Sunday 18 April 2021

New Beginnings indeed: the Royal Northern Sinfonia and its principal conductor designate, Dinis Sousa, launch Sage Gateshead's new live season

Berlioz: Les nuits d'été - Dame Sarah Connolly, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Dinis Sousa at Sage Gateshead (photo taken from live-stream)
Berlioz: Les nuits d'été - Dame Sarah Connolly, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Dinis Sousa at Sage Gateshead
(photo taken from live-stream)

Haydn, Berlioz, Boulanger, Prokofiev; Sarah Connolly, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Dinis Sousa; Sage Gateshead

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 April 2021
Engagement, excitement and a sense of chamber music detail characterised the young Portuguese conductor's first concert with the Royal Northern Sinfonia since being named as principal conductor

There was an extra excitement to the Royal Northern Sinfonia's concert at Sage Gateshead on Friday 16 April 2021. Not only was it the ensemble's first live concert this year, and the start of Sage Gateshead's New Beginnings season of live concerts, but it was the orchestra's first concert with the young Portuguese conductor Dinis Sousa since he was named as the orchestra's new principal conductor (a post he takes up next season). Under the title Dawn and Dusk, Sousa conducted a programme that moved from Joseph Haydn's early Symphony in D 'Le Matin', to Hector Berlioz' Les nuits d'été with mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly, to Iain Farrington's arrangement of Lili Boulanger's D'un matin du printemps and ending with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 'Classical'. But the programme began with an extra item, Elgar's Elegy played in memory of HRH Prince Philip.

Dinis Sousa studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he was Conducting Fellow. Since then he has formed his own ensemble, Orquestra XXI which brings together some of the best yung Portuguese musicians from around Europe. He was worked regularly with the English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, being appointed the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra's first ever assistant conductor, as well as working with modern instrument orchestras. 

Haydn's Symphony in D was one of a trio Le matin, Le midi and Le soir, which he wrote shortly after joining the employ of Prince Esterhazy (Haydn would work for the Esterhazy family exclusively for the next 30 years). The first movement began with a lovely sunrise, and employing real chamber forces, Sousa drew stylish playing from his players. In the second movement (where the wind are tacet), there was a chamber elegance to the playing highlighted by the way Haydn writes concerto grosso-like solo passages. Sousa and his players brought a chamber of level of detail to the music along with a sense of engagement, and I look forward to hearing them in lots more Haydn. The minuet was delightfully characterful whilst the trio featured a terrific bassoon solofrom Stephen Reay, whilst the finale went with a zip yet remained full of character.

Berlioz: Les nuits d'été - Dame Sarah Connolly, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Dinis Sousa at Sage Gateshead (photo taken from live-stream)
Berlioz: Les nuits d'été - Dame Sarah Connolly, Royal Northern Sinfonia,
Dinis Sousa at Sage Gateshead (photo taken from live-stream)
Berlioz' Les nuits d'été has a remarkably complex textual history. Originally written for mezzo-soprano or tenor and piano in 1841, when this version was published it was not with Berlioz' original piano part (which has remained relatively unknown). Berlioz would orchestrate a couple of songs, but only in 1856 was the orchestral version published but with the songs divided between different voice types. So far as is known, the orchestral cycle was not performed in its entirety during the composer's lifetime, and rather languished thereafter until its rediscovery in the 20th century when it has become common in a version which returns the orchestral songs to something like the keys of the original mezzo-soprano and piano version.

The songs are not so much linked by theme as by the fact that all the texts are by the romantic poet Théophile Gautier  (who was a friend of Berlioz), and the each songs partake of what we might call the essence of romanticism, with an overarching theme of  unrequited love. The present order of the songs takes us from new-born joy, through loss of innocence to loss of the beloved and perhaps new beginnings.

Though the number of players on stage increased, Sousa and the orchestra kept the sense of chamber detail that they had given us in the Haydn. Instead of Sarah Connolly's voice being supported on a lush carpet of string sound, she was surrounded by a fine web of sound almost chamber music-like at times. The chamber lightness in Villanelle combined with Connolly's wonderful sense of suppressed anticipation and barely contained joie de vivreLe spectre de la rose was all hushed intimacy, with Connolly mesmerising us with her story-telling. Though grave and sombre, Sur les lagunes was sung tenderly with a lovely restlessness in the strings, and when passion rose textures remained transparent. Absence was intense, yet stylish with beautifully shaped phrases, whilst Au cimitiere was full of grave beauty, with the words flowing fluidly. Throughout the cycle, I was struck not only by Connolly attention to the poetry but the sense of colour she brought to the words. L'ile inconnue brought us to a vivid finish, all colour and movement.

Lili Boulanger wrote D'un matin du printemps in 1917 (the year before hear early death) and it exists in various versions for chamber forces as well as for large orchestra (including triple woodwind). This version from Iain Farrington gives it to chamber orchestra forces. Boulanger's writing created a very distinctive sound-world, full of delicate details and transparent textures, all stylishly rendered.

Finally we returned to the world of Haydn, but with a spice of 20th century with. Prokofiev wrote his Classical Symphony in 1916 and 1917, deliberately combining old and new in a witty way. The first movement was perky, with a wry humour. Sousa and his forces brought out the sense of clock mechanism in the music, yet it was done with great character and sense of enjoyment.  The second movement was finely delicate, but articulated with humour and a chamber music sense of detail. The third movement dance (a gavotte not a minuet) started off robust, but evaporated delightfully. And the finale really zipped along, again that sense of a highly characterful clock mechanism.

This was a terrific new beginning in so many ways, and I look forward to being able to catch Sousa and the orchestra live, when this is permitted. As well as conducting, Sousa gave lucid and engaging spoken introductions to the music (his spoken English is a pleasure to listen to). Sousa is planning to move his base to the North East, and he looks set to be a real asset to area.

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