Askonas Holt recently welcomed Portuguese conductor Dinis Sousa to our artist family. Dinis will be represented by Askonas Holt for general management.
Dinis is Founder and Artistic Director of Orquestra XXI — one of Portugal’s leading performing groups — as well as the first-ever Assistant Conductor of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choirs & Orchestras. For his work with Orquestra XXI, Dinis was awarded the title of Knight of the Order of Prince Henry of the Portuguese Republic.
Dinis studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he was the school’s Conducting Fellow. While at Guildhall he conducted several projects, including Bach’s St. John Passion at Milton Court and a staged production of Harrison Birtwistle’s Down by the Greenwood Side at the Silk Street Theatre. He made his debut with the Royal Northern Sinfonia in January 2020 and has since been re-invited for multiple projects in the 2020/21 season (including a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in April 2021).
We spoke with Dinis to discuss the orchestra he founded in 2013, working with John Eliot Gardner, his conducting philosophy, and more.
You are founder and artistic director of Orquestra XXI, which brings together some of the best young Portuguese musicians living abroad. Can you tell us how the orchestra came about and what your motivations were?
The idea for the orchestra came about with my friend Manuel Durão, a Portuguese composer who lives in Leipzig. We were discussing how so many Portuguese musicians of our generation now lived abroad and that we couldn’t do any projects with the people we had in mind, unless we flew them in. We had a sort of “Eureka” moment and thought: “that’s precisely what we’re going to do!”
In the last 10-15 years, a lot of young Portuguese people felt the need to leave the country, partly due to the financial crisis, but also in order to find new opportunities and to broaden their horizons. When we created the orchestra in 2013, a lot of us were feeling that we had lost our connection to the country and we wanted to change that. That’s what the orchestra is there to do: to find a way to keep so many of these fantastic musicians connected to Portugal, so that they can share some of their work with each other and with our country. It’s a lot of work — we rehearse intensively for a few days and do three or four concerts — but it’s always a huge pleasure. Everyone is so committed and enjoys playing and rehearsing with each other so much, that it doesn’t feel like work at all.
Of course the structure of our orchestra means that we are facing huge limitations to what we can do right now. All our musicians are spread across Europe and it’s not an easy time to fly people around, so we’ve had to cancel our tours so far this year. Everybody is really keen to get back together and we are putting together some exciting projects for the autumn, hoping that we can bring them to life!
You were appointed as the first ever Assistant Conductor of the Monteverdi Choirs & Orchestra in 2019. What has the position, and working closely with John Eliot Gardiner, taught you?
I was extremely honoured to have this position created for me. I remember saying at the time that I couldn’t call it a “dream come true” because I never even dreamt about such a thing! The last couple of years have been the most significant learning curve of my life; John Eliot Gardiner is someone I have hugely admired since I was a kid, and the opportunity to learn from his approach to such varied repertoire has really had an impact on my growth as a musician. I have been very fortunate to work with him on some incredible projects, ranging from Bach Cantatas to Berlioz operas or this year’s Beethoven Symphony Cycle – which we were really lucky to squeeze in just before the whole world closed down! Working across all three groups (English Baroque Soloists, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and the Monteverdi Choir) in a very hands-on way has been really significant for me and, as a young conductor, I couldn’t have asked for a better and more challenging environment in which to learn and grow – it’s been an incredible gift.
You’ve spoken before about not always knowing that you wanted to pursue music as a career from the offset; was there a defining moment that made you switch to conducting?
As I was finishing high school in Portugal, I didn’t think a career in music was a realistic possibility. Growing up, I wasn’t in a particularly musical circle and I didn’t know anyone that followed that path, so I never thought it was an option. I decided to study filmmaking and was hoping to become a director. One summer, I decided to do a conducting course in Portugal, for fun. It was such a great experience that I went back the following year, and that time we all had to conduct the opening of Beethoven 5 with the orchestra. Something happened in that moment and I left the stage shaking. It seemed to have gone well and our teacher, Jean-Sébastien Béreau, encouraged me to take conducting seriously, which I did!
What’s your approach to conducting and the role of a conductor?
The role and responsibilities of a conductor change according to the orchestra, the project and even the repertoire. Ideally, as conductors we want to enable players to play at their best and give great performances, and to do justice to the music that we perform. A lot of the time, we are conducting masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest artists, and that comes with a lot of responsibility. There are so many different ways you can approach a piece, a movement, even a phrase, so I try to live with the piece for as long as possible and explore different ideas before rehearsals start. I try to have a vision of the piece that I am confident in – even if that might change the next time I do it! I also find it very helpful to be a pianist and to work on a lot of chamber music by the composers that I tend to conduct. It really informs the way I see their symphonic output, and it helps me understand the music differently, by being immersed in it from a different angle.
Dinis Sousa is represented at Askonas Holt by Niall Houlihan.
Photo by Sim Canetty Clarke