Saturday 30 April 1994


The following article is an overview of the career of Estonian pianist, composer, and arranger Urmas Lattikas. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Lattikas, conducted by Bas Tukker in August 2023. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Urmas Lattikas' 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 Urmas Lattikas
6. Eurovision involvement year by year
7. Sources & links


Born: August 17th, 1960, Tapa, Estonia (Soviet Union)
Nationality: Estonian


Urmas Lattikas played a vital role in Estonia’s first steps on the Eurovision stage. In 1993, working with fellow-arranger Tõnis Kõrvits, he wrote the orchestration to ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’; this song was performed by Janika Sillamaa in the qualification round in Ljubljana for aspiring Eurovision nations from the middle and east of Europe, but, sadly, it did not qualify for the festival final in Millstreet. One year later, in 1994, Lattikas arranged Estonia’s first entry which reached the Eurovision stage, ‘Nagu merelaine’ by Silvi Vrait. In the international festival held in Dublin, Lattikas also got to conduct the orchestra for Vrait’s performance.


Urmas Lattikas was born in Tapa, an inland town in what was then the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. His father worked as a logistics manager in a transport company. “Although he was never a professional musician, my father was very musical,” Lattikas comments. “He played the violin pretty well and played the baritone horn in the fire brigade brass orchestra. Away from that, he also sang in a male choir. My mother was a good singer as well, so you could say that the music gene was passed on to me by both of my parents.”

“There was a piano in the house. As a child, before I could read or do anything, I remember listening to the radio and being fascinated by the melody of a song. I tried to play it by ear, on the piano. It probably wasn’t very good, but it was clear the love for music was there from the beginning. When I was seven years old, I started taking piano lessons at the local music school, Tapa Lastemuusikakool. The first three or four years were nice, but after that I lost my focus a bit. At that point, my father became very strict with me, explaining how important it was to finish the music school education – which I did, without much enthusiasm. As a child, I was kind of a free soul. Perhaps the music lessons I got were a bit too systematic for my taste.”

“By the time I was fourteen, I had quit taking music lessons for about a year. I was happy to rest on my laurels and I hardly ever touched the piano in that period. I wasn’t too sure about my talents. In the course of that year, though, the desire to play music crept back into my soul. I realised that I was more connected to the piano than I had imagined earlier on. Something was missing in my life. I decided to go back to taking lessons. A woman from the conservatoire in Tallinn came down to Tapa to teach private lessons – and I became one of her students. She was a very good pianist and an excellent teacher as well. I immersed myself in the works of Liszt and Chopin and so many others… and I absolutely loved it. From that time on, I knew I was a musician at heart. I had never had a strong vision of what I wanted to do in my life, but in hindsight I would say music was the only path open to me. From that point, there was no way back for me. I wanted to go to the music academy.”

Urmas as a 14-year-old, playing Johann Strauss 'Blue Danube Waltz' on the piano at his sister's wedding party (1974)

“The only place to go to in Estonia was the Tallinn State Conservatoire. I moved there in 1977, when I had finished my regular secondary school in Tapa. Because the only diploma I could show was for my lessons at the children’s music school, there was just one option open for me; to study to become a music teacher – so that’s what I did, although I realised that I didn’t want to be a teacher. Initially, I lived in a dormitory in Tallinn. Conditions were pretty basic, but there was a fruitful exchange of music records going on between the students living there. This was very important for my development as a musician, because this allowed me to discover music from the West. Somebody gave me an LP by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, somebody else had an album by Chick Corea… and we borrowed those records, taping them on tape rolls for our own use.”

“This wasn’t my very first encounter with western popular music, because my older brother Jaan, who had moved to Tallinn to study at university before me, had already brought me tapes with music by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and many others. In my early student days, my interest started gravitating towards fusion and funk – Yellowjackets, Focus… and then on to Chick Corea and real jazz stuff. That was the world of jazz which slowly opened up for me, and it was a huge joy to discover what this world looked like. All of this was music which you never heard on the radio in Estonia or elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but still the records were available in this sort of sharing way. There was a rich black market of music from the West in Tallinn. Sailors brought LPs which they had bought abroad. Some people had relations in Finland or Sweden who sent them records… and all of this was taped onto cassettes for everyone who was interested in buying it.”

“Almost immediately after settling in Tallinn, I started playing the piano in some restaurants, which made for some valuable extra pocket money. Quite soon, I became involved as a pianist in a pop group called Singel. It was founded by Raul Sepper, a bass player and singer who had previously been in another band, Vitamiin. Singel was quite a sophisticated group of musicians, although the music we played at the outset was mostly rather simple. The main part of our repertoire consisted of covers of pop songs from abroad… anything we could find, really; songs by Tomas Ledin, for example, a Swedish singer. We performed quite a lot; at least one gig per week. Our rehearsal room was a hall in a big factory – and we spent quite some time rehearsing there to get our performances right.”

Urmas (second from left) as a sixteen-year-old on a school trip at Leningrad's Winter Palace (1976)

“I was the youngest in the group. Playing with the other guys helped me to gain a lot of experience as a performing musician. Following my own musical preferences, I managed to slowly develop the band in a jazzy direction. I wrote my first instrumental jazz tracks for Singel in those early years. For me personally, that was quite a breakthrough. Those Chick Corea records had fascinated me from the start, but at the outset the problem was how to produce that type of music myself. Singel gave me an outlet to experiment as much as I wanted. The others were also keen to give it a try, so we just did it. We were quite popular in those days, especially Raul, who was and still is a guy everybody in Estonia knows. We even released a couple of records. In all, the band lasted for about four of five years – and I would say it was quite an important part in my musical upbringing.”

“After three years, I quit my music teaching course at the State Conservatoire. By then, even more than before, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to be a teacher. I tried it, but it was not something that I aspired to or was particularly good at. Given that I had started writing melodies for Singel, my interest had gravitated towards composing and being a creative musician. Therefore, after abandoning the teaching course, I decided to continue my studies, focusing on composition from now on. My main teacher in this second phase at the academy was Eino Tamberg. His lessons were purely classical, but he was open-minded towards other types of music – even emphasising the importance of other arts as a source of inspiration. All my teachers knew I was playing in a pop group – and all of them were perfectly ok with that.”

“Tamberg was a big influence on me. When attending his classes, it felt like getting advice from an elderly colleague more than being lectured by a professor. He taught me a lot… how to read those big scores, how to develop my writing. He was simply a very good teacher. Given my interest in jazz, Tamberg’s classical lessons were a perfect counterweight, allowing me to get a deeper understanding of the broad music picture. Generally speaking, I’ve never been that keen to think in terms of genres… classical, jazz, or pop, I prefer to value any music on its merits. There isn’t a strict line dividing serious music from jazz. My aim has always been to get the best of both worlds.”

Estonian pop group Singel, c. 1980 - from left to right: Raul Sepper, Urmas Laht, Urmas Lattikas, Andres Hion, and Ain Agan

“When Singel broke up, I switched to the orchestra of the Viru Hotel, which was the only hotel in Tallinn where foreign guests were staying – in fact, only foreigners were allowed to stay at that place. It had been built by a Finnish company. The band there was pretty large; some sort of a big band. It was called the Viru Variety Orchestra. The most special thing about working at the Viru Hotel was that you had to get your documents checked every night if you wanted to get in. Other locals weren’t allowed in. It was as if you left Estonia and got back into the country night after night!”

“Some time in 1981 or 1982, the Viru band was invited to perform three or four concerts in Finland. That was exciting; I had never been abroad in my life. I distinctly remember the moment when I first saw the skyline of Helsinki as the ferry approached the Finnish shore. My first glimpse of the free world! In fact, my girlfriend at the time - my future wife - was afraid that I would escape and never come back to Estonia, but I had told her not to worry. I never had those types of plans. Somehow, I didn’t feel the urge. As I saw it, the thaw was already happening. The break-up of the Soviet Union was going to happen sooner or later. You could just feel it happening as the 1980s progressed. So we just did those concerts with the Viru band and of course I took the opportunity to buy a serious amount of albums in a record shop… including an LP by Oscar Peterson! It surely was an exciting trip.”

“In 1982, I formed my jazz quintet. By that time, I had built up some sort of a reputation as a pianist and I was looking for a new outlet for my compositions. I wanted to have the best musicians I could get. One of them was Ain Agan, who had been the guitarist in Singel. The drummer, Mati Põllu, came from the Viru Variety Orchestra. The bass player, Raul Vaigla, was from a band called Radar. Tauno Saviauk played the flute. I was very proud to have this excellent group of musicians together around me – and they were all keen to play jazz. We were allowed to rehearse at the Viru Hotel, which was a big plus as all the equipment we needed was there. Almost the entire repertoire consisted of my compositions, although Ain Agan also wrote some pieces now and then. We didn’t play covers – or just in rehearsals, for educational purposes. At the start, the quintet was a way for all five of us to learn and play together. Our style was quite harmonic; I’ve never been that much into free jazz. What we played could perhaps best be described as mainstream and melodious. In the course of time, the set-up of the band changed several times. There was a trumpet player, Priit Aimla, and after him came Raivo Tafenau on tenor sax and Ain Varts on guitar. Another great player who joined later was drummer Toomas Rull.”

As a student, early 1980s

“In 1983, our jazz band took part in a music competition organised by the Georg Ots Music School in Tallinn. It was a contest between composers, each submitting their own creation and performing it with the musicians of their choice. It was called the Uno Naissoo Composition Contest – and we won the 1983 edition, incidentally the first time the competition was held, and went on to do it a second time running in 1984. The Uno Naissoo event was and still is quite important for young and aspiring bands. It offered a platform; and, at the time, we were young and innovative. For my quintet, this really was the big break. Following that, we had the opportunity to perform all over Estonia, especially in the summer season, when jazz festivals were held across the country. Lots of people attended. Through the year, our hangout place became the Valguse Bar, one of the first jazz cafés in Tallinn, which opened its doors around that same time.”

“By this time, the attitude of Soviet authorities to pop and jazz music had mellowed to the point that you could almost play anything without any restrictions. We were also given permission to travel abroad, performing with our quintet in Finland and even in West Berlin before the Wall came down. The only way to get yourself in trouble as a musician in Estonia was if the lyrics of your songs were deemed improper or going against communist ideology. I remember a band called Propeller giving a big stadium concert in Tallinn which got the crowd all fired up, after which they weren’t given permission to perform any longer. But for a harmless pop group like Singel there were no issues – and even less so for my jazz quintet, given that all of our music was instrumental! There were no lyrics to worry about.”

“My graduation from the Tallinn State Conservatoire was in 1986, but by then I was already fully immersed in the Estonian music scene. In the following years, I continued to perform with my quintet. Other than that, I wrote music for the theatre and played as a piano accompanist in several stage productions as well. My compositions from those days included a children’s musical, Towards The Stars, for which the script was written by Madis Tross. I composed three or four pieces for the Estonian Radio Orchestra and even co-wrote a film soundtrack. It was a short film called Nõid, for which I worked with an older composer, Andres Valkonen. In fact, Andres invited me to work with him, making it a joint production. I also worked as a session player quite a lot. These were the years when I discovered synths. The first synthesiser I worked with was a Roland Jupiter-8. I thought it was an amazing invention. In fact, for Towards The Stars, I recorded the entire orchestral score with synthesisers; that Roland machine and also the Prophet 5. It sounds pretty funny when you listen to it now, but in those days it was a music revolution.”

The Urmas Lattikas Quintet, early 1990s - from left to right: Raivo Tafenau, Raul Vaigla, Urmas Lattikas, Toomas Rull, and Ain Varts

“In 1990, a special music competition was organised in Estonia. You had to submit a demo with an original arrangement – and the best one would win a free summer course at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Some 140 demos came in, and the best forty were sent to Boston to be judged there… and, to my astonishment, my entry was chosen as the winner. So the scholarship was mine! It was thrilling. I remember the emotions when I heard the news. Every newspaper wanted to have an interview with me. Obviously, I was happy, but it also was rather frightening. This was something different than crossing the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. This was over the Atlantic! At that point, I didn’t speak a word of English. To make up for that, I took an intensive course at a language school, which was very helpful.”

“My stay in Berklee lasted some five months, from May to October 1990. As it happened, upon arrival, I happened to meet the only other Estonian – the very first musician from my country to go to Berklee – in the lobby of the school, Tõnu Naissoo. He was a regular student there. My piano teacher was James Williams, but I also took courses in harmony, arranging, and music history. Given that I had been trained so thoroughly back at the music academy in Tallinn, I can’t say that I learnt many new things, although the focus on big band orchestration in Berklee was very useful when I started writing larger orchestral arrangements later on.”

“The main thing about my stay in Boston was the jazz culture in which you were immersed. You could just walk in the street and from a bar you could hear somebody playing exactly in the style of McCoy Tyner – and when you walked in, it turned out it was McCoy Tyner himself! I also did some gigs here and there in the summer months… in fact, I even shared the stage with Bob Moses once! At another summer festival, I met Pat Metheny, who was astonished to hear that I had attended a concert of his in Leningrad years before. There were the beginnings of a network which started to develop; I could have stayed there and made a living as a pianist, but I didn’t want that. I was terribly homesick! It was in Boston that I found out that I am rooted in Estonia. It’s hard to tell why exactly, but my place is here in Tallinn. Still, I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity to come to Boston. The spirit of the place was incredible. My outlook on music was broadened considerably that summer.”

Released as a cassette only - Urmas Lattikas' first quintet album 'Freedom To Love, Freedom To Lose' (1992)

“In the year following my stay in Boston, the Singing Revolution happened and Estonia won its independence, together with Lithuania and Latvia. In Lithuania, some people lost their lives in the course of events, but in Latvia and Estonia there was no bloodshed at all. We were very lucky that the Russians were so weak at the time. To people in the West, our breakaway from the Soviet Union may have come as a big surprise, but it had been in the pipeline for years. Of course I am very proud that music played such a big role in liberating the country. It just shows what powerful weapons singing and music can be. I remember one night, after I had performed with the Viru Variety Orchestra, me and the other band members went up to Toompea Hill in the heart of Tallinn to play national songs for our compatriots who had gathered there. We weren’t used to playing folk songs at all, but at that time nobody asked if you were specialised in jazz or classical or folk music. We just played because we felt we could bring about a revolution.”

“When thinking back to the revolution in the summer of 1991, so many images spring to mind. The whole period was one big event – history in the making. The stand-out memory? Well, there was one occasion, in May 1990, just before I left for Berklee, when we had heard on the radio that pro-Moscow forces were about to attack Toompea Hill. As fast as we could, everybody in Tallinn got onto the streets to defend the hill… and so did I. Of course, I didn’t have a weapon, so I took the thing which came closest to it – which was my piano tuning key. So out I ran onto the street armed with my piano key to protect our revolutionary government!”

“After the Russians had withdrawn and we had gained our independence, the country came to a virtual standstill. For a couple of months, people didn’t know what to do. The old ways no longer worked and the new way of life somehow had to be invented by everyone. Music life broke down for some two or three months as well. Then, many clubs and bars opened their doors – old and new ones, and cultural life in Tallinn made a new start. Of course, my life changed. Everyone’s life changed! It’s not that I had been particularly unhappy with the life I had led under Soviet rule. If I had wanted to, I could have stayed in Finland or America. Still, being free is a feeling that is hard to describe. Finally to be able to express yourself to the utmost, personally and as a nation, is simply a wonderful thing.”

With singer Silvi Vrait at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin 

“The years following the revolution I spent a lot of time on my jazz quintet. In 1991, we made our debut on the Jazzkaar Festival, the main jazz festival in Estonia. The year after, we released our first album (entitled ‘Freedom To Love, Freedom To Lose’ – BT). It consisted of some new tunes, but also older material that we had already been playing for some time, but had never recorded… like the melody I had composed when entering the Berklee arranging competition in 1990. In fact, when I say ‘album’, I should actually say ‘cassette’. Usually, records released by Estonian artists were pressed at a vinyl factory in Riga, but it had closed down after Latvia had become independent. As a result, there was no opportunity to release a real LP, which is why we had to settle for a small cassette. Years later, a younger musician who is an excellent bass player, Mihkel Mälgand, told me that he listened to this cassette until it almost broke into pieces – and that it had motivated him to progress in music. Now isn’t that wonderful?”

“With the divisions between East and West having fallen away, there were now many more opportunities to perform internationally. I got to perform with my quintet in Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic. In 1992, we were part of a jazz concert organised by the European Broadcasting Union, the EBU Jazz Night, which took place on stages in three cities simultaneously; Vienna, Warsaw, and Tallinn. That was a big occasion, because our performance was broadcast all over Europe via the EBU network. I remember being pretty nervous that night. To me, the most enjoyable thing was the afterparty, when all the pressure had fallen away and we could finally relax because our performance had gone to plan.”

“Two or three years later, we received an invitation from New York to perform with our quintet at the Estonian Days which were organised there. Towards the end of the 1990s, I returned to America for a longer spell, when I was the piano accompanist of Katrin Karisma and Tõnu Kilgas, two Estonian singers who performed operetta arias and duets. For two months, we travelled the length and breadth of the United States. We had open airline tickets and the planes were like taxis to us. I knew that the USA was huge, but still it amazed me how big the distances actually were.”

Urmas (in red, far left) as the keyboard player at the 1997 Euradio Big Band Project in Ljubljana, with arranger and conductor Jože Privšek (in red, right-hand side of the photo)

“Another great thing which happened was the invitation to travel to Ljubljana to take part in the Euroradio Big Band Project… that was another international project which simply presented itself. It was in the summer of 1997. We were a big band with young jazz musicians from all over Europe giving a concert led by Jože Privšek. I played the synthesiser parts. The concert was recorded on album. To be honest, I had never heard of Privšek before, but as it turned out, he was an easy-going, very good musician. He may have been much older than me, but it didn’t feel like working with someone of a previous generation. You know, music erases these kinds of differences – age or nationality, once you get down to playing together, those things no longer matter.”

“For most of the 1990s, I had a steady job as the pianist and keyboard player in the Estonian Radio Orchestra (officially called the Eesti Raadio Estraadiorkester, often abbreviatedly referred to as EREO – BT), which had been under the baton of Peeter Saul for many years, a legendary conductor. After coming back from my spell at Berklee, I was invited to join. I don’t know if there was a vacancy at the piano – or if they were simply looking for a new-style pianist… in fact I never asked. It was a good opportunity. Actually, there was not one, but two orchestras. Apart from the Radio Orchestra, which was a traditional entertainment ensemble with strings, we often did big band concerts with just the rhythm and brass sections of the orchestra. Especially the big band arrangements were fun to play – usually very well-written stuff. Apart from playing, I wrote some arrangements for the orchestra as well. Away from our work for radio and television, we did summer tours in Germany and on the island of Gotland in Sweden.”

“Unfortunately, the episode with the Estonian Radio Orchestra didn’t last longer than four or five years. This was the time when budgets were cut and the decision was taken to disband the orchestra. That was also part of the new world we had to get used to in those years. So I lost my regular job! Fortunately, by that time, there was little reason to worry, because I had more than enough freelance work. Around the time the orchestra was abandoned, I was commissioned to accompany the two operetta singers in America – and I had become quite immersed in session work as a musician and arranger as well. So the orchestra stopped, but new opportunities continued to pop up here and there. It was regrettable that the orchestra was done away with, but we all moved on.”

Urmas Lattikas as team captain in the 1999 TV music entertainment show 'Tähed muusikas', flanked by rock artist Gunnar Graps and pop singer Anne Veski (1999) / picture courtesy of ERR - author Ülo Josing

“In fact, I would say that studio work was my main source of income in the 1990s – to the extent that the performing side of my career often came to a standstill for longer periods. As an arranger, I worked with many different artists. Also in this case, singers and composers usually asked me if I wanted to work with them; and I picked the projects which I liked. With all due respect, quite a lot of Estonian pop music doesn’t appeal to me personally. To my mind, you have to like the music to be able to do something good with it. Otherwise, the spark isn’t there – and the final product will suffer as a result.”

“Artists I particularly liked working with in those years were Silvi Vrait, Kärt Tomingas, and Siiri Sisask, all of them women with original voices and a particularly delicate feeling for music in general. One of the projects I did with Siiri was an album which featured a rock band called Ultima Thule (in 1998 – BT). Siiri wrote the material herself and I created the band arrangements around her melodies. One of the titles on that album later became very important for Siiri, ‘Mis maa see on’, a patriotic song, but with some critical elements in the lyrics. Later on, Tõnu Kõrvits made a vocal arrangement of it and the song achieved great popularity in Estonia as a choral work, but the original arrangement was made by me.”

“Up until 2000, most of the recording sessions I worked on took place in the radio studios, but in that year, I had a little studio built into my house. My aim never was to turn it into a commercial studio, but I had become so experienced as an arranger and studio musician, that I had learnt a lot about sound engineering. The gaps in my knowledge were filled by two online courses. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it! The first project which was recorded here was the album ‘A.D. 2000’ by a child singer called Maria Listra, a lyrical soprano. I wrote all the arrangements and recorded everything in my studio with a synthesiser and other synthetic instruments, in an attempt to give it the feel of a real symphony orchestra. After Maria Listra, I did recording projects in my own studio with several other singers… Maarja-Liis Ilus, to name just one. More recently, I’ve done a lot of mixing. One example is the music created by a Finnish composer, Jukka Linkola, to a story by Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Snow Queen’. He recorded the music at Estonian radio, but I did the sound mix in my home studio.”

Close-up, 2011 / photo: Arno Mikkor

“Away from my jazz quintet, I didn’t feel the particular urge to prove myself as a composer – least of all as a songwriter in pop music. Still, some commissions came my way now and then. I was once commissioned to write an organ work for the Arthur Kapp Competition. The piece was called ‘Touch’ and it finished in second place (in 2003 – BT). It was a bit of a stand-alone work. The urge to write classical music was always there, but in that period the focus was so firmly on jazz that I didn’t write that much classically-oriented work. Fortunately enough, I’ve more or less been able to make up for that in recent years.”

“Perhaps my most recognised composition is a choral piece called ‘Väike maa’. Although it was never intended to end up there, it was performed in 2009 by the united choirs on the Estonian Song Festival (a huge open-air festival held in Tallinn every five years – BT). It wasn’t the first time a song written by me was performed there, but the special thing in this case was that there hadn’t been a committee which had picked the song for the festival, but there were all kinds of small choirs who had filed a request to be allowed to perform it. So you could say it was put on the programme by popular demand. I could never have imagined that when composing it with lyricist Leelo Tungal a year before. I’m very proud of this. After all, this song festival is part of the Estonian nation and a very important tradition in our culture.”

“Due to my studio work in the 1990s, the occasions to perform with my quintet had become fewer. Essentially, it had always been a project band, but this became the case to an even higher extent since the turn of the century. Finally, in 2010, we released a new, second jazz album, ‘Ööliblika tants’, which consisted of new material, all of it written by me. Because I had discovered that the master tapes of the ‘Freedom To Love’ album were still in the archives of Estonian radio, I decided to remaster them a bit and add those tracks on a second CD. After all, at the time it had only been released as a cassette. It was hugely satisfying to note that this double album was received well by the public. The nice thing about jazz is that it is a type of music which usually ages better than pop music. As a result, the album is still being sold until the present day. I hope it will have a long life.”

Concentrating for a performance at Tartu's jazz club (2014)

“In more recent years, quite a lot of commissions to write music for theatre started coming my way, especially modern drama pieces. I had already written for theatre in my early years, but it more or less dropped off the radar in the 1990s. From the early 2010s onwards, it has become an ever more important part of my professional activities – and I should say it’s a very rewarding part. It’s always nice when drama and music meet. Together with the director and the actors, you try to create the best possible result. In a way, writing theatre music is not that different from composing a soundtrack. The music is there to accentuate certain parts of the performance. The common saying is that the best music for theatre or film is the music which nobody notices. In that sense, perhaps, my approach as a composer is a little more egoistic, because I always try to choose certain moments to allow the music to rise and shine.”

“The most difficult part is that theatre is more fluid than a film, which usually has a time schedule which is more or less fixed when the composer is called upon. In theatre, that is not the case. Just an example… does an actor perform a scene in three minutes and one second – or three minutes and two seconds? This is something which you only find out once the rehearsals get underway. In such situations, my home studio proves very useful. Working with all the digital tools which are available nowadays, I can shorten the music pieces by one or two seconds, or make them longer, without that much effort. One click on the computer and I can send a new version to the rehearsal straightaway.”

“Another important field of work for me has been television. In 2006, I was asked to be the music director of a competition for young singers on Estonian Television, Laulukarussell, which ran for many seasons. In 2019, it was rebranded as Tähtede Lava. I’ve always loved teaming up with young and aspiring artists. Children are usually direct and honest in their reactions – and that is something I find inspiring. Quite a few of them have managed to build successful careers. It's a great feeling to have accompanied so many of them in their first steps on the big stage.”

With mezzo-soprano Annely Peebo (2016)

“Especially in the summer season, I do a lot of concerts as well, sometimes just as a piano accompanist, sometimes leading a combo of four or five musicians. I performed a lot with Silvi Vrait, in fact until she became too ill to perform. In fact, I've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of singers... really too many to mention them all, first and foremost because many of them took part in a music entertainment show in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tähed muusikas, in which I was one of the team captains. Also on the stage, I’m quite picky when it comes to choosing the colleagues I like to work with. This is true of the singers, but also of the musicians in the band. They are all friends of mine, so I never take to the stage with another sensation than happiness. It’s also very nice to feel the reaction of an audience after a performance – a happy and warm energy that does not depend on the number of people attending the concert at all.”

“The COVID lockdown brought music life to a standstill for almost two years. Concert series with Annely Peebo in Austria and with Maggie Reilly in Estonia, Finland, and the Netherlands had to be cancelled. Fortunately, I still had a pencil and a piece of paper, so I could continue working on my own in my home studio. After the lockdown was over, concerts gradually came back, so I can say my professional life now has gone back to what it used to be, evenly relying on three pillars; composing and arranging, performing, and recording.”

“Looking back, I am happy with the opportunities that have crossed my path, all of which have contributed to my development as a musician and as a human being. Colleagues and audiences in Estonia are friendly and generally wish you well, which is nice. There are no frustrations. If I don’t like a certain project, I have the luxury of not doing it. That’s the luxury, the big luxury, of being a freelancer. Of course, I still have ambitions – things that I would like to do, but I am not actively looking for them. I firmly believe that the right things will come and find you at the right time.”

Urmas (far left) with his colleagues of the accompanying ensemble of the TV talent show 'Tähtede lava', from left: Paul Daniel, Mihkel Mälgand, and Ahto Abner (2019) / picture courtesy of ERR - author Kairit Leibold


As an arranger and conductor, Urmas Lattikas was instrumental in Estonia’s first steps as a Eurovision participant in the first half of the 1990s. He co-wrote the arrangement to ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’, the song with which Janika Sillamaa took part in the 1993 qualification round for aspiring Eurovision countries from Central and Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the song failed to win the ticket for the international final. One year later, in 1994, Lattikas conducted the orchestra in Dublin for his own arrangement to ‘Nagu merelaine’, Estonia’s genuine debut entry in the contest, performed by Silvi Vrait.

As it turns out, Urmas Lattikas reveals to us that the contest was already watched by Estonians long before the Iron Curtain came down and the country won its independence. “By the time Estonia sent its first songs to Eurovision, I was the pianist in the Estonian Radio Orchestra, the entertainment orchestra of our national broadcaster ETV. But that orchestra had been around for much longer. For many decades, even in the time when I joined the orchestra in 1990, its main conductor was Peeter Saul, a legendary conductor in Estonia and a very colourful person. Like so many Estonians, he watched the contest on Finnish television – but then he wrote an orchestral arrangement to the winning song, recording it the following day with his wife Heli Lääts singing it. Really, the following day, the song could already be listened to on Estonian radio.”

Indeed, an interview with Peeter Saul from 2000, which is available online, confirms the story. Saul watched the Eurovision Song Contest whenever he could, the first time being in 1964. The oldest arrangement to a Eurovision song recorded by Heli Lääts to be found on the Internet is a cover version to the 1967 Netherlands entry ‘Ring-dinge-ding’ by Thérèse Steinmetz, for which Saul exactly copied the live arrangement as conducted by Dolf van der Linden in that year’s contest final in Vienna. In the aforementioned interview, Saul (who passed away in 2014), recalled making a recording of the 1971 Eurovision winner ‘Un banc, un arbre, une rue’ by Séverine.

“I recorded the song from Finnish television and when the competition ended around 1 or 2am, I called my lyricist Heldur Karmo, telling him, “Listen, Heldur, write some words to this.” He would call me back at 4am, saying that he had finished them. Early in the morning, I would put the final touches to the orchestral score, take it to the studio, and by noon, the song had been recorded in the Estonian language! The title of our version was ‘Tänav, pink ja puu’. After the news programme at lunchtime, it was ready for broadcast on the radio.” When asked how he did it, Saul declared, “Professionalism, honour, and a sense of mission. It wasn’t always that easy. By the mid-1970s, Soviet authorities started making it known to Estonian radio that they didn’t want this type of Western propaganda to be broadcast, but one of the editors, Jüri Hansen, always thought of clever ways to circumvent censorship.”

Peeter Saul conducting the Estonian Radio Orchestra (1987)

“It’s an incredible story, isn’t it?” Lattikas laughs. “It’s not easy to write an arrangement entirely by ear, and in one night – we’re speaking of a time when there were no computers to help you. As an arranger, Peeter was incredibly fast. Looking back, we Estonians were privileged when it came to Western television. We were the only people in the Soviet Union able to watch it, thanks to our proximity to Finland. Mind you, the reception wasn’t that good. Where I grew up, in Tapa, the reception of Finnish television was rather volatile. The best place in Estonia was Tallinn, which is under 100 kilometres away from Helsinki. Even there, the image quality wasn’t very good, but when you knew how to direct the antennas, you could watch Finnish programmes in black and white. It’s the main reason why almost half of the inhabitants of Tallinn speak Finnish fluently.”

“One time, I remember many people from across Estonia travelled to Tallinn. It must have been some time in the 1970s. Finnish television was due to broadcast the film Emmanuelle (a French erotic drama from 1974 starring Sylvia Kristel – BT). Everyone wanted to see it. News about the broadcast also reached the outer parts of the country and many people decided it was worth the trip. As I’ve been told, public life came to a virtual standstill that night. It really was an event! Personally, I was more interested in music from the West, of course. I remember watching a Beatles concert via Finnish television. I must have watched Eurovision as well, but I cannot remember any contest or song in particular. Bear in mind that I wasn’t really into entertainment music as a young man.”

In 1993, Estonia's TV service decided to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time. Due to an EBU decision, all seven 'new' Eurovision countries - apart from Estonia, there were: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania - had to go through a semi-final, which was to be held in Ljubljana, Slovenia. All seven participating countries organised a national final to determine which song would be submitted to the semi-final in Ljubljana. 

In Estonia, singer Janika Sillamaa was selected as the country's representative in this semi-final. Prior to the Eurovision selection, she had played the main part in the musical Thumbelina, co-composed by Lattikas and Janika’s mother, Kaari Sillamaa. In the Estonian pre-selection, Janika performed a total of eight songs in a live television broadcast, in which she was accompanied by a combo of six musicians, with the band arrangements being penned by several arrangers, including Ain Tammesson, Tõnis Kõrvits, and Urmas Lattikas. 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.

“No, I didn’t do that… I’m pretty sure that Tõnis Kõrvits was the arranger,” is Lattikas’ initial reaction when being asked about his involvement in the song. To clarify the matter, he immediately called Kõrvits, who confirmed our research. “Tõnis says that the band arrangement 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 T3, 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 as well.”

Singer Janika Sillamaa at the 1993 Estonian Eurovision pre-selection in Tallinn

“I am not sure who asked me to work on ‘Muretut meelt’,” Lattikas continues. “Probably Estonian television simply asked me and several others 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. In fact, also listening to it today, ‘Muretut meelt’ is quite a good song actually.”

When asked why Tõnis Kõrvits rather than he 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.”

We also asked Janika Sillamaa herself to look back on her experiences in 1993. As it turns out, she really liked the song which was chosen for her. “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. In fact, 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 of its quality 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.”

Quirkily, in Ljubljana, the Estonian semi-final entry was not conducted by either Tõnis Kõrvits nor by Urmas Lattikas, but by one of Estonia’s main classical conductors, Peeter Lilje. When asked about the choice for Lilje, Janika comments, “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.”

Peeter Lilje conducting the Estonian entry at the 1993 Eurovision semi-final in Ljubljana

Like the singer, 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 (…). 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.” (Note - When asked by us, Peeter Lilje’s widow Maia confirmed Janika’s version of the story. Jaak Joala had asked her husband to take care of the conducting job in Ljubljana. Mrs Lilje also pointed out that Joala and Lilje had been friends since the 1970s, in the days when Joala was a pop singer and Lilje wrote some arrangements for him – BT)

In spite of a vocally strong performance in the semi-final held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Janika failed to convince the international jurors enough to qualify for the Eurovision final – although there were only a handful of points in it. Watching 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 – 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.”

For the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, all countries who had failed to qualify in Ljubljana the year before were automatically seeded, along with three other nations which were completely new to the competition; Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. In all, no fewer than seven countries made their Eurovision debut on the stage of Dublin’s Point Theatre – and Estonia was one. To determine its song for the contest in Ireland, ETV held an open selection show, in which ten songs, performed by different singers, took part. All of the entries were performed completely live with the accompaniment of the Estonian Radio Orchestra conducted by Heiki Vahar (for six songs), Peeter Saul (two songs), the young and promising classical conductor Olari Elts, and Urmas Lattikas (one song each). Lattikas co-arranged, orchestrated, and conducted ‘Nagu merelaine’, a melodious ballad composed by Ivar Must with lyrics by Leelo Tungal, performed by one of Estonia’s most popular singers from the 1970s onwards, Silvi Vrait.

“Silvi’s role in Estonian music can hardly be overestimated,” Lattikas explains. “She had an original approach to music and could sing almost every genre professionally – jazz, pop, country, folk, chanson, really everything… and still, you always recognised her voice immediately. It’s just who Silvi was, personal and unique. Although she didn’t have the theoretical background, she was a good musician in the broader sense of the word. Her way of singing betrayed her innate musicality. I worked with her before our mutual Eurovision experience. Just after our country had won its independence, the Estonian Radio Orchestra did a summer tour to Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. It must have been in 1992 or 1993. Silvi was one of the vocalists who came along to perform with our orchestra. As the pianist, I had an important role in accompanying her. That’s when I got to knew her personally and learnt that she wasn’t just a good singer, but a nice person as well. I think I also worked on one or two songs she recorded in the studio before Eurovision.”

Urmas with Silvi Vrait at the contest in Dublin

“We found that we got along well – and it may very well have been Silvi herself who suggested to the composer, Ivar Must, to ask me to arrange his Eurovision song for her. In fact, this is rather probable, given that I had never worked with Ivar previously. I couldn’t think of another good reason why he approached me. He gave me a demo on a cassette. We sat together and he explained me some things about how he wanted the song to sound. The lyrics were there, there was a melody, and Ivar had an idea about the harmonies – let’s say a harmonic plan. Then he asked me to do the rest. It was a bit different from the situation when a singer gives you a melody created at the piano or with a guitar, for which the arranger has to find all the harmonies himself. Ivar gave me much more of an idea of what he had in mind. I have no idea if that is his usual way of working, because I never worked with him apart from on this one song!”

“Working from Ivar’s plan, I first created a band arrangement, to which I added a full orchestration for the Estonian final. For the show, there was not just the orchestra which all singers could work with, but five singers from the famous Estonian band Karavan who did the backing vocals. They were pretty advanced in their approach, so I decided to create a vocal arrangement for them which was a bit more advanced than you would expect in a pop song. I may have discussed this with Ivar first, but I cannot remember for sure – what is certain, though, is that the idea was mine alone and that I wrote that vocal arrangement by myself. In doing so, I was hoping to make the song more memorable. I never asked Ivar if he was happy with the vocal arrangement or the orchestration. Looking back, I must say that he pretty much gave me the freedom to tackle the song in whichever way I saw fit.”

“The Estonian Eurovision selection was a special event. It was held in a big concert venue in the port of Tallinn, the City Hall. I was in the orchestra playing keyboards, but for the one song performed by Silvi I had to get up and conduct my colleagues. I wasn’t a very experienced conductor, but I knew what I was doing. I had taken conducting courses in my early years at the conservatoire in Tallinn, when I was still studying to be a music teacher; mainly choral conducting, but some orchestral conducting as well. I had regularly conducted studio sessions, but the Estonian final was the first time I led an orchestra on stage.”

As a Eurovision delegate, on an excursion in the south of Ireland

“When Silvi won the Estonian event, I decided to rework the arrangement a little bit. When listening to the record version, which was also the arrangement we used in Dublin, you will note some differences from what the orchestra played in the national final. Especially the intro and the final bars underwent some adaptations. I don’t remember why I reworked it, or whose idea it was, but probably something disturbed me in the first arrangement. There were some parts here and there which sounded a little bit too empty and required filling up.”

“In the preview video which was made of ‘Nagu merelaine’ after it had won the selection in Estonia, you’ll find there are some images of the studio recording of the final version. You can see me at work conducting the string section of the radio orchestra. As with most commercial sessions in Tallinn at the time, the recording simply took place in the radio studios, which had the most advanced equipment available in Estonia. For that second arrangement, I had changed the string lines quite a bit – and the string players were a bit intimidated, because they felt it was rather complicated… too technical to play, some of them claimed. Then I explained them that those string lines were meant to imitate a merelaine, which is the Estonian word for sea wave. The strings were intended to give the song more character. In the first run-through of the new arrangement, they found that it wasn’t as difficult to play as they had imagined when first checking the score. It was pretty logical and easy to play and everyone taking part in the recording was happy with the way it turned out.”

“By that time, I had done so much work on the song that I could no longer really judge its quality. Other people who work in the studio business will tell you it is something which is very common; if you work on a certain song, and you put in a lot of effort, it becomes close to your heart sooner or later. Yeah, I liked it. I wouldn’t describe it as a chanson; to my mind, it was more of a pop song, but in the best sense of that word. A pretty sophisticated and interesting melody.”

Backstage at Dublin's Point Theatre with one of RTÉ's make-up artists

“When ‘Nagu merelaine’ had won the Estonian final, Jüri Pihel and Juhan Paadam, who were the main producers of our broadcasting service working on the Eurovision Song Contest at the time, told me that they were completely ok with me also conducting it in the international final. One of them approached me around the time when we made that studio version and said, ‘If you made all of that on your own, you can also conduct it in Ireland.’ That was a very gracious gesture. The prospect of going to Ireland… well, it was something I was looking forward to, but it made me nervous at the same time! Lots of things went through my head. Would I be able to recreate the sound of the studio recording, which everyone agreed was good? Expectations in Estonia were high, but I wasn’t too worried about that. People back home were certainly hopeful. The TV production team may have thought about reaching the top ten or perhaps even better as well, but I never gave this any thought myself. I just wanted to do a good job with the orchestra.”

“After our arrival in Dublin, my nerves quickly subsided. Even before the first rehearsal started, we were treated to lots of whiskey by the Irish! Wherever you looked, there was whiskey available. One day, all delegations were offered a trip by train to a wonderful town in the south of Ireland (probably Kilkenny – BT). On that train, there was so much whiskey… by the time we arrived at our destination, hardly anyone was able to walk in a straight line! I tried to walk straight, but I don’t know if I managed very well. It was my first time in Ireland and I loved the sights of the country. Those medieval monasteries were spectacular. The people were very friendly as well. They walked up to you and gave you the feeling of being very welcome; I have only good memories. I would like to stress that the whiskey didn’t play a role in my judgement of the Irish… or perhaps just a little!”

“When we were due for our first rehearsal, I was introduced to the orchestra by their conductor (Noel Kelehan – BT), who obviously was a colourful guy. He made one or two jokes, although I don’t remember exactly what he said. He put me at ease. The rehearsals proved to be pretty easy. I knew my studio arrangement was good, because I had recorded it with the players of our radio orchestra back in Tallinn. Every detail in the score had been fixed. I found out soon enough that the orchestra in Dublin was good. There wasn’t much of a problem. In the first run-through, I may have stopped them once or twice for some instructions, but nothing special; really only some small details which required attention – and I was mainly thinking of the sound balance. From where I stood in front of the orchestra, it sounded ok. The general rehearsal was good too. Backstage, there was a big party going on with all the other contestants!”

On the night of the Eurovision concert in Dublin, about to take his bow and count in the orchestra

“During rehearsals, you had the opportunity to hang around a bit and watch the other contestants at work. The big surprise, however, was that Irish group of line dancers who performed the interval act. It was called ‘Riverdance’. Later on, they became very famous in many countries, but that Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin was their debut. A bunch of young dancers. I remember standing in the auditorium very close to the stage, being hugely impressed by their performance. I must have been staring at them in sheer admiration. Everything they did was just right, spot-on. The music, the dancing, technique, emotion… you couldn’t fault it. They were really amazing. No wonder their show took off in such a big way after the contest.”

Meanwhile, Silvi Vrait had the advantage of her stage experience which told her that her chances of doing well in the voting were rather limited. Aged 43 at the time, she realised she was one of the older contestants in a field of many fresh, young faces from all corners of Europe. “For me it is an experience in itself to be here and take part,” she told a German journalist before the general rehearsal. “Five years ago, nobody in Tallinn’s music scene could have imagined an Estonian artist would ever stand on this stage. (…) No one can imagine how we were looking up to Eurovision, an event we only knew from watching Finnish television.” 

“Yeah, Silvi was alright in Dublin,” Lattikas confirms. “As you say, her experience as an artist was a bonus. Perhaps she was a little nervous deep down in her mind, which is normal in such a big event. At any rate, she never showed it. Her performance in the concert was very good, if you ask me. I was happy with how it went. Were the drums too loud? If you say so. I never noticed a thing.”

Conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for Silvi Vrait's performance of 'Nagu merelaine'

“If Silvi was a bit nervous on the night, I was certainly more so than she was. Of course the rehearsals had been fine, but I was worried about the tempo. After all, we didn’t work with a click track and everything was 100% live. If you are a bit excited as a musician, you tend to choose a tempo that is a little bit too fast. Fortunately I didn’t make that mistake. When we had done our performance, I could finally relax backstage. The situation there was as usual. Just a lot of artists huddled together having a good time. There may have been some whiskey involved again!”

In the voting, Estonia picked up only two points, awarded by the Greek jury, and finished in 24th position, with just the Lithuanian entry, which did not gather any points at all, doing worse. “Of course it came as a bit of a disappointment,” Lattikas admits, “but I’m an optimistic person by nature and the result didn’t hurt me personally. I don’t remember the mood in our delegation being too downcast. Quite the opposite, there was a big party for all countries’ delegates after the contest was over. I remember having a chat with other participants – I remember talking to the singers from Malta. There was also a lot of dancing going on at the afterparty. Of course, I had a go as well! With so many beautiful female soloists around, who wouldn’t?”

“Funnily, the winning Irish song, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids’, was covered by the guys of Karavan, who backed up Silvi in Dublin as well; later on, I was the band’s regular piano player for three years and played that song countless times. There wasn’t much of a backlash against Silvi when we came back to Estonia. People felt she had done the country proud. Looking back on the experience, perhaps the song may have been a little too complicated for Eurovision, but that’s just guessing. In Estonia, ‘Nagu merelaine’ still enjoys huge popularity. You can still hear it being played on the radio regularly. Everybody knows it and lots of singers did cover versions of it.”

Silvi Vrait returning to the greenroom after her Eurovision performance; photo taken by Urmas Lattikas

“People in Estonia continued being very kind to Silvi. I would say the contest in Dublin did her career a lot of good domestically. If anything, she became more popular. I continued working with her after the contest – it was just that my role changed from being her conductor to playing the piano. Everyone in Estonia wanted to hear ‘Nagu merelaine’. Sometimes, we worked with a small band, but mostly it was just Silvi and me, the two of us together. We often drove to the venues in the same car. These could be quite long distances. During those drives, Silvi liked talking about horoscopes. She explained me how to recognise which star signs certain people were – and after a while, I noticed that I often guessed right, when I followed her instructions.”

“I don’t know why she liked working with me. It was just a case of mutual trust, I guess. I certainly trusted her a lot. She was a big professional and I felt very honoured to perform with her. Her recitals were always met with nice reactions from audiences, wherever we performed. We did those concerts together for many years, almost until the end of Silvi’s journey. At some point, her illness took over and she could no longer perform, which was very sad. We remained close, even in that last period. She passed away in 2013. It’s sad that her life was cut short at a relatively young age.”

“Although I worked as a studio arranger rather extensively in the decade that followed my Eurovision experience, I didn’t get involved in the contest anymore. I left the Estonian Radio Orchestra in 1995, which may have played a part in that. I had a go as a composer in the Eurovision Song Contest just once, with ‘Hele päev’, a song I wrote for Reet Kromel, a girl with a remarkable, high-pitched voice; really an excellent singer who has a bit of a jazzy approach. It was a pretty nice tune and we were both quite happy with it, but the song wasn’t admitted into the national final here in Tallinn. Afterwards, we made a studio recording of it which was released commercially (in fact as the first track of Reet Kromel’s 1996 solo album – BT).”

Silvi Vrait (foreground left) in the greenroom with her backing group Karavan and several other Estonian delegates; in the background, parts of the delegations of Bosnia & Herzegovina (with conductor Sinan Alimanović), Norway (with conductor Pete Knutsen), Lithuania (with conductor Tomas Leiburas), and Switzerland (with conductor Valeriano Chiaravalle) can be detected. Photo taken by Urmas Lattikas

“Looking back, I’m happy with this one Eurovision Song Contest I took part in. It’s a part of my career, and a very colourful part I would say. Being given the opportunity to work with that great Irish orchestra was a big honour. The responsibility of conducting the orchestra for your country was quite something. Here was an Irish orchestra playing my arrangement! That was exciting. Of course we didn’t get many points, but Eurovision is essentially a game – at least, that’s how I like to look at it… and it’s a fun game, because it involves music. Even beforehand, being chosen to conduct the orchestra, I considered myself a winner. I look back on the experience with happiness and satisfaction. I once made the joke that Eurovision fulfilled my ambitions of being a conductor at one stroke… because the audience watching was so large, that was enough for me! After all, I didn’t do that much conducting afterwards. A little bit in studio sessions, but never again on stage. In subsequent years, my role on stage almost always has been as a pianist and bandleader.” 

“It’s a real pity that the 1994 contest was one of the last editions with an orchestra. When there was still an orchestra, all artists competed on the same platform. It made the whole competition more fair. Nowadays, when I am home, I do still watch the contest occasionally, inviting some friends over to gather around the TV set. Following Eurovision nowadays does not really satisfy me, though. I can’t help thinking that all songs sound the same. They’ve all been recorded digitally, making use of synthesisers and computers… and computers are not the same as an orchestra. An orchestra is a living organism. Listening to an orchestra playing a song will make you feel emotions which aren’t there when a performance is done to a backing track. Those song productions may all have been put together very professionally, but the emotion which is connected to a group of people performing the music is no longer there. It’s all become a bit boring.”

“Unfortunately, today’s audiences aren’t used to listening to pop music accompanied by an orchestra. Also here in Estonia, the radio orchestra was abolished many years ago (in 1998 – BT). Just like people have become used to fast food, they’ve also gotten used to fast music; disposable music, if you like. That is a real pity, because even in the music world today, an orchestra could still work, also in the context of Eurovision. If TV producers tell you today’s music can never be recreated with an orchestra, they probably mean they don’t want to put together a budget to pay the musicians, because, from a musician’s point of view, it’s still possible. I mean, why not? All it takes is a good arranger to write a proper orchestration. It’s a matter of craftsmanship. If there were a campaign to bring back the orchestra to the Eurovision Song Contest, I would certainly support it. If we succeeded, I would seriously consider writing a song. Let’s try to get our voice being heard by more people. Let’s get the orchestra back!”

Accompanying Silvi Vrait at the piano for a performance at Tõstamaa Manor in Western Estonia (June 2008)


Janika Sillamaa, who is fifteen years younger than Urmas Lattikas, knew him from her childhood, when she performed in the children’s musical Thumbelina. “Urmas was often a guest in my parents’ home. When my mother (librettist and lyricist Kaari Sillamaa – BT) wrote Thumbelina, she asked Urmas to come on board to write the arrangements. For me, it involved coming along with my mother to Urmas’ place and trying different settings to check if the arrangements were musically doable for children. I must have been about seven years old. For me, this never felt like work. As a child, I thought Urmas was a fun guy with nice curly hair who played the piano really well. He also gave me candies if he had some. Later in life, I’ve got to know him as an extreme professional, but as a person ‘fun’ would be the first epithet that comes to mind. He is always in a good mood and smiling. Since I could be considered a ruined-by-school pop musician, I very much enjoy working with similar people with whom you can discuss a proper score. He is an old-school professional; never late to rehearsals, always well-prepared, never whining or getting upset, and, lastly, offering creative ideas and solutions. On a communication level he is delicate, as a composer exciting; adaptive but with a recognisable style at the same time.” (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 – Peeter Lilje
Score semi-final – 5th place (47 votes) & DNQ

Country – Estonia
Song title – “Nagu merelaine”
Rendition – Silvi Vrait
Lyrics – Leelo Tungal
Composition – Ivar Must
Studio arrangement – Ivar Must / Urmas Lattikas
(Estonia Radio Stage Orchestra conducted by Urmas Lattikas)
Live orchestration – Urmas Lattikas
Conductor – Urmas Lattikas
Score – 24th place (2 votes)

  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Urmas Lattikas, August 2023
  • Thanks to Janika Sillamaa for her additional comments about Urmas Lattikas and the experience of the Eurovision semi-final in Ljubljana, as well as to Peeter Lilje’s widow Maia for confirming Janika’s theory of why her husband was chosen to conduct Estonia’s entry in Slovenia
  • An obituary of Silvi Vrait written by Jan Feddersen in 2013, published on the website under the title “Silvi Vrait: Stimme der Freiheit”
  • A playlist of Urmas Lattikas’ music can be found by clicking this YouTube link
  • The page dedicated to Urmas Lattikas on the website of the Estonian Music Information Centre (EMIC) can be accessed in Estonian as well as in English
  • Photos courtesy of Urmas Lattikas & Ferry van der Zant
  • Many thanks to Mark Coupar for proofreading the manuscript

No comments:

Post a Comment