaps even more notably, Lilje also worked on performances with a large number of contemporary Estonian symphonic pieces, which included the premieres of Tamberg’s first three symphonies as well as his oratorio Amores. In 1989, Lilje also conducted the Estonian premiere of the complete oratorio Jonah’s Mission by Rudolf Tobias (1873-1918), an Estonian composer who had spent the latter half of his life in Germany. These performances fitted the pattern of the second half of the 1980s, with central authorities in Moscow having become less strict about patriotic tendencies in the various Soviet republics – and the Baltic states being the most eager to make use of this fledgling cultural freedom.

“In the 1980s, Peeter really worked extremely hard,” his wife Maia remembers. “In fact, it is fair to say that his personal life sometimes suffered as a result of the workload he took on. Looking back on those years now, I understand better and better how he died at such a young age. Very few conductors have managed to build up such a vast and wide-ranging repertoire in their thirties. Peeter did it, but I really wish he had taken better care of his health in those years.”

Another Estonian composer with whom Peeter Lilje had a close involvement was Lepo Sumera. Sumera’s Symphony No. 2, which the composer dedicated to Peeter Lilje personally, premiered under the baton of Lilje himself in 1984. On the second public performance of the piece, music critic Anneli Unt commented, “The orchestral rendition is captivating. The part of the harp, essential to the entire piece, radiates with light and sounds close to perfect. The spirituality of the music works magic on the listener at a very profound level. For all this, the composer, the conductor, and the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra are amply rewarded. It is only on truly exceptional nights like this that one can hear shouts of bravo – from an Estonian audience to Estonian musicians, ignited by Estonian music!”

“Peeter and Lepo Sumera had already been close friends from their student days onwards,” Maia points out. “They were of the same age, but the main driving force of their friendship was their passion for music. Their tastes were similar; both of them loved Mahler, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky; and they would often listen to music by these composers together. Other factors were their shared sense of humour and their serious, perhaps even tragic, outlook on life. Their mutual admiration was huge; Peeter, for his part, never hid his appreciation for Lepo’s compositions.”

Lilje with Mati Kärmas, concertmaster of the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra

Further underlining his closeness to Sumera and this composer’s work, Lilje also conducted the studio sessions of the soundtracks written by Sumera to several Estonian films released in the 1980s, including Lurich, Minooride taga on algus, and Doktor Stockmann. Quirkily, Lilje even played a minor role as an actor in another film, Šlaager by director Peeter Urbla, which premiered at the Tallinnfilm Festival of 1982.

Reflecting the period of glasnost which began when Mikhail Gorbachev took over the leadership of the Soviet Union’s Politburo in 1985, Peeter Lilje and the Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra were given the opportunity to perform away from Estonia as well, with week-long tours across the Soviet Union and even a first international tour in Finland in 1986. Besides, the orchestra performed annually at Leningrad’s Academic Philharmonia until 1986 and were invited to take part in studio sessions for recordings on the Melodija label in Moscow, including Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. It is one of Lilje’s few studio involvements, which he was not particularly fond of. “Playing in the absence of an audience makes for a sterile performance,” he once stated, “because something special, the live electricity, goes missing.” With the symphony orchestra, Lilje took part in performances with many important soloists, including Estonian pianist Kalle Randalu as well as Russian violinists Igor Oistrakh and Maksim Vengerov.

Apart from his involvement with the symphony orchestra, Peeter Lilje continued to perform regularly with the orchestra of the Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Estonian SSR. Having built up a network in Leningrad during his student days in the second half of the 1970s, Lilje also received invitations to perform as a guest conductor with the Leningrad Academic Symphony Orchestra, even going on a European tour with the ensemble and fellow-conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky in 1982 with concerts in Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, and West Germany. 

“The first concert of that tour with Mravinsky and the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra in 1982 was in the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein,” Maia Lilje recalls. “Can you imagine? As a conductor, Peeter was only a baby at the time. The programme included a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the most tragic of his symphonic works. It was very generous of Yevgeny Mravinsky, who was already a legend in his lifetime, to invite Peeter to come along with him and conduct part of those concerts. In fact, it was an incredible opportunity – further underlining Peeter’s good relations with the symphony orchestra in Leningrad. In the end, he conducted more than fifty concerts with this orchestra.”

In a concert with the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra (mid-1980s)

In 1987, Lilje was invited to return to Spain as a guest, conducting a series of concerts with the RTVE Symphony Orchestra, the classical orchestra of the Spanish national broadcasting service. Other stints as a conductor abroad included performances at the Schwerin City Theatre in East Germany and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Peeter Lilje remained a popular guest with classical orchestras in Russia throughout the 1980s, notably being commissioned to conduct a television concert recorded live in the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions in Moscow with the USSR Grand Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Mikhail Petukhov.

Meanwhile, in Estonia, Lilje also occasionally taught masterclasses of choral and orchestral conducting at the Tallinn State Conservatoire in the mid-1980s, with Arvo Volmer, Vello Pähn, and Tarmo Vaask being just three of his protégés who had an impressive career as a conductor subsequently. At the music academy, Lilje also conducted performances with the State Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra. Furthermore, with his own regular symphony orchestra, he worked on countless radio and television programmes for state broadcaster ETV. Esteemed as one of his nation’s outstanding cultural figures, he received the accolades of Merited Artist of the Estonian SSR and People’s Artist of the Estonian SSR in 1981 and 1987 respectively.

By the turn of the decade, the Singing Revolution in the three Baltic countries was in full swing – with Lilje’s friend Lepo Sumera at the forefront as Estonia’s Minister of Cultural Affairs at the time. Lilje, however, chose to leave the country before independence was finally attained in 1991; in 1990, he accepted an offer from Finland to take over the conductorship of the Oulu Symphony Orchestra. Apart from his involvement with the symphony orchestra in Oulu, Lilje also conducted performances at the Oulu City Theatre and he also accepted the invitation to become a regular guest conductor with another Finnish classical orchestra, the Kuopio Symphony Orchestra.

Lilje during a trip abroad, flanked by composer and lifelong friend Lepo Sumera (left) and Enno Mattiisen, artistic director of the Estonia Concert Hall (c. 1987)

When asked about her husband’s career move, Maia Lilje explains, “Of course, we were as happy as everybody else in Estonia about the independence of our country. Finally, we were free! On the other hand, Peeter’s ties to the best Russian orchestras were lost in the course of the revolution, with the exception of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Our pop musicians, like Jaak Joala, had the same problem; suddenly, the vast hinterland of the rest of the Soviet Union was gone. They were no longer asked for guest performances in Russia. As you can understand, in that sense – from an artistic point of view, the political developments weren’t that positive. Most importantly, all invitations to perform with orchestras in other parts of the world had always been through central authorities in Moscow. All of those opportunities now belonged to the past.”

“That’s why Peeter chose to temporarily move to Finland, when the opportunity presented itself. His years in Oulu were a happy time, which almost felt as sabbatical years after the intense decade he had gone through with the State Symphony Orchestra in Tallinn. The mountains of Northern Finland offered him the opportunity to devote time to his favourite sport, slalom skiing… and he also had more time for us, for his children. Having said that, Peeter didn’t cut his ties with Estonia. He regularly travelled back to Tallinn to perform in the theatre as well as with the symphony orchestra.”

In fact, Lilje’s last performance with the ensemble was on September 17, 1993, mere weeks before his passing. Also in 1993, he undertook a second international tour with the St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, this time teaming up with Mariss Jansons and Yuri Temirkanov as his fellow conductors and doing concerts in the United Kingdom, Germany, and France.

Completely unexpectedly, Peeter Lilje passed away in Oulu in October 1993, aged just 43, leaving behind his wife and children. “In a way, it was symbolic that his last foreign concert was at the Palace of Versailles,” Maia Lilje reflects, “because there he performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the same piece which had been his international debut in Vienna eleven years before – and a piece which so much reflects his melancholy character. You could say it was the closing of a circle. Something which had started so beautifully, ended in the same, wonderful way. On the other hand, life still had so much in store for him. One week after his passing, he was due to sign a new contract as chief conductor at the Estonia Theatre in Tallinn. Also internationally, his career had only just begun. He could have been a star just as much as Neeme Järvi, if political developments had gone his way rather than against him.”

Studying a score (c. 1990)

When asked to describe how she thinks back of her husband, Maia concludes, “Peeter was one of the best conductors our country has had, but there was more to him than just the arts and the stage. In his free time, was an avid sportsman and someone who loved spending his time in nature, going fishing and collecting mushrooms in the summer season. By character, he was an earnest man, sometimes short-tempered, but he had an excellent sense of humour to make up for that and he loved telling and listening to anecdotes in the company of family and friends.”

In the latter stages of his life, Peeter Lilje explained that he had adapted his way of preparing concerts markedly, “I used to listen to a lot of different recordings, renditions. Now I don’t have enough time to listen as much. But lately, especially these last summers, I have left my tape recorder behind on purpose. I’ve leafed through scores and have turned more towards my inner ear.”

After the interregnum of German conductor Leo Krämer, the chief conductorship of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra was taken over by Lilje’s former protégé Arvo Volmer, who also succeeded him at the helm of the Oulu Symphony Orchestra in Finland. 

Upon Lilje’s passing, Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur set about composing a thirty-minute Requiem for him, which was released by ECM Records in 1996 on an album recorded by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Tõnu Kaljuste. Further cementing Lilje’s legacy as one of the towering figures in his country’s cultural life in the second half of the twentieth century, the Estonian National Culture Foundation set up a separate Peeter Lilje Foundation in 1998, which is dedicated to the promotion of classical music in Estonia in general.

After a concert (1992)


In 1993, Peeter Lilje was the conductor of ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’, performed by Janika Sillamaa, Estonia’s first attempt to reach the Eurovision stage. That year a semi-final was held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the so-called Kvalifikacija za Millstreet, to determine which three of seven aspiring Eurovision states would be allowed to take part in the international final in Millstreet. The Estonian entry failed to qualify from the competition. Given that he was a classical conductor, Lilje was an unlikely choice as a conductor for this event. We dug into the story of Estonia’s first Eurovision participation a little deeper before attempting to answer the question why Lilje conducted the song in Ljubljana.

In the early 1990s, the political situation in Europe changed rapidly and profoundly, as the former Communist Bloc crumbled and the Soviet Union fell apart in a matter of months. Many of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe had applied for European Broadcasting Union (EBU) membership and were eager to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993. This posed a challenge to the organisation, as it was deemed the concert could not cope with more than 25 participants; in fact, the maximum that had taken part in one contest was 23, in the 1992 edition in Malmö.
With an initial number of twelve new candidate countries presenting itself, it was decided upon to hold a semi-final for new Eurovision countries, the best three of which would qualify for the international final in Millstreet, Ireland, along with the previous year’s participants – except for Yugoslavia, which dropped out. In the end, with the semi-final being announced at a very late stage, only seven countries managed to come up with a song for the competition, due to be held in Ljubljana in the newly independent state of Slovenia. Estonia was one of the candidates – in fact the only former Soviet republic to submit an entry for the contest that year. Apart from Slovenia itself, the other countries taking part were Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Romania.

In Estonia, music promotor Jüri Makarov had been instrumental in bringing about the country’s first Eurovision participation. When the news came through that Estonia would have the chance to qualify for Eurovision 1993, state broadcaster ETV decided to approach the very young singer, who at the time was performing in the Estonian production of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. “The performance took place in the Tallinn City Hall,” Janika recalls. “I was a 17-year-old Mary Magdalene. The only thing I remember is that, at one point, I just rushed into the wardrobe, where my manager Jaak Joala was waiting with Jüri Makarov. They said there was no time for doubt or second thoughts. They didn’t want to go look for somebody else and everything had to be done that same month. I had been singing all my life, but I was very young and then I was told that I’d have to sing a song in a very important and scary place.”

Incredibly, given the short notice, all seven participating countries organised a national final to determine which song would be submitted to the semi-final in Ljubljana. In Estonia, Janika performed a total of eight songs in a live television broadcast, in which she was accompanied by a combo of six musicians. Lilje was not involved in any way in this Estonian final, for which the band arrangements were penned by several arrangers, including Ain Tammesson, Tõnis Kõrvits, and Urmas Lattikas, who was the pianist of the Estonian Radio Orchestra at the time. The winning ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’, a composition by Andres Valkonen with lyrics by Leelo Tungal, was in fact co-arranged by Lattikas and Kõrvits.

Janika with her mentor and producer Jaak Joala during rehearsals of Estonia's first Eurovision pre-selection, held in the ETV Studios in Tallinn (February 1993)

When we ask Urmas Lattikas about his involvement as an arranger in the 1993 final, his first reaction is one of disbelief. “No, I didn’t do that… I’m pretty sure that Tõnis Kõrvits was the arranger.” To clarify the matter, he immediately called Kõrvits, who confirmed our research. “Tõnis says that the band arrangement (used in the Estonian final – BT) was done by me, including the programming and the playing in the studio, while he added the strings to ‘Muretut meelt’ when it had been confirmed as the winner of the selection. Thinking back on it, this was the time when the Estonian broadcasting company had got hold of a Korg 31, which was a synthesiser – not the earliest one, but certainly a more sophisticated one than we had had in Estonia previously. Digging into my memory, I seem to remember that I made some sequences on this new synthesiser and used those sounds for the band arrangements. It was all very modern for that era and record producers liked it a lot. Of course I incorporated my knowledge of classical orchestration into those arrangements. I wrote a lot of orchestral arrangements for the radio orchestra at that time as well.”

“I am not sure who asked me to work on ‘Muretut meelt’,” Lattikas continues. “Probably Estonian television simply asked me and the other arrangers involved to write those eight arrangements quickly, but it may also have been Andres Valkonen himself who approached me. A couple of years previously, Andres had asked me to work with him on the soundtrack of the film Nõid, for which we shared the credits. He was a little older than me and certainly more established as a composer, so it was quite an honour that he wanted me to help him. No matter if it was Andres or a broadcasting official who asked me for the Eurovision project, I saw no reason to turn it down. ‘Muretut meelt’ is quite a good song actually; not as primitive as most Estonian pop music at that time.”

When asked why Tõnis Kõrvits rather than himself added the string and brass arrangement for Ljubljana once ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’ had been picked, Lattikas comments, “At that time, I was the guy who took care of the synthesisers. That was my speciality, so to speak. Of course I could have done those strings myself, but I wasn’t asked. There may have been a bit of a hurry involved – and Tõnis was one of the main arrangers of the radio orchestra at the time. He knew what he was doing and did a good job on them. Moreover, he had also worked on the arrangement of this song for the Estonian final already. It really was a joint venture between him and me.”

As it turns out, the jury voting the winner in the Estonian final had nearly chosen another Valkonen composition, ‘Lootus’, which had been arranged by Ain Tammesson. In an unofficial audience vote, held by a radio station prior to the competition, ‘Lootus’ had been the winner. The jury were about to cast their vote in a similar way, when Janika’s manager intervened, as former Estonian Eurovision commentator Olavi Pihlamägi recalls. “At the last moment, there was one person who said that I have a feeling that ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’ might still be a little better suited for this international competition, and that man was Jaak Joala. He had no reason to be biased in his opinion on one song or the other. Moreover, he was the person who helped Janika rehearse her performances at the time, so who would be better qualified than him to pass judgement?”

Janika during rehearsals of Estonia's first Eurovision pre-selection, held in the ETV Studios in Tallinn (February 1993)

Janika herself agreed with her manager’s opinion. “To my mind, ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’ was the best song. There were rumours at the time that I had purposely given the other songs a below-par performance to make sure that ‘Muretut meelt’ was picked, but there’s no truth in that. What is more, despite the temporary popularity of some of the other competing songs, ‘Muretut meelt’ is the only title that has endured in audiences’ memories until the present day. It certainly has been the most successful of the eight songs. What could be better proof than this? It was made even better by the orchestral arrangement, which was perhaps a little old-fashioned, but very beautiful. In my book, this nostalgic touch was a bonus, because I wasn’t a fan of 90s music at that time – and I am still of the same opinion today.”

When we ask Janika why Peeter Lilje was sent along to Ljubljana as her conductor, she replies, “Remember that I was only seventeen back then. My team didn’t discuss such questions with me. I didn’t even have a chance to say a word about my outfit or to whom I should give an interview. All of that was taken care of on my behalf. Still, I could make a guess. Tõnis Kõrvits and Urmas are both exceptional musicians and very good arrangers, but neither of them was established as a conductor at the time. Arranging and conducting are two different things, after all. Peeter Lilje was one of the best conductors available in Estonia at the time. As far as I know, my producer Jaak Joala took that decision alone and nobody ever uttered a word of hesitation about it. His choice wasn’t commented on either prior to our trip to Ljubljana or afterwards.”

Like Janika, Urmas Lattikas cannot more than guess at the reason Lilje conducted the song in Ljubljana, but his theory largely confirms hers. “Peeter was a very famous conductor – our number one conductor in Estonia at the time. Looking back, Tõnis Kõrvits or Peeter Saul, who was the main conductor of the Estonian Radio Orchestra, would perhaps have been a logical choice, given that Peeter Lilje never worked with the radio orchestra… at least as far as I remember. I was never considered an option. Heiki Vahar, the principal violinist in the radio orchestra, was also starting to establish himself as a conductor, but he didn’t have that much experience yet. But I can understand the reasoning behind the choice for Lilje. Given that we took part in this big international competition for the first time, Estonian television wanted to make sure that the best powers available in our country would work on our effort. They wanted to get the maximum result, so you then pick the best conductor available. I knew Peeter – not as a friend, but the Estonian music world is small, so everyone knows everyone. He was a remarkable musician who mainly worked in classical music, but had an open eye to other genres as well.”

Eventually, we also got in touch with Peeter Lilje’s widow, Maia, who remembers the Slovenian episode well, in spite of her not joining the Estonian delegation in Ljubljana. “Peeter had already been friends with Jaak Joala since his student days in Tartu. They were the same age – and in the 1970s, Peeter even wrote some arrangements for Jaak as well as sharing the stage with him on a couple of occasions. Also after Peeter became conductor of the national symphony orchestra, they remained comrades. When Janika was chosen to represent Estonia, Jaak simply thought of Peeter as his first choice as a conductor and so he asked him if he could help him out in Slovenia. As it happened, those few days in Ljubljana just fitted into Peeter’s schedule, so he saw no reason to refuse. ‘Muretut meelt’ was a pretty little song and fitted Janika very well. Besides, conducting a song of three minutes hardly required preparation. This was not one of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies! Of course he realised this was an important event for Janika as well as Estonia as a whole, but to Peeter personally this was little more than a nice holiday trip in the company of his good friend Jaak.”

Janika with her mentor and producer Jaak Joala during rehearsals of Estonia's first Eurovision pre-selection, held in the ETV Studios in Tallinn (February 1993)

Although her opinion had never been asked for, Janika Sillamaa was happy to have Peeter Lilje at her side in Slovenia. “Our family had a great connection with Peeter. He was a very good friend of my father’s. I knew Peeter since I was a little girl, because my father was the concertmaster of the orchestra in our National Opera Theatre. When nobody else was home, my father took me with him to the rehearsals. I remember there were three main conductors in the opera – Peeter Lilje, Vello Pähn, and Paul Mägi. If there was a break in between rehearsals, they played chess with one another, sometimes even asking me to play along. Most of the time, the loser of a chess match was given the ‘penalty’ of having to play with me. As a kid from kindergarten or even later, in elementary school, I probably wasn’t the most inspiring partner for a game of chess. When I think back to Peeter Lilje, he was always really supportive of me – when we were playing chess, but also in Ljubljana. Considering how badly the organisation of the event in Slovenia was done, I was very happy to have Peeter around. He was a big support in the mess that was going on around us.”

“Our delegation in Slovenia consisted just of me and a bunch of men,” Janika continues. “My mother (lyricist and music pedagogue Kaari Sillamaa – BT) didn’t join us. Initially, there was just executive producer Jüri Makarov, my producer and manager Jaak Joala, and of course Peeter Lilje. On the day of the concert, a small delegation of our national broadcaster joined; Jüri Pihel, Leo Karpin, and commentator Olavi Pihlamägi.”

Working on a shoestring budget, Estonia’s television service decided that the composer and lyricist of the song, Andres Valkonen and Leelo Tungal, had to stay behind in Tallinn. Eventually, the project ended in disappointment; in the voting, Estonia was one of the countries which was eliminated. The tickets for Millstreet went to the entries from the three former Yugoslav republics, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia. Estonia finished in fifth place, just a handful of points adrift. “I cried, as teenagers do in such a situation,” Janika recalls. “I think that I would have cried if I had qualified too. Jaak Joala was a bit upset for some time, but a couple of hours later it was accepted as a fact of life. Given my age, naturally I was the person who had the hardest time coping with the situation. The team was supportive of me – and everyone had some kind words for me. Peeter also uttered some words of consolation, but I don’t remember exactly what he said.”

When asked, commentator Olavi Pihlamägi recalled the main reason why Jaak Joala was so unhappy with what happened in Ljubljana. “The former Yugoslavian countries which qualified all performed their entry to a backing track with pre-recorded bass lines and rhythm elements, with the string section of the orchestra playing along to that. Janika gave it her all and she was not to blame in any way, but it was a problem that we had to work completely live. The sound of our song was less convincing as a result.”

The Estonian delegation in Ljubljana, from left - Janika Sillamaa, Peeter Lilje, Jaak Joala, and commentator Olavi Pihlamägi

Watching the broadcast of the semi-final in Ljubljana, it is certainly true that the Bosnian and Slovenian songs were performed to a backing track, but so was Slovakia’s entry ‘Amnestia na neveru’, which failed to qualify. Croatia’s song ‘Don’t Ever Cry’ probably had a backing track with the percussion on it as well, even though contest rules at the time stated that there should have been a percussionist on stage miming the drums, which there wasn’t. To cut a long story short, Estonia’s broadcaster could have chosen to work with a backing track as well, if the choice had been made to do so.

Taking a look at the video of Janika Sillamaa’s performance in Ljubljana now, Urmas Lattikas comments, “Janika perhaps also lacked the confidence which she later developed as a stage performer. But one can understand why she was so insecure; after all, it was the first time our country took part in Eurovision. She must have felt the pressure. There was something else too… we in Estonia didn’t know that much about Eurovision traditions yet. Perhaps our song was a little bit too refined for a music competition like this. Just like ‘Nagu merelaine’ (Estonia’s entry in 1994, conducted by Lattikas himself – BT), ‘Muretut meelt’ was a pure song in the context of the contest – a virgin song, if you like. Maybe it was a little too much music and not enough show. Later on, we learnt that the Eurovision Song Contest requires working from a model which is as simple as possible. Fortunately, Janika’s career didn’t suffer after the result in Ljubljana. She was quite successful and I have had the pleasure of working with her regularly in subsequent years.”

Peeter Lilje’s widow Maia recalls her husband felt the disappointment of the elimination in Ljubljana: “Of course he felt it, he was part of the team around Janika – and he was there to help her. To Peeter, though, this was just a small story, eine kleine Geschichte. For Janika, it must have been very hard. She was a student in my music history class; a curious and confident young lady, and a good singer. It would have been nice if she had qualified for the Eurovision Song Contest in Ireland. I doubt if Peeter could have come with her, though. In the spring of 1993, he had a demanding schedule with concerts in Estonia, but also in Finland, St Petersburg, and in London. A week in Ireland probably could not have been fitted into his agenda. Ultimately, he didn’t have time to dwell on the result in Slovenia, simply because the next concert was due so soon after.”

Concluding this story of Estonia’s first attempt to reach the Eurovision stage, Janika herself explains that she prefers to look forward rather than backwards. “All of this is a long time ago and I’ve done so many other things since. There’s not much point in dwelling too long on all of this Euro-nostalgia. To be honest, my most lasting memory is that the trip to Ljubljana was my first time in an aeroplane. I was really nervous. Looking down from the window, I saw mountains, something I had never seen in my life before. It was a wonderful sight to behold. It all passed like a dream. For that reason, I dare not speculate if we had done better with either Urmas or Tõnis conducting the orchestra. Peeter just simply was a great conductor. His untimely death was a tragic loss.”

Jaanika's album, released in 1993 and containing several of the songs performed in the Estonian Eurovision pre-selection, including 'Muretut meelt ja südametuld' and runner-up 'Lootus', both composed by Andres Valkonen


Arvo Volmer, an Estonian conductor of a younger generation, comments, “I first got to know Peeter Lilje at the Estonian State Conservatoire in the mid-1980s; he wasn’t a professor there, but he was in charge of the conservatoire's symphony orchestra and there were several young conductors seeking his advice over a longer period, myself included. I know that he was an excellent jazz pianist before shifting fully to conducting. Me being his successor in Oulu was a sheer coincidence, I was a young conductor looking for an orchestra and Oulu provided me with an excellent platform to experiment and develop my ideas as a conductor. Lilje was a rather closed person, rarely showing his inner thoughts, but when he did warm up, it was a moment to appreciate. He was well respected and loved by many musicians. His professionalism was highly regarded. I respected him very much. His untimely passing was a heavy blow to me personally as well as to many others.” (2023)


Country – Estonia
Song title – “Muretut meelt ja südametuld”
Rendition – Janika Sillamaa
Lyrics – Leelo Tungal
Composition – Andres Valkonen
Studio arrangement – Urmas Lattikas
Live orchestration – Tõnis Kõrvits
Conductor semi-final – Peeter Lilje
Score semi-final – 5th place (47 votes) & DNQ

  • Bas Tukker did an interview and exchanged several emails with Peeter Lilje’s widow Maia, a music history teacher (November-December 2023), who also put at my disposal several valuable written sources. Thanks to Arvo Volmer for putting me in touch with Mrs Lilje
  • In the summer of 2023, Bas Tukker interviewed arranger Urmas Lattikas, and had an email exchange with vocalist Janika Sillamaa, about Estonia’s botched attempt to reach the stage of the international Eurovision final in Millstreet in 1993
  • Many thanks to Arvo Volmer, an Estonian conductor who succeeded Peeter Lilje at the helm of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra as well as the Oulu Symphony Orchestra, for his additional comments (email exchange, October 2023)
  • Thanks to Leelo Tungal, lyricist of ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’, for adding two snippets of information which have been included in the article
  • The biographical information of Peeter Lilje was retrieved from various online sources, most notably the website of the Estonian Music Information Centre (EMIC)
  • An interview with Janika Sillamaa and Estonian journalist Olavi Pihlamägi about the 1993 Kvalifikacija za Millstreet experience by ERR’s Rutt Ernits (2018)
  • A playlist of Peeter Lilje’s music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link
  • Photos courtesy of Maia Lilje and Janika Sillamaa
  • Thanks to Mark Coupar for proofreading the manuscript of this article


Born: February 28th, 1939, Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina (Yugoslavia)
Died: December 4th, 2016, Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Nationality: Bosnian

In due course, the short impression below will be replaced with a more extensive career overview

In the 1960s, Esad Arnautalić worked as a producer and arranger for RTV Sarajevo, the Bosnian branch of the Yugoslav national broadcaster. As such, he invented the formula of the popular annual Vaš Šlager Sezone music contest, which was first staged in 1967. He worked as a composer and arranger with many of Yugoslavia’s most well-known artists, including Pro Arte, Krunoslav Slabinac, Radojka Šverko and Kemal Monteno. Several of his compositions participated in music competitions, including the Split Festival and, of course, Vaš Šlager Sezone. Later onwards, Arnautalić substituted Radivoje Spasić as the conductor of the RTV Sarajevo Orchestra.


In the 1970s, on two occasions, the Yugoslavian Eurovision pre-selections were won by artists from Bosnia-Herzegovina: Zdravko Čolić with ‘Gori vatra’ (1973) and Ambasadori with ‘Ne mogu skriti svoju bol’ (1976). On both occasions, Esad Arnautalić accompanied the representatives to the international festival, staged in Luxembourg and The Hague respectively, as their conductor. 

In 1993, Arnautalić made a surprise return to the contest, conducting the first ever Bosnian Eurovision entry, ‘Sva bol svijeta’, in the Eastern European pre-selection (organized for the new EBU member states in Central and Eastern Europe), staged in Ljubljana. The aforementioned song, performed by the group Fazla, succeeded in qualifying for the international Eurovision finals in Millstreet (Ireland). There, however, the Bosnian entry was conducted by host MD Noel Kelehan.


Country – Yugoslavia
Song title – "Gori vatra"
Rendition – Zdravko Čolić
Lyrics – Kemal Monteno
Composition – Kemal Monteno
Studio arrangement – Ranko Rihtman 
(Revijski Orkestar RTV Sarajevo conducted by Esad Arnautalić)
Live orchestration – Ranko Rihtman
Conductor – Esad Arnautalić
Score – 15th place (65 votes)

Country – Yugoslavia
Song title – "Ne mogu skriti svoju bol"
Rendition – Ambasadori 
(= Ismeta Krvavac / Slobodan Vujović / Andrej Stefanović / Krešimir Vlašić / Miroslav Šaranović / Enes Bajramović)
Lyrics – Slobodan Đurašović
Composition – Slobodan Vujović
Studio arrangement – Slobodan Vujović
(Revijski Orkestar RTV Sarajevo conducted by Esad Arnautalić)
Live orchestration – Slobodan Vujović
Conductor – Esad Arnautalić
Score – 17th place (10 votes)

Country – Bosnia & Herzegovina
Song title – "Sva bol svijeta"
Rendition – Fazla (= Amir Bjelanović / Muhamed Fazlagić / Erliha Hadzović / Izudin Kolečić / Enver Milisić / Edina Salkanović)
Lyrics – Fahrudin Pecikoza
Composition – Dino Dervišhalidović (Dino Merlin)
Studio arrangement – Sinan Alimanović / Dino Dervišhalidović
Live orchestration – Sinan Alimanović / Dino Dervišhalidović
Conductor semi-final – Esad Arnautalić
Conductor final – Noel Kelehan (MD)
Score semi-final – 2nd place (52 votes) & qualified
Score final – 16th place (27 votes)