Grand finale: Cellist closes SSO season

04.13.09
Joshua Roman
Greenwich Time

When it comes to the music Joshua Roman listens to, the celebrated cellist does not limit himself to the classics. On a recent day, it is a steady stream of Nickel Creek, with some Amon Tobin thrown in. Another of his favorites is Radiohead.

That the 25-year-old, who until last spring was principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony, can jump from an acoustic trio to an electronic musician and circle back to a British rock group is a good example of the kind of musical shift that is happening among younger listeners.

Perhaps it is the cultural effect of the shuffle function of the ubiquitous MP3 players, the multiple playlists of iTunes or Internet sites that allow users to tap into an eclectic mix of musical styles and genres. In short time, a young music fan may enjoy some rock, bluegrass, jazz, hip-hop and classical music -- yes, classical music -- even if the audiences that enjoy it live tend to be skewed to an older demographic.

"I love the way things are now," Roman says, noting that he is as comfortable creating a relaxed jazz sound or performing a retooled rock 'n' roll classic for an audience that does not typically listen to chamber music as he is donning a tuxedo and playing in front of an orchestra to a veteran crowd of music fans.

"I think there is room for all of that," he says.

"I don't feel there is any revolutionary impetus here," or pressure, he says, to use his youth to attract younger audiences. He says he simply strives to make the music accessible, create and play unique pieces and find innovative ways to connect with audiences.

Roman will perform Saturday and Sunday with the Stamford Symphony for its final concert of the season, "Fantasy & the Familiar," which features compositions from Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis"; Edward Elgar's "Cello Concerto"; and Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. It concludes the organization's classic orchestra series, billed as "immortal classics with stellar soloists."

Roman will play Elgar's "Cello Concerto." This is the first time he has played it with an orchestra.

"I'm very excited about that," he says. "I have played it many times without an orchestra, but it is not the same."

Eckart Preu, the symphony's music director, says he had Roman in mind when he selected the piece. The two had worked together with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra in Washington, where Preu also is the music director.

"(Roman) is usually out for something more extravagant or off the beaten path, but I just knew he'd be phenomenal on this concerto," Preu says.

It is considered Elgar's last major work, composed as his wife was dying. It taps deep human emotions, Preu says, and tends to be a more personal piece than the typical concerto. Yet, it maintains all the virtuosity and greatness of the form, Preu says.

Roman and Preu know they might have to get beyond audiences' expectations of the piece shaped largely by the late English cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, whose interpretation of the piece was seen as the standard.

"She owned that thing," says Preu, noting that it can be hard for musicians to face such expectations.

But there is always room for other interpretations and on Saturday, Roman is expected to bring what Preu considers a fresh and exciting style to the piece.

"He is one of those people who are on the verge of just bursting out onto the scene," Preu says. "It is exciting to a part of that."

Roman has clearly established himself in the world of symphony music. In 2006, at age 22, he became the youngest principal hired by the Seattle Symphony. A year later, he was named artistic director of TownMusic, a music series at Town Hall Seattle, a cultural center that features diverse programming. It is a post that he maintains, even though he relocated to New York City over the summer.

"The way it was put to me was to develop a program that I was interested in," he says, laughing. "It's great, but it is kind of daunting, as well."

Not to be deterred, he has used the series to debut new music, revisit the classics and make new arrangements, including several Radiohead songs.

At the end of the 2007-08 season, he opted to set out for a solo career, which has brought him to stages around the world.

"I am very happy where I am now," Roman says, noting that although his Seattle experience has been rewarding, he hadn't set out to become a principal cellist for an orchestra. "Right now, I am just really centered on the fact that I am in New York and I am just experiencing all the great stuff that is coming through here. It is just a great place to be."