Pianist Max Barros was a self-described “almost legal” 17 and musicologist James Melo was 21 when they met in Brazil in 1981 at a piano audition for a college music program. They have been near-inseparable ever since.
Barros and Melo, both from Brazil, had vastly divergent paths to their meeting at the Faculdade Santa Marcelina, in Sao Paulo. Barros started playing piano at age 6. Melo went to medical school for two years and worked as a chemist for Dow Chemical, before beginning to play in earnest after he turned 17. Melo and Barros would both receive their B.A. degrees in piano.
Barros left Melo and Brazil in 1984 to begin a Master’s of Arts program at New York University. The two spent summers and holidays together, with many letters exchanged, and though not easy, according to Melo, the much quieter of the two, “the love bond was already so strong, we weren’t really worried [that it wouldn’t work out].”
Barros lived at the 92nd Street Y dorms from 1984-1987, while attaining his Master’s degree from NYU. During his stay, he met Eve Wolf, who taught a chamber music program at the Y and became his first friend in New York City.
Barros has performed and recorded all over the world. “I did my first recording at 26 and have not stopped.”
Melo, after spending three years teaching in Brazil, joined Barros in New York City in 1987, where they have lived together ever since. He writes for music magazines, liner notes for CDs and for the past 16 years has worked for the ongoing bibliography and database project, RILM Abstracts of Music Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he’s now senior editor, while also teaching piano and music theory at the upper east side’s Diller-Quaile Music School.
In 2001, Melo and Barros, along with Wolf, founded the Ensemble for the Romantic Century (ERC), a group that presents fully staged theatrical concerts merging music, staged and scripted theater, literature, and visual arts. Jules Verne: From the Earth to the Moon will be performed from April 8-April 12 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The production dramatizes the face-to-face meeting between the French writer Jules Verne and the young American journalist Nelly Bly and interweaves a script based on Verne’s and Bly’s own words with French chamber music performed by Barros, Wolf, and others. In addition, American music by Stephen Foster featuring live banjo, a barbershop quartet, and elaborate film and video projections will be included.
ERC’s second 2015 production, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is slated for two shows on June 3-4 at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side.
This production will weave the drama of Goethe’s tale of obsessive and unrequited love with the music of Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms and others.
Sitting down in their spacious living room, it’s impossible not to notice that Barros, at 6’1”, towers over the more diminutive Melo. Both wear eyeglasses, and have been together so long they truly can finish each other’s thoughts; that, along with a Steinway piano and floor-to-ceiling book collection which includes works by Shakespeare and Dickens, Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and at least six copies of The Iliad. Melo estimates they have about 3,000 books.
Following 16 years on West 79th street, Barros and Melo moved across the park to East 79th Street on December 31st, 2012. Their first meal as Upper East siders was New Year’s Eve dinner at Italian restaurant, Firenze.
For bibliophile Melo, the new locale is a dream. Along with being a member of the Morgan Library, he visits the New York Society Library, also on East 79th st, nearly every day.
When asked about marriage, Barros recalled that they had a civil union ceremony, but, amusingly, neither recalled the date or year. Melo checked, and for the record, it was April 21, 2003.
After 33 years together, Melo explains that “we’re such a compliment to each other. If it wasn’t for Max, I never would’ve come to New York and had the great life and career that I love… The companionship, love, and care he shows for me… ”
“James grounds me. I can easily ‘float’ with the art sometimes,” Barros concludes. “Everything I do, I do better [with James].”