Jacomo Bairos, Miami based Portuguese-American conductor, has conducted in symphonies pretty much all over the country, including St. Louis, San Diego and Florida. Having performed many times with the Grand Rapids Symphony, he’s coming back on Friday, Aug. 3 with Ben Folds for the final Picnic Pops concert of the season at the Cannonsburg Ski Area at 7:30 p.m. GR|MAG had a chance to talk with Bairos ahead of the concert.
GR|MAG: What made you want to get into music and when did you start playing music?
Jacomo Bairos: Good question. So when I was going into the sixth grade, my school had a band and they sent all the [information] out to the parents and my mom asked me if I wanted to be in the band. I said sure and then she asked me what instrument I wanted to play and I had no idea. Then I got into the first day of band class and I was watching the kids pull out their instruments and then I saw this one student pull out the tuba and I thought “whoa that’s the coolest thing I had ever seen” and then the teacher asked me what I wanted to play and I pointed to the tuba and said “tuba!”
So I ended up just randomly picking the tuba and then a year later my teacher took me to see the Canadian Brass in concert and I remember watching the tuba player. He was dancing around and playing all this amazing stuff on the tuba and I just thought “wow I wanna be that guy.” When I got home, I told my mom I wanted to be a musician and I want to play the tuba professionally and she then went out and bought all these recordings of [famous tuba players] and I guess the rest you could say is history. I couldn’t live without it.
GR|MAG: Have you played anything besides the tuba?
JB: No, it’s always been pretty much the tuba. I can play a few notes on the piano when I need to study something but I’ve never really fell in love with anything else.
GR|MAG: I have never meet anyone who has played the tuba so it seems pretty cool!
JB: Yeah, it’s crazy, I don’t know any other tuba player conductors that are, you know, making a career for themselves. I might be the only one but I mean if you find someone, let me know because I’m interested.
GR|MAG: Did you play in your high school band as well?
JB: Yes, I played in my high school band and then I went to Interlochen [Arts Academy] for my sophomore year of high school because I was so interested in music and staying within music. It’s a music academic school and that as really the key for me. That’s where my life really got focused. I mean I was always dedicated and I was always driven but going to Interlochen and being surrounded by people who loved it as much as I did was the key. Interlochen really changed my life.
GR|MAG: I saw you went to Juilliard. Do you remember the feeling of when you were accepted?
JB: I haven’t thought about this in a while. My senior year of high school I auditioned for a bunch of schools but really I always wanted to go to Juilliard. I got into Juilliard but there was no money attached and my mom was like “I cant really afford that. I mean this is going to be really hard.” But there was an admissions director [at Juilliard] who actually had worked at Interlochen and called some references at Interlochen to ask about me. Then I got a call from my mom saying I got a full ride for tuition for Juilliard. It was amazing.
GR|MAG: How long have you been a conductor?
JB: About 11 years. I was with Singapore Symphony for a while, that was my job before this. I put on this huge concert in 2006 but I wasn’t the conductor, I was still just a tuba player and then the management of the orchestra came up to me and said, “OK, you have talent. We would love to have you stay with us.”
So I decided to take a master class [for conducting]. I’ve gotten to play around the world with a few different conductors and I’ve always been fascinated by it. With conducting, there is a craft behind it and you just got to learn the craft. So getting into this master class really opened my eyes to the world of conducting.
I was kind of burned out from the tuba in a way. I just thought you know am I really maximizing my talents? Is playing the tuba it? At the master class, the teacher came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go study with Gustav Meier (Swiss-born conductor). He was the foremost teacher of all these incredible conductors and I was like “um, yes!” That was the summer of 2007 … I got a call from Gustav and he said he wanted me to join him so I left my job [with Singapore Symphony], moved to the states and here I am.
GR|MAG: When you were younger, did you always want to be a professional musician?
JB: I always wanted to play in an orchestra. That was a thing. I love the orchestra. As soon as I got to Juilliard, I started going to auditions for orchestra. I was eager to play in one. But then when I finally got to Singapore, I thought, is this what I really want to be doing with my life? And then that’s when all the questions started to be raised.
GR|MAG: You are doing a concert on August 3 with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Have you ever played with the Grand Rapids Symphony before?
JB: Yes, I have. I have a relationship with them that expands for about three or four years now. I love that orchestra so much. It is one of my favorite institutions to work for in a lot of ways. It’s incredibly genuine … and filled with pride.
They play at a level that is much higher than you would expect that orchestra to play at being so close to Detroit and Chicago. [Grand Rapids] really supports art and culture in its own way. Everyone is just really dedicated and it’s a real, real fantastic organization to work for.
GR|MAG: You are also conducting with Ben Folds on stage for that same show. Have you ever met him before and played his music before?
JB: Yeah, I have been working with him for over five years.
GR|MAG: What should audiences expect for this show?
JB: For this show, [audiences] will get a really traditional pops program. Ben Folds has been doing what I’ve been doing in Miami but he’s been doing it for like 20 years now, which is bringing his music to the orchestra to elevate the orchestra but at the same time, it brings a lot more panache to his music.
He does it in a way that is very acoustic, which I really respect. He’s taking the art form in a new direction. His version is that all things are equal. The orchestra is being shown off, the music is being shown off and he’s just a very talented guy. He’s a very creative guy.
GR|MAG: What has been your greatest accomplishment so far in your musical career?
JB: I think right now conducting but honestly the creation and the success and the growth of Nu Deco Ensemble [Miami’s critically acclaimed, genre-bending orchestra, for which Bairos is co-founder] has been incredibly rewarding because I’ve given back to the community that raised me and as I grew up and as I was coming along, there was a lot of people who helped me and supported me. So to provide music for this community is incredibly rewarding. It’s been astonishing and sometimes I don’t take myself out if it to look at it but it’s nice to reflect on it.
*Photos by Terry Johnston