Former Seattle Symphony cellist moves into a new role as soloist

Joshua Roman

From almost the day he arrived in town in 2006 to become principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Roman made a splash. Local media and musicians alike fawned over the then-22-year-old musician. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper called him "a musician of imagination and expressive breadth." Local radio station KUOW-FM dubbed him a "classical rock star" on its website. "The minute Joshua came to Seattle, the musical world was aware of his presence," says Christophe Chagnard, conductor of the Northwest Sinfonietta in nearby Tacoma. "He made his mark instantly. In a few months, he had a fan club."

But rather than put down roots in a city enamored with him, after only two seasons Roman pulled the plug on a job that hundreds if not thousands of cellists would covet, announcing last spring that he'd be leaving to pursue a solo career. While a few other cellists, such as Lynn Harrell and Janos Starker, have left secure principal positions and gone on to successful solo careers, Roman's move surprised plenty of observers, including former teacher Desmond Hoebig of the Cleveland Institute of Music. "I was nervous about him leaving Seattle so early," Hoebig says. "I wanted him to be there longer, get financial stability. But Josh decided, and Josh is confident."

Indeed, that level of decisiveness reflects this young cellist's willingness to take risks in his career, projects, and repertoire. "I'm a big believer in doing what you want to do, when you can, and if you can," says Roman, who's now 24. "You can take a job and build your life around it, or you can build a life and take a job that matches that. I want to arrange myself around a solo career. It wasn't a question of ‘if,' it was a question of ‘how' and ‘when.'"

So far, Roman has started to pull together a few of the pieces of a solo career. In September, he released his first recording, Ballad, a collection of works ranging from an arrangement of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise to Chopin's Polonaise Brillante. He launched the recording, distributed at press time only in Japan by Bertelsmann Music Group, with recitals in Tokyo and Osaka. Last summer at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, he performed Britten's Third Cello Suite in a pre-concert recital at Avery Fisher Hall. And in June, management firm Opus 3 Artists, which represents big-time performers from Daniel Barenboim to Midori, added him to its roster.

Roman's engagements in 2009 have included performances of John Tavener's The Protecting Veil with the Northwest Sinfonietta and the premiere of David Stock's Cello Concerto with the Seattle Symphony.

Behind the growing list of professional credentials is a personable individual who's unthreateningly ordinary and friendly, traits that boost his appeal, especially among young audiences. Roman's life as of last fall, like that of many 20-somethings, was a jumble of taking cross-country car trips, crashing with friends, house-hunting in New York, and vacationing in the wilderness (he didn't bring even the cello on that trip).

True to his generation, Roman adores British rock group Radiohead and freely acknowledges his love of other genres and performers, from the Beatles to Nine Inch Nails. Roman speaks with a youthful candor and earnestness, recalling appreciatively, for instance, that during his performance of the Britten at Mostly Mozart "the audience was super-quiet. There's usually a lot more fidgeting going on during such a modern piece."

Roman's background, though, is highly unconventional. An Oklahoma native, he began formal music study at age three, not with a cellist but a violinist, who, Roman says, was the only teacher his parents could find in their area willing to take a student of his age. When his father, a choir director, took a job in Senatobia, Mississippi, Roman, then 13, commuted an hour north to Memphis to study with Peter Spurbeck, then the principal cellist of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Homeschooled, Roman recalls he and his three siblings had plenty of time to roam free once they'd finished their homework and music practice by early afternoon when other kids were still in school.

He attended the Cleveland Institute, studying first under Richard Aaron and then with Hoebig for his master's degree, which he received in 2005. He hit the audition circuit, trying out for orchestra jobs in Cleveland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle, where he settled in quickly with the orchestra.

Both he and the group appear to appreciate each other. "We all loved him very much" as both a player and a person, says Gennady Filimonov, a member of the Seattle Symphony violin section. A recent issue of a newsletter published by members of the orchestra called Roman's tenure "stellar." And Roman says that performing with the Seattle Symphony "was an amazing experience, with the sheer amount of music I played and what I learned."

One lesson: learning the fine art of soloing from the section, a task he finds nerve-racking. "You'll be playing for 20 minutes with the orchestra, and then suddenly you're in the spotlight for ten seconds," he says. "You come out of nowhere."

Leaving those kinds of performances behind, Roman is now focused on playing as a chamber musician and soloist. So far, he has received some positive responses from colleagues. "I'm most impressed by his ability to grasp a range of repertoire," says Alexander Tselyakov, music director of the Clear Lake Chamber Music Festival in Manitoba, who invited Roman last summer to perform a Tchaikovsky quartet and, with Tselyakov himself at the piano, the Brahms quintet and a Rachmaninoff trio.

As a concerto soloist, Roman has already tested the limits of performance stamina. In the spring of 2008, Roman and the Northwest Sinfonietta under Chagnard performed in a single program three full concertos: the Haydn in D, the Schumann, and the Shostakovich in Eb. Despite the huge amount of stage time required of Roman, the cellist didn't hold back at all, according to Chagnard. "I felt Joshua was opening his heart," the conductor says. "I don't think anyone in the audience felt shortchanged after that performance."

Roman's daring also served him well during the recording of his debut CD, of which the centerpiece and title track is scored for eight cellos by Pulitzer-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Roman recorded all eight parts, a huge task. "It's difficult to achieve the ensemble," he says. "You have to follow yourself. I started to feel like a conductor and an orchestra, too."

All eight parts are tricky, Roman adds, with specific markings and numerous technical demands. "It's insane. In one place you're playing low, and the next note, in one small breath, you're past the fingerboard," he says. "But Kernis isn't being a jerk. It's just big and romantic, and it ends up being difficult."

Roman, in fact, has a history of embracing unusual and unconventional arrangements. In his first season as artistic director of Seattle's TownMusic chamber series, a position he still holds, Roman programmed concerts with a wide range of experimental music, including a January 2008 performance of his own chamber arrangement of Radiohead selections. Critics' reviews of the Radiohead arrangements were mixed. But "so far, audiences have loved [Roman's] program instincts," says TownMusic executive director Wier Harman. "I have encouraged him to treat his season as a highly personal reflection of his impulses and influences. . . . He is not under pressure to sell tickets; he's under orders to offer music he can feel personally passionate about."

Roman's greatest energies, though, are being funneled into solo performances. Teaching and even joining the competition circuit aren't high priorities at the moment, he says. Neither is arranging more Radiohead, which, Roman says, was satisfying but also exceedingly time-consuming. He wants to make more recordings, although future projects are still uncertain. Roman expects his next CD will be "a more traditional selection of big sonatas," perhaps of Brahms and Prokofiev.

No one pretends the solo road for Roman is going to be easy. "That's my one nervousness with Josh," Hoebig says. "Orchestras just don't hire many cello soloists every year, and if they hire one, it's often Yo-Yo."

Possibilities for Roman at this stage include substituting for another soloist, a route that has given many a jump-start. "Josh's technical facility is extremely high, and things just come easy to him," Hoebig says. "He can jump in on a day's notice. He has that charisma and personality."

Roman knows the potential pitfalls ahead. He cites Harrell and Starker as role models, but in the next breath adds that "there are unsuccessful stories as well as success stories."

"These first few years will be about learning to be disciplined and staying straight on the path, not accepting too much, staying creative without being stretched too thin, and finding musicians I click with," he says. "I want to establish myself as a serious performing artist."


Performance Tips

"For me, the biggest thing is to keep the performance in mind during practice," Joshua Roman says. "Always make sure that whatever you're practicing-whether a scale for technical reasons, or a passage, or an etude-is geared to the end result, which is to communicate emotion or whatever you get from the music using your technique. When you play, you want the freedom to focus on the communicative aspect. That requires the comfort of technical security and understanding.

"If I'm facing a technically difficult part, I just convince myself that it's not that hard. You have to convince yourself that it's possible. Ninety percent of the time, if you miss something, you were just convinced that you might miss it. If you can reach it once, you can reach it again.

"Immediately before a performance, I spend the majority of the time reminding myself of the comfort of the cello. I stay warmed up, with scales maybe, but I don't use too much energy. I might just start each movement, if I'm playing a concerto. I try not to play intense stuff, since I've got to save up for the performance."

What Joshua Roman Plays

Joshua Roman plays an instrument from William Harris Lee & Co. made in 1997 by Peter Staszel. He obtained it brand-new as a young teenager. "I've played a lot of cellos, but this is the one I know best," he says. "It's been a growth process. When I pick it up, I just know what the strings will sound like; my arms know where to go. I know the neck well and the sounds it'll produce. The sound jumps out. It's a bit of a wild horse, which can be fun. You don't have to work to get it to play. Sometimes you do have to work to get it to not sound too projected.

"I remember one time in school I thought I'd try to turn it into a Strad. I did weird stuff with it. I played slow and got the strings to vibrate and got it to open up."