Meet Jacomo Bairos — Making Classical Music Relevant for the 21st Century

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday June 12, 2019

The great political tumult that led to the rise of the European nation states also created a musical trend for 19th century composers, one in which they turned to the native music of their origin countries and incorporated it into their compositions. Chopin, Brahms, Smetana, Grieg, Sibelius, Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Wagner, and Mahler (to name a few) included folk melodies and native dances in their works. Even America celebrates its national holiday with one of Tchaikovsky's most nationalistic pieces — the "1812 Overture," most notably in Boston when the Boston Pops plays the work to one of the largest television audiences in the world on the Fourth of July.

This week the Pops celebrate that musical phenomena with a concert hosted by Rick Steves, the PBS television host and America's leading authority on European travel, which will take audiences on an aural and visual journey of Europe and the legacy of music composed by these composers.

On the podium is Jacomo Bairos, the Florida born-and-raised conductor making his Boston Pops debut. Bairos came to conducting at a relatively late age-- 30 — when as a professional trombonist he decided that he wanted to be on the podium. Today he leads two ensembles: the Amarillo Symphony (of which he is the 17th musical director) and the Miami-based Nu Deco Ensemble, a virtuosic and eclectic chamber orchestra designed for the 21st century which he co-founded with composer Sam Hyken in 2014. Miami New Times calls the ensemble "Miami's best-kept secret," The New York Times described them this way: "This young chamber orchestra for the 21st century incorporates jazz, hip-hop, classic rock and other genres into its repertoire."

"We try to bring relevancy to classical music, bring more connections to the popular world," Bairos told the Miami Herald in 2017.

EDGE spoke to Barios about his Pop debut, how yoga has influenced his conducting, and how he wanted to conduct the Pops at the age of 12.

Making waves

EDGE: How did this collaboration with Rick Steves come about?

Jacomo Bairos: NuDeco, my ensemble in Miami that I am the cofounder and artistic director of, started to make waves in the orchestral communities and we started to have visitors from other orchestras who came and saw the magic that we do. Dennis Alves, who the main artistic planner for the Pops, saw a concert last year. We exchanged ideas fro the last year or so then gave me a call to come to Boston for a performance. I have always wanted to be in a Boston Pops concert since I was 12 years old. I think my whole life has been geared towards a mountaintop that, when I was a kid, was to play with the Pops. But now that I am a conductor and there are things that I get to do and this has led me to Boston. So this is very exciting.

EDGE: You wanted to appear with the Boston Pops when you were 12 years old?

Jacomo Bairos: When I was 12 years old, I had been playing the tuba for two years. I was in my middle school band down here in Florida and I had this instructor who was very supportive who took me to see The Canadian Brass. I saw the tuba player dancing around the stage and taking and owning the audience. It was so amazing that I went home and told my mom that I wanted to be a musician.

The next day she went out and found every recording she could find by the Boston Pops, only because of their ubiquitous name. She was a schoolteacher who didn't grow up in the classical music world, but saw her son being very excited about something and wanted to foster that energy and bought all these recordings. I listened to them over and over and over again, accompanying them with my tuba. That sound, that style, that swagger the Boston Pops had was something I loved, but, to be honest, I didn't know anything else about orchestras. So by the time I got to ninth grade, I was saying to my friends that I was going to be with the Boston Pops someday. I didn't know there were major orchestras in cities all over the world. it wasn't until later that my focus switched to the classical music world. But it was the Boston Pops that provided the start of my dream. But I never thought that as a conductor I would ever be conducting the orchestra.

Connect and pivot

EDGE: Did you collaborate with Rick Steves on the program?

Jacomo Bairos: Rick had a very clear idea for the content that he was going to use to address 19th century Europe and had a very clear idea of the repertoire and the video that goes along with it. Most of that content was brought to the Pops by him... But I do a lot of genre-bending music with NuDeco and work with a lot of American composers and arrangers who not only write with the Boston Pops sound and energy, but also draw inspiration from European masters, so there is a lot of crossover connections. And Rick said he wanted to also highlight American culture a bit, so during the concert's shorter first half I am taking the audience through a journey of the American sound world. We are going to connect and pivot to the European model through a piece called "Refried Farandole," written by my musical partner here in Miami Sam Hyken, who takes the musical themes of Bizet and reimagines them through contemporary musical genres like funk and rock. It is an amazing virtuoso work for the Pops, but also allows us to transition. That is the idea. For me the I look at a program holistically -- what is the journey? where are we going? why are we going there? You want to go on a journey that takes you from different sounds to different worlds that leaves you on an incredible musical high.

Not pound-the-chest nationalism

EDGE: What is it about the 19th-century composers that make them relevant?

Jacomo Bairos: I think it is a bit of pride and nationalism, but not in the militaristic, pounding the chest kind-of nationalism. More of the folk nature of who we are, the ground on which we culturally stand, the idea that music of native countries can be so powerful and resonant that people of the nation that it finds its way into the music of these classical masters. The list goes on and on, from Brahms to Beethoven to Lizst to Grieg. These composers took so much inspiration from the folk music of their countries and in their own way reimagined and genre-bended that national pride of that folk music to the concert stage.

Here in the United States, we think of how Copland and Bernstein wanted to make an American sound. We had this image of what America was all about and Copland was really able to create a sound that defined that. We look to him as the godfather of the American sound, and rightfully so. Gershwin took jazz out of the nightclubs and put it on the concert stage and was criticized harshly for doing so, but can you imagine a world without the "Rhapsody in Blue?" Brahms took Hungarian music and created these pieces - the "Hungarian Dances" - that took street music and made them very orchestral in a manner that was very typical of him.

The first half, which concentrates on the American sound, I am trying to offer a potpourri of the American sound as we tilt and pivot to Europe where those composers inspired our composers. I am attempting a mixed balance -- I am doing everything from Mancini to Ellington to John Williams and Bernstein, and a new composer in Sam Hyken, in which I am trying to give the audience a mini-journey of the American sound world as contextualized by this idea of nationalistic music from the 19th century. I think it makes for an interesting, holistic journey.

Bending genres

EDGE: I take it you enjoy bending genres...

Jacomo Bairos: I enjoy being relevant and I enjoy getting an orchestra to be relevant for a community. What we have found in Miami is that we have this classical structure that adds as a connection to the past, but we also have the tools of the 21st century -- from electronics to electric instruments - that creates a hybrid group that creates a unique sound that is fresh. We want to create art that is relevant and exciting that will transform people.

Symphony orchestras are a legacy institution, but at the end of the day we have to be relevant if we want to make an impact as an orchestral institution. Everybody is asking themselves these questions today. Not only do we do get to play a lot of new music by amazing composers, but also 20th-century composers such as Ravel, Gershwin and Copland. But then we also collaborate with artists you don't normally see with an orchestra. And that is what we are very proud of that we are giving an opportunity and platform for artists that don't get the opportunity to perform with an orchestra. So our goal is to create art that is compelling and relevant but supports the legacy of who we really are.

EDGE: So a connection to the community is a very important role for an orchestra?

Jacomo Bairos: I think every orchestra is very community specific. I don't think there will ever be a point where these big orchestras are going to go anywhere. We need these institutions that celebrate great art and history. But with every orchestra, we have to ask how relevant is the orchestra to the community? That is the question that people have to ask. And in Miami, we decided to stay in our lane and do the music that we really love. Like I just conducted Beethoven's Ninth and I am still in the clouds from it - it was an incredible experience. But at the end of the day we just have to find a voice, be true to it and be relevant to their specific communities. There is a lot of opportunities for people to do other things, so the orchestra needs to find its voice in the 21st century to not only find a mission but also to find ways to keep this beautiful art alive.

An American sound

EDGE: Is there an idiomatic American sound for the 21st century?

Jacomo Bairos: What really excites me is that composers today don't put limits around themselves. 20th century 'modernism' was a subgenre that alienated people in this country. While there is merit and value in some pieces that I love, I think that many felt alienated by this sound. I think Bernstein said in his Harvard lectures that there was a pushback to simplicity and harmony and melody and rhythmic tenacity. Today composers are using all kinds of tools - such as electronics and extra sounds that weren't typically instruments you heard in the orchestra. The orchestra has been involving for 400 years - it is always changing. The idea that the orchestra was frozen at the end of the 19th century is silly. It continued to grow, so that today you have all these amazing tools - electronics and technology-driven sounds - at the composers' disposal, so why not create new sounds that are forward-thinking and relevant and current. That's what is really special about what is happening right now.

There are so many amazing people doing amazing work who are drawing inspiration from areas that no one had the opportunity to draw from. I worked with an artist named Jacob Collier in Miami last year and I will go on record as saying that he is Mozart reborn. He has this youthful amazing spirit. He is rewriting theory. He is combining sounds and chords in ways that are almost hard to imagine. He has this video with Herbert Hancock where he is discussing harmony and Herbie Hancock's ideas just light up because he's learned so much from this kid. I think if Mozart was around now he'd be the guy who is mixing in all these cool sounds with the orchestra. Mozart was famous for saying he wrote music for the people, so I think if he was around today he and other great composers would be using these tools that are available today. Why not create the sound of tomorrow right now?

Yoga and conducting

EDGE: How has your passion for yoga influenced your conducting?

Jacomo Bairos: So much. I got into yoga during a very difficult period of my life. I had lost my parents back to back about five years ago. And I was in an airport just crying having a moment to myself and this woman came up to me and said that I should try some yoga. I think at first I did it for the physical benefit, but I went to a retreat that had meditation as part of it and something snapped in me. And it made me go down a deeper path of understanding yoga and its benefits.

Basically yoga and conducting have so many parallels. Being grounded is one of the major ones. And being centered from your solar plexus, which is the way I was taught to conduct, is essential to grounding oneself enough to drop into that space of meditation and to drop into the space of real yoga, which is the breathing.

The deeper, more spiritual aspects of yoga, the grounding and being a solid rock, have translated to my conducting big time. I am bit of a physical conductor, but yoga keeps me within myself. It keeps me focused to the task at hand of making music and sharing music and allowing me to zero in on being in the moment. Because the more you are in the moment, the more the musicians can connect to you, connect to the music and ultimately the audience is going to connect to all of this and this becomes this really powerful, shared experience. Without yoga, I am not sure I would have grown in the way I have as a person who is trying to shared music in a way that is uncluttered and delivering the art without the extra.

EDGE: When did you go from wanting to be a musician to wanting to be a conductor?

Jacomo Bairos: I was in Singapore with the symphony - that was the last professional job as I had as a musician. When I was there, I became very close to our GM at the time and helped the education/outreach dept., I wrote scripts for conductors when they wanted to talk, I was running the chamber music department and conducted pieces here and there. I was experimenting with what my talents were. But as I was approaching 30, I began to wonder is this what I really want to do the rest of my life? I love it, but do I want to sit in the back of the orchestra and play tuba for the rest of my life?

The more I asked that question, the more the answer was no. And I always wanted to conduct. I always watched the conductors when I was playing with the orchestras I played with and wonder how is this magic happening? There was something fascinating about watching that invisible connection between the orchestra and the conductor. Then when I tried it myself, I learned that it was something I really loved.

So, to make a long story short, I took the opportunity to go and study conducting at the age of 30. It was one of those moments of life in which something from the universe delivers you something that I couldn't refuse. So I quit my high-paying job in Singapore and moved to the States to study conducting. My career started after that.

"Rick Steves' Europe: A Symphonic Journey" with Jacomo Bairos conducting the Boston Pops will be performed on Thursday, June 13 and Friday, June 14 at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Boston Pops website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].