Dr. James Bass
Artistic Director and Conductor of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and Opera Tampa; Director of Chorale Studies & Graduate Conducting at the University of South Florida
Dr. James Bass has an insatiable fervor for music that is quickly putting the Tampa Bay region in the national spotlight. As a professor at USF and the head conductor of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit volunteer chorus comprised of about 150 extremely talented singers, Dr. Bass has gained quite the notoriety since taking over at both positions in 2010. The Master Chorale was recently asked to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami and his work with Seraphic Fire got him nominated for two Grammy Awards this past spring.
How did you get involved with your charity?
My first experience with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay was actually my first year as an undergraduate at USF. They had an advertisement saying ‘if you want to sing Beethoven 9, come sing with this group.’ I was at the university studying music and little did I know, the group that I was singing with as a USF student was going to combine with the Master Chorale to sing in this concert. It was my first time ever being on stage with a professional orchestra and it was a life-changing experience. If I had known then that I would come back a little more than 20 years later and be their head conductor, I wouldn’t believe you. When I was in Michigan teaching, the conductor position at Master Chorale and director spot at USF both became open and I wasn’t at the time looking to relocate and they called and asked me to apply. I was awarded both positions at the same time in 2010. I’m the fourth conductor of the group in their history and this is their 34th season.
What is one of your favorite memories when working with your charity?
Last year, we were asked by Naxos, a major classical label, to do a joint project with the Florida Orchestra to celebrate the works of Frederick Delius. Delius lived in Florida for a little while during the late 1800s and it was the 150th anniversary of his birth. The London Financial Times and the Delius Trust wanted to present concerts of this music with our groups. So we did live concerts at Mahaffey Theatre in St. Pete and they were recorded live by Naxos, which became the No. 1 selling opera disc on Amazon.com and one of the top five bestsellers on iTunes.
What is one of your favorite charity events in Tampa Bay and why?
The Festival of Voices is one of my favorite charity events because our singers volunteer to help these high school students have a different musical experience and I think it changes their lives. The fact that all of us would volunteer and create this concert and sing with them side by side—the chorus ends up being about 500 people—is something that could never experience at their own school. It changes their perspective on music.
As a leading man, what is one of your proudest accomplishments?
We recently had a Grammy Award nomination. A group I worked with in Miami called Seraphic Fire and the Professional Chorale Institute collaborated on this recording of the Brahm’s Requiem. The disc went to No. 5 on iTunes and was nominated as Best Chorale Performance of the Year. We were also nominated for Best Small Ensemble Performance for our Christmas album that we produced that year. We were the only classical organization in the world to be nominated for two projects in the same year. And it was our first time being nominated. We didn’t win either but we’ll be back.
What’s the best dish in Tampa Bay?
The macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi from The Wine Exchange. The presentation is always beautiful and I love the fact that they take this mild fish and really spice it up with this wasabi cream sauce.
How do you like to unwind?
I love to watch and play hockey. I think music and sports are very similar. A young person who practices a sport every day, hours on end so that they can perform well in the games is very similar to a young musician who practices for a concert. I love to play hockey because as a goalie, which is what I play, when you’re out there on that ice, that better be the only thing you’re thinking about. All I’m thinking about is who has the puck and are they coming after me.
Who do you most admire in Tampa Bay?
I like Bob Buckhorn and the vision he has for the city and how he’s taken Pam Iorio’s idea to make downtown a green space and change how people live here. As a hockey fan, Jeff Vinik as changed the way people think about the Lightning and about what its service is to the city. Vinik has dedicated so much of his treasure to repaying people in this community.
Which Bay-area spots do you take your out-of-town guests to really show off our city?
Ciro’s Speakeasy has such a great atmosphere and you’re right on the water so you get to see the houses and the Bay. In Pass-a-Grille we like The Hurricane. We go there and have a drink while we sit on the top deck and watch the sunset. It’s something that’s us. It’s just our area.
What are you currently reading?
“Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne
What does your dream vacation look like?
Somewhere in the Alps drinking a really awesome German beer and hiking in the mountains
What advice would you pass on to younger generations?
You have to celebrate yourself and who you are but never take for granted that many people before you worked very hard to get where they are. Celebrate your own skills but recognize that someone else has helped make you better.
If you could have a super power, what would it be and why?
I wish I could see in the future so I could invest better. As a musician, I’d say perfect pitch.
What’s one thing most people wouldn’t know about you?
I’m a hockey goalie.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Before music, I wanted to be a commander on a nuclear submarine. In second grade, that was what I wanted to do. I built model ships and everything. My dad took me to a submarine and I realized I didn’t really want to do that anymore. Finally, in the fifth or sixth grade, I realized I was meant to do music. I knew from that age that this is what I was going to do and this is the only thing that I could do.
Favorite album of all time: Joshua Tree, U2. Classically, I’d say Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler 2 on CBS Records
Favorite childhood television show: I loved re-runs of Star Trek
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Frodo Baggins; he had nothing to gain from any of his actions other than saving people he didn’t really know and his immediate family but he went to the absolute last possible length of his own being to finish that act and that’s something we don’t do in modern world. There was nothing extraordinary about him except perseverance and personal will.
If a movie were made about your life, whom would you want to play you?
Do you have a motto or words of wisdom that you live by?
It’s not a motto, it’s a short stanza from Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life… To follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”