Coffee Talk with Jacomo Bairos

On Saturday night the Asheville Symphony Orchestra will welcome Jacomo Bairos, the final candidate contending to be the organization’s next music director. Bairos is the current music director of the Amarillo Symphony and co-founder — along with composer Sam Hyken — of the Nu Deco Ensemble, a chamber orchestra based in Miami dedicated to performing eclectic original works, classical standards, and orchestral interpretations of modern songs spanning all genres of music.

Born in Lisbon, Portugal, Bairos moved to Homestead, Florida, when he was four years old. His classical music career began in sixth grade, when he took up the tuba, a decision that eventually landed him a position as principal tuba at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. In 2007, he left Singapore to pursue a conducting career that has since taken him all over the world, including back to Portugal for a meaningful homecoming. For his genre-defying program with the ASO, aptly titled “Bend It,” he will be joined by violinist Jennifer Frautschi.

As part of the ASO’s ongoing Coffee Talk interview series, I caught up with Bairos at Trade and Lore Coffee on Wednesday, May 9.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Bairos discusses what attracted him to the tuba, the benefits of classical interpretation, what it was like returning to Portugal, and more.

AR: You were first tuba at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. This strikes me as an interesting background for a conductor. How did you get into it?
JB: On the first day of band, I’m sitting around with all of the kids, and the director is going around asking everyone what they want to play. People raise their hand for the saxophone, trumpet, drums, clarinet, you know, all the famous ones. And this kid came out of the music storage room, and he had this huge, gold, shiny tuba in his arms. I was just looking at this tuba and I was like, “Woah, a tuba — look at that!” The teacher said, “Okay, a tuba! We need them; we don’t have any at all.” My dad had to carry the tuba around. It was bigger than me.

AR: One of the works you’ll be conducting, “Four – A reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, includes a Moog synthesizer. Did you know that Moog headquarters are in Asheville? Did you select this piece on purpose?
JB: I know Moog headquarters are in Asheville, but I didn’t select this piece because of it. I selected this piece randomly. I had sent in Brahms’ Second Symphony as part of my program, and [the artistic affairs committee] would not let that go. At the time we were talking about it, my musical partner in Miami, Sam Hyken, was commissioned to write this new version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The piece wasn’t even finished yet, but I heard a MIDI clip of it one night at his house, and I was on the floor. It dawned on me that this would be the perfect counterpoint to Brahms since it was a genre-bending work and Brahms was a genre-bending composer for his day.

AR: In your opinion, what makes a good conductor?
JB: Someone who communicates from a deep, authentic, personal, soulful, heart-space. And in a way that energizes and synergizes the musicians and inspires them to perform their best, while at the same time connecting with audiences. Yeah, there’s a lot of brass tacks, and work, so the better I am at my craft the more communicative I can be and the deeper understanding I can have with the music. But ultimately authenticity is the key, and you just gotta be who you are. Musicians can smell it. You can’t hide who you are on the podium; you just can’t. 

AR: If you become music director of the ASO, what sorts of initiatives would you like to see them take on?
JB: Honestly, what they’re doing already is fabulous. I think the recording projects they have are incredible. I think the core classics that they perform and the community’s acceptance of them is exceptional. I think the MusicWorks! program that you have is great. I think there are a lot of great pieces that are already here that allow this place to have a really bright future, and I’d like to expand all of that. I’d like to win Grammys with the orchestra; I’d like to make recordings with this orchestra; I’d like to put on concerts that sell out all 2,400 seats of the symphony hall and that are compelling, imaginative, engrossing — that really stir the soul of this community.

AR: Through Nu Deco you’ve collaborated with a lot of popular artists, like Ben Folds, Bilal, Seu Jorge, and Bryce Dessner (of The National). What kind of work do you typically do with them?
JB: We’re bringing these artists into the symphonic setting, and we allow the orchestra to lift up the artist in a unique way. The classical symphony as an institution is an elevating institution. It makes everything around it better. You put a singer out in front, it makes the singer better. You put in a violinist in front, it makes the violinist better — in my personal opinion. The sound, and the colors, and the motion, and the beauty of what an artist can produce, elevates every artist who comes with it. Everybody.

AR: Why are you so captivated by genre-bending?
JB: I think I’m captivated with great music. And “genre-bending” is really “genre-less” if you think about it. To me, the 21st century is the best time for classical music. There are so many exciting artists, there are so many exciting composers, there are so many tools at our disposal to create really compelling events and transformative concerts. Why not use all of these? The orchestra has always been a vehicle for expression.

AR: What was it like performing in Portugal?
JB: It was always my mom’s dream for me to reconnect with my Portuguese roots because I think deep down she felt bad that she took me away so early. She loved Portugal without measure. She used to always tell me, “I feel like a third-world soul trapped in a first-world body,” and I love that description. It’s exactly how I feel when I’m in Portugal. I think just being back with my roots, and feeling totally comfortable, and being surrounded by the beauty of what the Portuguese people are, is really healing.

Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and book editor who lives in Asheville.

www.adammrosen.com