Saturday 7 August 2021

He started as a film-maker, founded his own orchestra, now Portuguese conductor Dinis Sousa brings a wealth of experiences to his new role as principal conductor of Royal Northern Sinfonia

Dinis Sousa at the Sage Gateshead (Photo Sage Gateshead/Royal Northern Sinfonia)
Dinis Sousa at the Sage Gateshead (Photo Sage Gateshead/Royal Northern Sinfonia)

In March 2021, the Portuguese conductor Dinis Sousa became the new principal conductor of Royal Northern Sinfonia (RNS) and his first concert with them since the announcement was also the orchestra's first concert this year with a live audience at Sage Gateshead in April 2021 [see my review].

Dinis is the founder and artistic director of the Portuguese ensemble, Orquestra XXI, and in 2018 was appointed the first-ever assistant-conductor of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras working closely with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Dinis has now moved his base to the North-East, and I recently caught up with him by Zoom.

Berlioz: Les nuits d'été - Dame Sarah Connolly, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Dinis Sousa at Sage Gateshead, April 2021 (photo taken from live-stream)
Berlioz: Les nuits d'été - Dame Sarah Connolly, Royal Northern Sinfonia
Dinis Sousa at Sage Gateshead, April 2021 (photo taken from live-stream)
I asked him first how he was enjoying the weather, as compared to his native Portugal and he assured me that the East coast can be the sunniest part of England, sunny but cold, and he hoped that the weather would not be miserable all the time. Though he added that his Mum had told him that it was currently freezing in Portugal too. And, after all, he has not moved to the North-East for the weather!

Before this year, Dinis had conducted RNS in two programmes, to launch the orchestra's Beethoven 2020: The Next Generation series in Carlisle and Middlesbrough in January 2020, and more recently at the helm in a concert of Stravinsky, Mendelssohn and music by the young American composer Caroline Shaw, as part of the Sage Live 2020 series last Autumn. But even before then, he loved the way the orchestra played, their energy in live performance. From the first moment of conducting Beethoven with them he loved it, there was an energy and a style in the rehearsal room which affected him straight away, a really good energy and rapport. The way each player makes music appeals to him; they love music and playing in rehearsal so that in breaks during rehearsals and even after concerts have finished, players want to talk about the music.

The orchestra's previous two music directors have been instrumentalists (violinist Thomas Zehetmair and pianist Lars Vogt), so Dinis represents something of a change. But he is also a pianist and has directed concerts from the keyboard. Playing the piano will be an important part of his role including performing chamber music with musicians from the orchestra. But there is also the feeling that the orchestra wanted to try something different.
Another strand to Dinis' experience is his period performance practice and his three years working with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. This experience is part of Dinis' identity, you can't separate who he is. When he was a child he enjoyed listening to Gardiner's recordings and loved the sound world. And one of the things he enjoys about RNS is the orchestra's interest in and awareness of period style.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Dinis Sousa
Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Dinis Sousa

Inevitably, the strange times we live in have affected Dinis' plans for his work with RNS. He does have big ideas, but planning complete symphonic cycles is difficult at the moment. He and the orchestra are planning things in small sections, though there are things that he would like to do in the longer term. He has an interest in working intensively on music from a particular era, not just Classical but the music of later periods and, of course, Baroque.

There is also the interest in working to expand RNS' reach, to create large-scale, meaningful outreach. One idea of what form this might take is the orchestra's The People's Requiem project, where Dinis will conduct a performance of Verdi's Requiem with the combined forces of Royal Northern Sinfonia, the chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia and experienced adult amateur orchestral players and choral singers from across the North East.  

This has been popular, applications have now closed and Dinis comments that so many people wanted to be involved. He wants to bring together large communities, both music lovers and those who have never heard an orchestra, and he regards the orchestra as being there for the whole region, a tool for everyone.

Dinis' experience of outreach and community work has not been on this scale before, he comments that Sage Gateshead is the centre of a community, a gathering-place and music learning. So much happens there, and he is slowly getting to grips with it. But his previous experience of outreach has meant that he has been able to understand what worked and what was meaningful, so he can focus on what he wants to do. And he is now based in the North East so that he is part of the community, which is something that both he and RNS felt worked though it is tricky at the moment as he moved in the middle of a pandemic!

Dinis Sousa and Orquestra XXI
Dinis Sousa and Orquestra XXI

Dinis comes from a country that does not have a huge orchestral scene and he started his own orchestra in 2013. Orquestra XXI was initially just an idea that they created from scratch with friends and he is proud of what has been achieved. His experience of doing such activities in Portugal is the difficulty of getting long-term funding and the need to fight for money every time. This has given him both a huge insight into the challenges ensembles face and also made him resilient, he can be determined and tough.

Orquestra XXI arose out of the idea to create an ensemble out of all the young Portuguese musicians who had left Portugal. Dinis comments that a lot of young musicians have left in the last 20 years and this is part of a wider problem of young people leaving the country. The general idea of Orquestra XXI was to bring people back to share what they were learning and doing abroad with audiences at home in Portugal. Initially, Dinis did not know that many of the players, the orchestra was created by building a network of Portuguese players in Europe. And the first year was kind of explosive, the feeling of coming home and playing for family and friends.

Dinis has always loved music but when he was young, it never crossed his mind to be a conductor. His parents enjoy and listen to a lot of classical music, and when the family inherited his Grandad's piano, the young Dinis started trying to play it. So his mother enrolled him in a music school. But when he moved to London to study, it was as a film-maker, he never thought of music as a career path. He liked it, but not as a career. But just before he left Portugal, he had won a prize in an international piano competition which gave him a complete public recital, which was a terrifying and daunting prospect.

Dinis Sousa (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Dinis Sousa (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)

So, Dinis set about practising the piano in London whilst pursuing his film studies and tried to find a teacher. Eventually, he came across a wonderful Russian teacher, she heard him and must have seen something as she took him under her wing. The weekly lessons with her would become the highlight of his week. And she started to encourage him to think seriously about music.

He took a Summer conducting course and that shook his ground, it was scary because he loved it so much. During the course the students stayed up till the early hours of the morning talking about music, something Dinis had not experienced before, and he loved it. He was pulled between Film and Music, and his Russian teacher told him he needed to decide. He went for an audition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the end result of which was that he studied there.

His experience of film making has given him an awareness of film and the overall theatricality of the genre. Whilst he is not interested in film music, specifically, he is keen on putting music together with other art forms, so that whilst he was studying at the Guildhall School he did projects with the drama department. This experience means that he would be able to work with a film-maker and to understand the process. Dinis feels that it is only a matter of time before he comes to a project working with film and music.

Dinis Sousa and Orquestra XXI (Photo Jorge Carmona)
Dinis Sousa and Orquestra XXI (Photo Jorge Carmona)

When Dinis and I spoke, next season with RNS has not yet been announced, but recently the orchestra's Autumn season was announced, see my article. Dinis also has Autumn events with Orquestra XXI. During lockdown, last year, the group decided to go out of doors and gave a series of concerts of 20th and 21st-century music in found spaces. These went so well, that they plan to continue this strain of events into Autumn 2021. And as for guest work, Dinis' comment is 'who knows' as it is too difficult to travel at the moment.

He feels himself lucky to be based in the North-East, not just because of Royal Northern Sinfonia, but also because of Sage Gateshead. He refers to it as one of the best acoustics that there is, and for Dinis, it is an amazing place to be in. A beautiful sound and a beautiful building, and it gives him and the orchestra stability having their own place.

Dinis opens the Royal Northern Sinfonia's 2021/22 season at Sage Gateshead on 18 September 2021 with a new commission, a collaboration between composer and DJ Mira Calix and filmmaker Sarah Turner to reflect local people’s experiences of the past 18 months, plus Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, with soloist Anastasia Kobekina, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. He returns on 22 October for Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Schumann's Piano Concerto, with soloist Elisabeth Leonskaja, and Mozart's Symphony No. 40. See the Sage Gateshead's website for further details.

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