Passing of the baton

May 3, 2021

The new principal conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia is Dinis Sousa.

The appointment fulfils a lifetime ambition for the 35-year-old, who first heard the Sage Gateshead-based orchestra perform at the Casa da Musica in his home city of Porto as a young teenager, and again at Milton Court Concert Hall, in London, when he studied film-making.

Dinis rarely missed any concerts in the capital, armed with his subscriptions for the Guildhall, Barbican and South Bank. But it was a meeting with renowned musician Yekaterina Lebedeva, as she helped him prepare for a piano recital back in Portugal, which was to change the course of his life.

She pleaded with him to drop the cameras and pick up the baton and study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he was to ignite his natural talent and launch an extraordinary career and achieve accomplishments he could never have imagined. Now in situ in his dream job on the banks of the River Tyne, he tells Colin Young how he now intends to share his passion for music across the entire North East.

Dawn And Dusk. A new day, a fresh start and a new beginning.

The perfect choice for Dinis Sousa’s debut as the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s principal conductor.

The Sage Gateshead may still be empty, but the first of its regular new Friday night live stream concerts attracted a worldwide audience, compelled by an uplifting programme that included Middlesbrough-born Dame Sarah Connolly’s first performance with the RNS for Berlioz’s much-loved Summer Nights song cycle.

Ticket holders may not have been able to fully appreciate, or even add to the iconic acoustics of the Sage with thunderous applause, but the orchestra and one of Britain’s finest operatic voices certainly did.

By the end of the final performance, Prokofiev’s exuberant first symphony, conductor Dinis Sousa looked drained as he turned to the audience that wasn’t there. Yet.

“Drained is probably the right word,” laughs Dinis as we discuss the important first appearance since his new role was announced.

“It felt like we had achieved something, that’s for sure.

“It was a difficult programme and the first time we had played together since Christmas, so there were lots of muscles being exercised again for everybody.

“Prokofiev is a real work-out for an orchestra. It’s so challenging and fast, by the time you get to the end it is exhilarating but it feels like…wow. You’re exhausted.

“It was a long day too,” reveals Dinis.

“We had extra rehearsals because of the streaming, three or four days beforehand to get into the zone, focus on the programme and rehearse.

“It’s quite an intense and complex process because we don’t have much time, and everybody has to pull together.

“But it is really fun at the same time.

“The programme was quite joyful but the central piece, the Berlioz, is very moving and intense.

“Towards the end, in the Prokofiev, when you’d expect people to be getting tired, there was this burst of energy and they all gave as good as they had.”

“It’s cyclical; you can see players reacting to each other, which increases the intensity of the music-making. I thought there was something special on stage.

“Everybody exhausted all their energy into it but that’s the way it should be.”

The concert in mid-April was the first in the New Beginnings series at the Sage, which is delivering alternate classical and contemporary music via live streams.

The RNS are back on stage but the Sage remains closed to live audiences although, as pandemic restrictions are lifted, they can slowly start to plan to play in front of audiences again.

Venues across the world have been mothballed for the last year but established institutions like RNS, Britain’s only full-time chamber orchestra, are determined to meet the challenges of coronavirus to provide for their desperate and deprived supporters.

Dinis, who first appeared as a guest with the orchestra in January 2020, says musicians and conductors have had to adapt to ensure they can continue performing.

Even simple social distancing measures have led to a different dynamic between the musicians and conductors who, until now, have literally been more in tune due to their close proximity on stage.

He envisages long-term changes for the industry, which could never have been considered previously.

Dinis says: “Music is not just about the great music that we play or how well we play but also the people listening.

“In the moment of a concert there are three of us – the composer, the performers and the audience – and we have to be in it together.

“We’re all very pleased to be performing again but of course we miss the audience.

“It is hard to connect to them through the cameras, but I think we have all learnt how to do it, which is why I speak before each piece to make that connection.

“And there is a very different dynamic for us, and we have had to make adjustments.

“The conductor’s job is even more important because of the social distancing, which has had a real impact on so many levels.

Dinis continues: “You cannot allow yourself to relax and enjoy the music.

“Players are further apart, so there’s a delay and anticipation required, which is quite intense.

“The bassoons and clarinets are so far away that I have to shout now.

“We’re all in the same bubble, but it’s harder to communicate because of the separation.

“I love the fact that we’re playing live like a concert so there’s that energy from a live performance and if the audience is not there at least we can try to bridge that gap.

“A great audience that is attentive and listening contributes to a concert.

“So an empty hall might be beautiful in one way, because it provides a pure silence, but actually it’s more magical if there’s this charged silence with an audience present.

“You can sense people reacting to the music, especially when you have someone like Dame Sarah Connolly performing, who’s singing and facing the audience, but actually looking out at empty seats and has to imagine people listening at home.

“I’ve tuned into similar concerts and felt excited, like I was going to a concert, but it’s not the same.

“You don’t get dressed up, or go out to meet friends, or make sure you have your ticket.

“The main concern is making sure you set up your computer.

“There’s a different sense of occasion but we are just so grateful to be playing at all.

“We would all miss it if we didn’t have it.

And Dinis says he believes some of the changes brought about by COVID-19 will continue into the future.

“I think we’ll probably keep live streams,” he adds

“If one good thing has come from adversity, it’s that we are playing to a wider audience, so my family, for example, can watch from Portugal without having to travel.

“If the audience cannot come to us, we know now we have made a connection to ensure we can always reach out to them.

“As we rebuild our regional touring after this, people will hopefully be able to tune in throughout the year, and see us live when we go to places like Middlesbrough or Carlisle.

“It’s actually very exciting and something we couldn’t have envisaged.”

Dinis doesn’t come from a musical background.

Although his father Jose Eduardo played in a jazz band to fund his studies in Brussels, his grandfather Henrique passed on inspiration, and the piano, for his incredible musical journey.

He was five when his grandfather passed, and his old piano moved into the family home.

He started copying Mozart and Beethoven, experimenting with melodies before his parents enrolled him in a musical school in Porto.

The true enlightenment moment came in London 15 years later, when he was persuaded to quit his film-making studies halfway through the course and pursue his passion for music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Dinis went on to study conducting with Sian Edwards and Timothy Redmond at the Guildhall and piano with Philip Jenkins and Martin Roscoe.

He became assistant to Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his boyhood hero.

It still led to a very different conversation with his parents, however, but he always had the belief that he was on the right track.

“It was slightly awkward,” he says.

“But they could see it coming. I felt so relieved, and it was completely the right thing for me.

“I met a wonderful teacher called Yekaterina Lebedeva, who taught me so much and pushed me towards music.

“I loved music but somehow I thought I wouldn’t make a career in it and she said, ‘if your heart is in the right place, you will find a way’ – she was completely right.

“I did a conducting course and that thought cemented,” continues Dinis.

“Music and actually conducting and being in front of an orchestra did something to me and made me feel different – I felt electrified.

“But it was also about being in an environment where everybody was a musician.

“I had never experienced that before.

“In Porto, it was a hobby for many people, not a career. They wanted to become doctors or engineers.

“At the Guildhall. Though, everyone was like me and loved music.

“Suddenly I felt I was not some crazy kid anymore, and I was at my happiest surrounded by other musicians who shared my passion.

“It was a very special time.

“I joined Guildhall late, and I was determined when I got there that things would happen naturally.

“I was also lucky to meet Sir John and become his assistant.

“It was a huge moment for me, because he was my idol, and working with him was completely life-changing.

“It was more than a dream come true.

“Usually you think these things will never happen, but I got to work with him, and he became a great mentor and friend.”

Eight years ago, he helped found Orquestra XXI, a collection of Portuguese musicians once scattered across the globe, who were united to perform an array of concerts in their home country, with Dinis at the helm as artistic director.

The orchestra has become like family, performing a vast repertoire, from Bach, to Beethoven and Brahms, world premieres by Portuguese composers and Radiohead-inspired pieces in an abandoned football stadium.

He was awarded Knight of the Order of Prince Henry, by President of the Portuguese Republic in recognition.

And North East audiences can anticipate similar diversity and range in his role with the RNS for an initial three seasons – because Dinis is living his dream.

While he was captivated the first moment he saw the RNS in the Sage’s sister concert hall in Porto nearly 20 years
ago, he could never have envisaged he would one day be leading from the front.

He says: “That first concert in Porto was amazing, though I was too young to appreciate it.

“But I really felt this connection when I heard them again in Milton Court years later.

“I was completely blown away by it – the intensity was unlike most concerts.

“It really stood out for me. It felt like the music grabbed me by the neck with this fiery intensity and the purpose of everything felt so alive and exciting.

“When the opportunity came along in January 2020 to conduct the RNS I was super excited.

“I had a great time with them and felt a real rapport between me and the orchestra.

“And when they offered me the role it was just an incredible piece of news and not something I expected to get, ever.

“We did some nice work together, but you don’t assume people will choose you for something like that.

“It’s a huge deal for me and I’m just very grateful.”

As well as his personal pilgrimage to the Sage, which twinkles in the eye of the Millennium Bridge with the other Tyne bridges in the distance, there are connections between the North East and Porto, Portugal’s own city of bridges.

One of Portugal’s greatest authors, Eca de Queiros, spent time here in the late 19th century writing some of his most celebrated work on unrest in the North East coalfields, and 100 years later former miner Sir Bobby Robson coached Dinis’ father’s beloved FC Porto, in the process mentoring a certain Jose Mourinho.

Dinis is looking forward to exploring the area – and spreading the message of his beloved music among us.

He says: “It’s been a tough year and will continue to be tough and there will be a few bumpy months ahead, but I get a genuine sense of excitement around this.

“We’ll have to navigate the uncertainty and we really want to reach out to many more people and for them to come to the concerts so that we are part of their lives.

“We’ll be entering a phase of reaching out to lots of different audiences and there’s a genuine buzz about these great projects.

“It will still be a very exciting chapter.

“People might not realise they have possibly the greatest concert hall in Britain here,” continues Dinis.

“There isn’t anything in London at this level. That is a fact, it is unquestionable.

“London would love to have a concert hall like the Sage, because it has nothing at this level of world-class acoustics, the 21st century building, the iconic design, everything.

“We’re very, very lucky to have this.

“But this is not the end.

“The aim is to spread the message and reach out.

“When you love something so much you don’t want to just do it for yourself but share it with as many people as possible because you believe they will benefit from having it in their lives.

“It really is as simple as that.”