Rui dos Reis

Born: January 5th, 1954, Lisbon (Portugal)
Nationality: Portuguese (1954-) / Swiss (2010-)

Eurovision record
Rui dos Reis orchestrated and conducted ‘Mon cœur l’aime’, a composition by Régis Mounir with which Kathy Leander represented Switzerland in the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo. This Swiss entry finished joint sixteenth amongst twenty-three competing songs.

Rui dos Reis in 1992

Both parents of Rui José Rodrigues dos Reis worked as employees at the Portuguese national postal service in Lisbon. “Both of my parents were profoundly interested in music”, Rui recounts. “My dad got himself a turntable and started buying classical records. Thus, I was introduced to the Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov, Beethoven’s symphonies, and Édouard Lalo’s Violin Concerto at a very early age. My mother had been taught to play the piano as a girl and there was a piano in our house. Apparently, when I was five, I was watching a light-entertainment programme on the TV with my parents, upon which I sat myself at the piano and started playing the melodies I had just heard. Of course, my mum and dad were surprised, as I had not been taking any music lessons. From as early as I can remember, I was fascinated by music… not just my father’s records, but also popular songs I heard on the radio. As a teenager, I liked the Beatles, and later onwards also other rock groups such as Blood Sweat & Tears and Genesis. I listened to them for hours on end and still do so. I have never wanted to make a choice between classical and popular music. To my mind, there are two kinds of music: good music and uninteresting music. There is also lame classical music, after all!”

In 1962, Rui’s parents allowed him to take his first piano lessons. “Actually, my teacher was a violinist”, he laughs, “but he was the only one available. There was an association in the postal service which made money available for the employees’ children and that is how my parents could afford these lessons in the first place. This teacher was a clever guy who gave me the theoretical basis. After two years, he confessed to my parents that they needed to start looking for someone else, as I had become a better pianist than him. Then I was sent to Lisbon’s Music Academy, where I studied under Francine Benoît for some five years. Ms Benoît was an older woman and originally from Belgium. She was raised in the tradition of Satie and other important musicians of the early 20th century and managed to bring across the emotion of that era. She taught me harmony and the basics of counterpoint as well. At the Music Academy, I also took classes of music history.”

At eight years old, Rui gave his first public performance as a pianist (Lisbon, 1962)

Upon completing high school in 1972, Rui embarked on studying biology at the University of Lisbon. Rui about this choice: “My parents were reluctant to let me go for a music career and encouraged me to obtain an academic diploma instead. I was and still am genuinely interested in biology, especially microbiology and genetics. If I had progressed, I would probably have gone into research. Towards the end of ’73, I left university to perform my military service. By that time, I had been the Hammond organ player of a rock band, Petrus Castrus, for two years. One of the other band members, José Castro, was a former schoolmate of mine and we were both fascinated by bands such as Procol Harum… progressive rock. José was the brains of the group, so to speak – he composed most of the material. It was really a band for the underground scene, but our album ‘Mestre’, which we recorded in Paris in ’73, has become some sort of ‘cult’ in Portugal and was re-released on CD many years later. Besides working with Petrus Castrus, I worked as a bar pianist in Botequin, a literary café in Lisbon. It was Maestro Jorge Machado, who I met through a mutual friend, who got me this job. All of this earned me some valuable money.”

Though Rui had to perform his military service (1974-’77), he could continue working as a musician. “In fact, I went into the military as a volunteer”, he comments. “That was just a couple of months before the revolution. My main reason for doing so was that volunteers were not sent to the front, fighting the rebels in Angola. I became a regular controller in the Air Forces. I needed special commissions to get away for gigs, but this was usually not a problem. In 1975, when the pop group Quarteto 1111 was reformed, I joined as a keyboard player. The other members were Luís Duarte, Armindo Neves, and Vitor Mamede. Funnily, Luís and Armindo later also conducted in Eurovision! We made many studio recordings and even participated in the Portuguese Eurovision selection in 1977. In the 1975-’76 theatre season, our group was hired to accompany the Portuguese production of the musical comedy ‘Godspell’, based on the last days of the Passion. After that year, we went on a six- month-transatlantic tour, performing for the Portuguese communities in Canada and the US. Eventually, we split up in ’78.”

The Portuguese prog rock group Petrus Castrus in 1971. Far left: Rui dos Reis

Apart from his involvement with Quarteto 1111, Reis continued working as a piano bar musician. Moreover, he was sought-after as a studio musician for recording sessions, playing for Jorge Machado and other popular music arrangers. “… but there were also singer-songwriters such as Tózé Brito and Júlio Pereira who liked working with me for their sessions”, Rui adds. “In 1975, I played the piano on two albums by Paulo de Carvalho, who even included ‘Fim’, an instrumental piece composed by me, on one of them. I was known for being able to adapt my style to each particular music genre. As a session musician, I could practically work all year ‘round. Slowly, I started being asked to write some arrangements as well. One of them became a big hit, ‘Recordar é viver’, recorded by a singer called Vitor Espadinha in 1978. The parlando style of the song was heavily inspired on Joe Dassin’s ‘L’été indien’. By that time, I had started studying some textbooks on orchestration to learn about the range of each particular instrument. These record arrangements were an opportunity to practice my skills. Unfortunately, I was not clever enough to ask royalties… I was simply paid for each arrangement – and that was the end of the story. ‘Recordar é viver’ could have earned me a lot more money if I had been more of a businessman! Nonetheless, I was able to make a decent living as a musician. That was one of the reasons why I decided not to go back to studying biology after leaving the army.”

Instead, Rui’s academic ambition turned to music studies again and he took up studying piano, organ, and harpsichord at the National Conservatory in Lisbon, where he spent two years (1977-’79). Rui: “Having become interested in the classical composers of the baroque era, I focussed on courses in harpsichord and organ, the latter of which was taught by a German professor, Gerhard Doderer. I never envisaged some career as a concert pianist or organ player… I had not been taking music lessons for a while and I simply felt the urge to widen my outlook as a musician. Little was I to know that I would make a living as a church organist one day!”

Playing the Hammond organ during a recording session for Júlio Pereira (Lisbon, 1974)

By the end of the 1970s, Rui dos Reis set his mind on a rather unusual step: leaving Portugal. “Frankly speaking, I was fed up with some aspects of Portuguese society. Whilst studying biology, I had lost my religious beliefs… of course, after the Carnation Revolution, the influence of Catholicism on society waned, but what remained was this excessive patriotism. Even after having given up our colonies in Africa, the Portuguese still refused to turn the page instead of accepting that our empire was gone and that we are little more than an insignificant country in a far corner of Europe. Essentially, Portuguese mentality did not change. Not being particularly interested in politics, I did not feel any sympathy for the leftist movement which dominated the country either. Initially, I wanted to move to Vancouver in Canada, as I had taken up a particular liking for the Canadian west coast when on tour there with Quarteto 1111 in ’76. When I applied for a visa at the Canadian embassy, though, I was told the maximum number of Portuguese immigrants to Canada in 1979 had already been exceeded. Moreover, my parents were still alive at that time and it would have felt awkward leaving them behind by literally moving to the other side of the planet. The solution came when some friends told me about Artur Pinheiro, a Portuguese band leader working in nightclubs in Geneva in Switzerland, who was looking for a keyboard player. What a coincidence! I decided to give it a try and moved to Geneva in January 1979 – initially to stay there for six months.”

“Pinheiro’s band played mostly disco music, which was really easy for me”, Reis continues. “After having spent the summer of ’79 with my parents in Portugal, I returned and did some other jobs. Amongst other things, I formed a duo with singer Jorge Cortes, who I accompanied at the piano in performances in clubs and bars in Geneva. This collaboration lasted for about a year. This life became somewhat boring though, playing the same songs all over again. I noticed my technique was declining. Therefore, I applied for the Geneva Conservatory – and was duly accepted. Between 1980 and 1986, I studied a wide range of subjects: piano, harmony, composition, orchestration, and counterpoint. Thanks to Prof. Daniel Spiegelberg, I improved my skills at the piano considerably. At the Early Music Institute of Geneva’s University of Music, I took up my harpsichord studies again with an excellent teacher, Marinette Extermann. It was inspirational to work with people who were really into this new interpretation of ancient music with smaller instrumentations and smaller choirs, which had fascinated me since discovering modern Bach interpretations by Harnoncourt and Klemperer back in Portugal in the 1970s. Meanwhile, I made a living mainly by playing piano-bar in the evenings in posh hotels such as the Hilton and the Continental.”

At home in Geneva, 1985

In Switzerland, Reis kept on exploring new corners of the music universe. In his first years in Geneva, he played the piano in jazz rock group Incognito. Between 1983 and 1986, he studied big band orchestration privately with Achille Scotti. “I had been interested in jazz for a long time”, Rui explains. “In Portugal, back in the 70s, I had occasionally played in Zé Eduardo’s Orquestra Girassol, a big band. In Switzerland, I wanted to add some jazz perspective to the classical orchestration I was taught at conservatory. Therefore, I turned to Maestro Scotti. He was blind, but had an incredible memory and judged my assignments by having me read them out note by note. Scotti formed a duet with flute player Ilan Horowitz. When Scotti suddenly died in 1987, Ilan called me in panic, imploring me to take over Scotti’s place. Together, we played potpourris and new arrangements of classical pieces, with me accompanying Ilan on a church organ. Between 1988 and 1994, we had a recital nearly every week. We played all over Switzerland and even did a concert in Ontario, Canada. This fruitful collaboration enabled me to develop my arranging ability, putting things together and experimenting. I remember working on a potpourri of Händel music and it turned into a total mess… but these messes turned out to be the pieces which our audience liked the most!”

In 1986, Rui dos Reis was asked by his old friend Tózé Brito from Lisbon to write the arrangements for the latter’s album ‘As noites íntimas de um hotel com estrelas’. To his own amazement, Reis, who by that time hardly worked in Portugal anymore, was awarded with the prize for best arrangement of the year by the Portuguese Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers. Meanwhile, upon finishing his conservatory studies, he made a living in Switzerland with a string of different professional activities, including teaching the piano at the Institut Willems de la Côte in Nyon (1986-’89), accompanying ballets and choirs during rehearsals and in concerts (1986-2000), and playing as a pianist in hotel lobbies, most notably the Mirador in Vevey (1986-2006). In the 1990s and 2000s, he performed in countless concerts with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra as a pianist and harmonium player. As a piano accompanist, he worked with the classical sopranos Nathalie Choquette from Canada (1992-’94) and Tomoko Masur from Japan (1993-2005), performing on three different continents. With Masur and her sister Koko Taylor, he recorded five Christmas CDs. In 2006, he teamed up with Choquette once more for a live performance at the Québec Summer Festival in Canada.

Rui Reis with Tomoko Masur (seated) and Koko Taylor, 1993

In 1993, Rui dos Reis was contracted by the Barnabé Theatre in Servion, not far from Lausanne; for three years, he was the musical director of this small venue, writing arrangements for theatrical performances and supervising several opera and choral productions. Moreover, he was the resident church organ player in Vouvry (Valais) between 1988 and 1995 and has occupied the same position in Montreux from 1989 to today. Reis: “Someone from Vouvry heard me playing the organ in a recital with Horowitz and asked me if I would be interested. The organ in Vouvry is a historical instrument, which was an additional reason for me to accept. It was another opportunity to develop myself as a musician. Working as an organist has enabled me to improvise a lot… eighty per cent of the music I play in Montreux is improvisation. Surprisingly, people attending mass often prefer these improvisations to pieces by Bach or other classical composers. They are often astonished when they find out it is not church music composed centuries ago they have been listening to.”

As a creative musician, Reis composed several pieces for jazz band and piano in the 1980s. Later onwards, he composed the music to a musical comedy performed in Swiss theatres, ‘Alice et le Pays des Merveilles’ (1996), and wrote the music to another musical, ‘SOS Geneva’, commissioned at the occasion of the seventy-fifth birthday of Geneva’s International School (2000). Rui, being the musical omnivore that he is, wrote several purely classical pieces as well, of which two in particular received considerable critical acclaim. In 1995, he published a ‘Cantata: Meditatio XXI’ commemorating the victims of World War II and all wars since. This was followed by ‘Le Sermon de Gaïa’ (2007). Both pieces were performed by the Lausanne University Choir.

Playing the harpsichord, 1991

“Apart from an unpublished piano piece in neo-romantic style I wrote in the 1980s”, Reis comments, “the ‘Meditatio’ was my debut as a serious composer. With a friend, Professor Patrick Stocco, I discussed the fact that there had not been a single day since the end of the Second World War without a war or conflict raging in some part of the world. Therefore, we felt that one cannot credibly hold that there is peace in the world. We wanted to create something around this theme. Patrick wrote a Latin libretto for the ‘Meditatio’ and I composed the music. Like the ‘Meditatio’, the ‘Sermon’ is pieces trying to make people think about the situation of our world. For this second piece, I included folk instruments in the orchestration. As for my style, I aim at creating a synthesis of all genres of music which I have played in my life, grabbing ideas from different corners of the musical spectre and putting them together in a manner that the final result succeeds in transmitting an emotion. Just to give you an idea… in the ‘Meditatio’, I combined Gregorian chant with contemporary percussion, whilst the last movement of the same piece consists of joyful dancing rhythms with strictly contrapuntal vocal arrangements.”

Meanwhile, Reis, who lived in Montreux for twelve years before settling down in the vicinity of Sion, has acquired Swiss citizenship. As his wife Huei is an American, they regularly travel to the USA, spending time with family in Connecticut several weeks a year. Professionally, Reis worked as a piano accompanist for auditions and clarinet lessons in Greenwich Ct., whilst he composed a piece for the Greenwich High School Band (2007). In collaboration with American cancer specialist Dr. Carl Simonton, he recorded a CD with music for therapy of cancer patients. In Switzerland, he specialized in writing computerized music transcriptions and recordings for film composers. Apart from his work as a church organist, in recent years, he has continued composing music ranging from classical piano pieces to children’s songs.

Close-up, July 2013

Rui dos Reis in the Eurovision Song Contest
Rui dos Reis’ involvement as a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest came in 1996, but he attempted taking part in the festival as a performer two decades before. As a member of Quarteto 1111, a Portuguese pop band also including Luís Duarte, Vitor Mamede, and Armindo Neves, he participated in the Festival RTP da Canção, Portugal’s Eurovision pre-selection, in 1977. The group performed the song ‘O que custar’, with music and lyrics by Fernando Guerra and conducted by José Calvário. This song, also interpreted by Green Windows in that same selection show, was beaten by the eventual winner, ‘Portugal no coração’.

In 1989, following Céline Dion’s Eurovision victory for Switzerland the year before, the international festival final was held in the Beaulieu Congress Centre, Lausanne. Musical director Benoît Kaufman organised auditions in order to find the best musicians for his Eurovision orchestra. Rui dos Reis, who lived in Montreux at that time, decided to apply to be one of the pianists in the ensemble. “At the audition, Kaufman asked me to do some sight-reading”, he recalls. “After I had played him a classical piece I had prepared, he asked me if I was also familiar with other styles of music. To prove him that I was, I played him some pop song which is actually in 6/8… but I did it in 5/8. He could not possibly understand what I was doing. When I explained him my little trick, he was fascinated. Perhaps that is what won me the contract! I was one of three pianists. Benoît also hired a French guy, some Bernard, and Alexandre Cellier, an excellent young local musician who I later asked to play in my ‘Sermon de Gaïa’.”

The single release of ‘O que custar’, with which Quarteto 1111 participated in the Portuguese Eurovision pre-selection in 1977. The group’s members, standing: Vitor Mamede; seated, from left to right: Rui dos Reis, Luís Duarte, and Armindo Neves. Luís Duarte happened to be Portugal’s conductor in the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest in Lausanne, when Rui was in the Eurovision orchestra as a pianist

In the business, Benoît Kaufman has a reputation of not being the easiest musician to work with. Rui: “He is Maître Benoît, he is the boss, and he likes to show that he is the boss. At the same time, he is a good professional who knows his job. When I conducted the orchestra in the contest in Oslo in ’96, I found out that it is necessary to be tough with musicians sometimes, because otherwise they will feel your insecurity and take advantage of it. Conducting is fifty per cent music knowledge and fifty per cent psychology… over the years, I worked with many different conductors. Kaufman is not the kind of Mahler despot who keeps on rehearsing with the orchestra for the sake of rehearsing. If you do exactly what he wants you to do, you are fine. If, on the other hand, musicians are doing whatever they like, he gets aggressive. Depending on the style of music, many musicians also like playing in an orchestra to meet up with old friends and have a good time… and Benoît does not like that. He simply wants you to do your job and play. I had no problems with him whatsoever.”

“My overriding memory of the contest in Lausanne is the presence of Céline Dion”, Rui continues. “I had not followed the contest the year before and it was the first time I heard her winning Eurovision song, ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’. She performed it at the beginning of the programme. I was blown away by Céline’s incredible voice and the power of the song, which has a very nice melody. I remember listening to it and feeling the emotion she was putting into it. As for the competing entries, the orchestra’s favourite was Spain (‘Nacida para amar’ performed by Nina and composed/conducted by Juan Carlos Calderón, BT). After we had rehearsed it with the Spanish conductor for the first time, all musicians started applauding. It was a nice coincidence that Luís Duarte was the conductor for Portugal. Together, we had been in the Quarteto 1111 back in Portugal for several years. One evening, we went out for a drink and a chat, which was nice. During the concert, the orchestra’s guitar player got the Cypriot song terribly wrong. As far as I remember, that was the only hiccup in the show.”

Rui dos Reis at the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest in Lausanne, meeting up with Dora Phidalgo, one of the members of Da Vinci, the band participating for Portugal

In 1996, Rui dos Reis conducted ‘Mon cœur l’aime’, the Swiss entry in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest held in Oslo, Norway. It was performed by Kathy Leander (in real life: Catherine Meyer), who managed to pick up twenty-two votes and finished joint sixteenth amongst twenty-three competing acts. How did Reis, who was not a trained conductor, get involved in this Eurovision project? “Curiously, this happened because of the ‘Cantata’, my debut as a classical composer in 1995”, he laughs. “In January 1996, I was working on the master tape of the ‘Cantata’ in a studio in Geneva. Along came a tall young guy, one Régis Mounir, who heard my music and, as I was told later, was very impressed, though he was not into classical music at all. We had never met before, but, a couple of weeks later, he suddenly telephoned me. It turned out the sound engineer of the studio, a common friend of ours, had passed my number onto Régis. Régis told me he had written a song for the Swiss Eurovision selection and that, to his own surprise, the committee had chosen his song to represent the country in Oslo. Of course, he was talking about ‘Mon cœur l’aime’.”

“His main worry now was to make sure a proper orchestration was written”, Reis continues. “For the demo he had submitted to the broadcaster, he had worked up an arrangement with keyboards only. He wondered if I was interested in writing the orchestral transcription and conducting the orchestra in Norway. “In Oslo, there is a real orchestra and I do not know how to write for that!”, he exclaimed. He did not even read music, though he was an excellent drummer. What an opportunity! Of course, I accepted. I had to make sure the keyboard arrangement would turn into a workable and balanced orchestration. With keyboards, you can balance everything, but once you are working with acoustic instruments, a clarinet will be drowned when put together with a trombone, for example. Moreover, the record version had to be cut down to three minutes. Régis simply told me how he wanted that done. I prepared an orchestral demo with a computer and we rehearsed it with the singer here in Switzerland.”

The CD single release of Switzerland’s entry to the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Mon cœur l’aime’

“Honestly”, Reis admits, “I was dead-nervous about conducting. The only background I had from conservatory were some lessons by Michel Corboz in Geneva, who had taught me the absolute basics of choral conducting. As a studio arranger in Portugal, I had once stood up for an orchestra in a recording session. That was in 1985 for the recording of a Tózé Brito album… but that was a small group of musicians, not an orchestra of some seventy pieces! Before we left for Norway, I rehearsed the orchestral demo many times… to make sure I knew exactly which instrument played at what time and to learn all gestures by heart. I did not want the musicians to see any hesitation. When I stood up in front of that huge Norwegian Radio Orchestra, I was fully aware of the fact that I had never done anything like this before. Actually, Régis Mounir was a big help. He played the piano live on stage and the songs starts with piano only. Régis turned out to be a really steady pianist, indicating the right tempo and the correct mood for the song. I simply had to follow him. After we had rehearsed for the first time, Régis indicated that he wanted the string section to play louder. The orchestra musicians responded well and we were thoroughly satisfied. Our orchestration worked well! From that moment, my nerves were gone.”

Rui and Régis Mounir were less happy with the way the interpreter, Kathy Leander, handled the song. Rui: “The song is very nice and, to me, the disappointing result was largely due to the fact that our singer had no guts. I mean, you will not hear me say that we deserved to win, as ‘The voice’ from Ireland was a really good winner… and I cannot swear that if somebody else had sung it, we would have done much better, but that girl was not a professional singer. She worked in an office. While we were still preparing the project in Switzerland, Régis confessed to me: If only I could have another singer! I do not know why and how he had chosen her. Though nobody can accuse her of singing out of tune, her performance was not convincing… she sang, but failed to interpret. I still remember Céline Dion singing ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’, but Kathy did not leave any imprint on me. During rehearsals, Régis and I encouraged her to put more emotion into her performance, asking her to sing a little louder and with more intensity. She would respond well to this the next time we played it – but then the third time, it was gone again. She was too bland!”

Rui dos Reis conducting the orchestral accompaniment to Kathy Leander’s performance of ‘Mon cœur l’aime’ – 1996 Eurovision Song Contest, Oslo

As was customary in the 1990s, the Swiss delegation to the contest was one of the smallest of all competing countries. Without hesitation, Rui recalls who were there: “Kathy, Régis, me, two backing singers, a delegation leader from Swiss television and his assistant… so we were seven. We were a good team, though Kathy was a bit left out, because she did not seem to understand our musicians’ talk. The connection between Régis and me was strictly professional. He is an enigmatic character and I did not really get to know him. While rehearsing and waiting, we talked about music, but away from that, we did not really bond, although I got to appreciate his skills as a musician. I never met him again after the contest. I spent most time with the two backing vocalists, a boy and a girl. The three of us explored the city-centre of Oslo. The organisation also offered a magnificent cruise on the Oslo Fjord. I was eager to learn as much about Nordic culture as I could, as I had never been to Scandinavia before.”

Then came the inevitable jury verdict: a sixteenth place, shared with Belgium. Reis: “We supported Kathy and gave her the best possible back-up, but it was not to be… All of us were hugely disappointed. Nonetheless, for me personally, this was some sort of dream coming true. The Eurovision Song Contest is one of the first programmes that I remember watching as a child. I was flattered that somebody actually considered asking me to conduct his composition. Remember, at that time I did not have the Swiss nationality yet and Swiss TV had to accept Régis’ suggestion to hire me to represent the country as the conductor of their team. Afterwards, I was complimented by friends, even friends from the serious music world… there was no negative backdrop at all. It was a very nice experience and I am proud having been part of this festival once.”

Oslo 1996: Rui dos Reis during a moment of relaxation with that year’s Portuguese Eurovision entrant, Lúcia Moniz

“I would have liked doing Eurovision again”, Rui concludes. “In the year after, I composed a song with a friend from Geneva and submitted it to the Swiss Eurovision selection committee, but it was not picked. As for the reputation of the contest, I notice that many musicians, not only from the classical world but even from pop and rock, talk about Eurovision in a condescending way. To my mind, instead of complaining about all those cheap songs, it is our job to raise the level by creating good music that is interesting and bringing it to the attention of this big European audience. It is such a pity that there is no longer an orchestra in the festival – it should be there as an option, for those who want to use it. If the orchestra was still there, I would probably try again myself.”

Other artists on Rui dos Reis
So far, we have not gathered comments of other artists about Rui dos Reis.

Lisbon 1986: in a recording session with pop singer Adelaide Ferreira

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Rui dos Reis in Fully (Switzerland), July 2013.
  • All photos courtesy of Rui dos Reis.



Songs conducted
1996: Mon cœur l'aime