Jun. 10—OXFORD — Julio Barreto says he was never forced to practice, play or perform his piano skills.
If that is the case, Barreto has never really worked a day in his life.
The skilled pianist and arranger serves as the educational director for the Oxford Performing Arts Center and as pianist/arranger for The Atlanta Pops Orchestra, which has adopted OPAC as a second home.
Barreto's skills as pianist, composer and arranger will be center stage Friday night as the Pops come to OPAC for another of its series of concerts at the Oxford venue.
"The Great Gatsby Garden Party will feature ragtime, Charleston, fox trot, jazz, Big Band and swing," Barreto said. "We'll also salute composers like Duke Ellington and George and Ira Gershwin. It's going to be awesome."
Another of the composers that will be featured in the program is Barreto himself, premiering part of a Latin-beat Masterwork he has been writing using the styles and sounds of several individual Latin American countries.
"This is the concert we were supposed to do New Year's Eve, but was canceled due to everyone getting COVID," he said. "I wrote a specific, special piece for the big finale that night which we are going to do Friday night."
It won't be first the time Pops audiences have heard the stylings of Barreto's arrangements.
He has become an arranger for OPAC favorite Chloe Agnew, wrote musical charts for gospel superstar David Phelps when he appeared here last Christmas, and most recently did special arrangements of themes written by author Jack Sacco, based on the World War II service of Sacco's father.
Sacco's book, "Where The Birds Never Sing," is now in pre-production for a motion picture and Barreto said Sacco has suggested there will be more music and arranging to do for the movie.
"When I write for the Pops it's an amazing experience," he said. "These are world-class musicians. All of them are part of the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, and Broadway. They've played it all and do it with such passion."
Barreto has come a long way from the four-year-old who was drawn to watching a piano player on television in his home in Argentina.
"I watched someone on TV playing the piano when I was four years old and I wondered, 'What is this?' he said. "My mom and dad taught me to read and write before I started school so I could start taking private lessons with a teacher at home and they got me a five-octave keyboard that Christmas. The teacher came to my house for one hour a week and that's how I started my piano lessons."
Barreto said that by age nine, he was performing every weekend in five-star hotels as a paid professional while still attending school during the week, all the while accompanied by his father who, along with his mother, encouraged his musical gifts.
"I come from a Latin American, humble poor family," he said. "So the money I was making paid for my lessons and the instruments I needed — and even sometimes helped out my family with the bills at the end on the month."
"That's how I learned to improvise and learning how to change keys when I needed to," he said. "I could read music. I wasn't that good, but I somehow had good ears and no one ever told me I had to practice my scales or go to the hotel to play. I decided to do that. It was fun. No one told me to stop playing video games."
He said parents need to be respectful of the challenges their children face as they decide what they want to do in life.
"You can't force them to play the guitar if they want to play football or golf," Barreto said. "You need to find your child's passion and be supportive of them."
Barreto's passion eventually gained him an undergraduate degree in Classical Piano Performance from the National University of the Littoral in Argentina; upon graduation he became a faculty member.
Five years later, America called when he entered the Berklee College of Music in Boston and earned a master's degree in arranging and orchestration.
"Arranging is part of the creative process," Barreto said. "Improvisation is actually composition in real-time. How can you improvise if you don't know how to compose and arrange first? You improvise and then place it in a frame. You do that after learning the limitations of what each instrument can and cannot do. You have to know how many strings a violinist can play at one time and clarinetists have to breathe sometime."
"You have a palette and you have to choose the correct colors to with which to paint," he said.
Barreto's move to the United States became permanent when in 2018 he accepted a position as visiting assistant professor at Jacksonville State University, where he also served as accompanist for the JSU Civic Chorale, the JSU Chamber Singers, and the JSU Opera Theatre.
The next year took him to Gadsden State Community College where he served as adjunct professor of music and began performing as a solo artist and an artist-in-residence in schools and universities in Argentina, Texas, and Alabama.
Barreto also plays at Jacksonville United Methodist Church and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
Last year, Barreto became the artist-in-residence for the Atlanta Pops Orchestra while OPAC was developing an educational arm for the arts as it was also nurturing the idea of a separate facility for such an endeavor.
"The mayor, City Council and [OPAC Executive Director] John Longshore had this vision for the arts in the city and felt they wanted to hire someone to help with this," Barreto said. "When I was teaching college in Argentina, I was also the director of outreach to schools and began making international connections."
"Someone mentioned my name, and they worked out all the paperwork," he said. "I said we don't have the facility yet and I am not going to set at a desk sending emails."
The passion to do something, combined with Barreto's international connections, are playing a large part in assembling the inaugural Rubato International Piano Competition now scheduled for August at OPAC.
"We have now developed a strong bond with the Steinway and Sons piano company and we will become a full Steinway school when we have the facility," Barreto said.
He said the Rubato competition will "expose to the world this wonderful Southern hospitality."
"It will put us in the international arena," Barreto said.
He said there have been 20 applicants apply and their talents and young ages are so remarkable, the bottom age limit has been dropped from 14 to 12.
"I even have an email from a young kid from Greece who is nine years old playing Liszt's 'Hungarian Rhapsody,' and I'm thinking I wish I could play the piano like that," he said. "We might lower the age for next year."
Barreto said his major desire is "to build an international connection for the city, the county and the state."
"The world is a big place and we need different perspectives in terms of culture and art," Barreto said. "And, I want the Alabama kids watching a 12-year-old Asian performing on the stage believing they can do that, too — just like I did when I watched that guy on TV."
Tickets for this evening's 7:30 p.m. Atlanta Pops concert at OPAC will be available at the door or online at oxfordpac.org.
Tickets for the Rubato International Piano Competition are scheduled to be placed on sale in July.