JOSHUA ROMAN Musical America's "New Artist of the Month"

08.03.09
Joshua Roman
Musical America

An August New Artist for August
By Brian Wise


Even in a healthy employment market, landing a job as the youngest-ever principal musician in the Seattle Symphony would be enough to satisfy any recent college graduate. But for Joshua Roman it was just the first thing on his list.

The Oklahoma-born cellist was only 22 and one year out of the Cleveland Institute of Music when he became the orchestra’s youngest member in 2006. He quickly immersed himself in Seattle’s music scene, playing chamber works at the Triple Door nightclub, concertos with the Northwest Sinfonietta and the Cascade Symphony and impressing the media enough to receive full-page spreads in the city’s newspapers. In 2007, he became artistic director of TownMusic, a freewheeling chamber music series at Seattle’s Town Hall, a post he still holds.

Soon other offers came in. In March, Roman appeared with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, delivering the only solo performance of the evening, a Bach Cello Suite. His performance was introduced (on video) by Yo-Yo Ma, and has since been viewed more than 1.5 million times. Two months later, Roman announced through his MySpace page that he was abandoning the security and steady salary of his Seattle post to focus exclusively on a solo career.

“Seattle was a way to get in the spotlight a little,” Roman explained one afternoon in a coffee shop near his new home in New York’s Morningside Heights, near Columbia University. “When I initially got to Seattle I thought I might stay longer. I saved as much money as possible. I paid off my student loans. I booked many concerts and played everywhere I could. When it started to look like the [orchestra] workload was going to take away from whatever else I was doing, I let go.

“Things just started lining up,” he continued. “I was playing concerts, clubs, bars, small houses -- and doing a lot of concerto work. I played with five or six local orchestras last season.”

In April 2008, Opus 3 Artists signed Roman to its roster and soon after, 21C Media Group began handling his publicity. In June 2008, he gave a recital at New York’s Symphony Space. Coming during the slowest time on the concert calendar, it was relatively low-key for a New York recital debut, but it was attended by a number of industry types (as well as this writer), and it was ambitious in scope: pieces by Ned Rorem, Dan Visconti, Teddy Goldman, Joel Freidman, Elliott Carter and Benjamin Britten.

But for someone who once stated in an interview that he hopes “to see the classical-music industry crumble” until it could reinvent itself, Roman is difficult to categorize. In his programming, he’s apt to mix Joni Mitchell covers with Beethoven or Derek Bermel. Last season at Seattle’s Town Hall, he presented “Quartet,” a program that combined Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” with songs by Radiohead. “I’m interested in the connection between different kinds of music whether that connection is three composers across an era, or three composers across centuries or whether it’s Radiohead and Messiaen,” he said.

When Roman made his Seattle recital debut at Town Hall two years ago, people formed a long line around the building waiting to buy tickets. Dozens were turned away and the concert was delayed 20 minutes as hall officials tried to squeeze everyone in. “Everything he did he did with poise and equanimity, technical difficulties flying away as if they were nothing,” wrote R.M. Campbell in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “He is a musician of imagination and expressive breadth.”

With his pleasant demeanor and unruly mop of blond curls, Roman suggests the epitome of heartland America. He grew up in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, the son of a church-choir director father and violin-teacher mother. Home schooled along with his three younger siblings, Roman began playing cello at age three. He also took up guitar, bass guitar and drums. “The cello was always central for me,” he said. “There were times when I had thoughts of being in a rock band and I took up the electric guitar. But I knew what I wanted to do when I was six. It never really changed.”

After a summer studying with Cleveland Institute faculty member Richard Aaron, Roman was invited to attend the school at age 16. There he worked with Aaron and with Desmond Hoebig, principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra in a five-year program that led to both bachelor and master's degrees, which he completed in 2005. While he considered pursuing a doctorate, he decided instead to try for the Seattle Symphony position left open by the retirement of principal cellist Ray Davis, who’d been in the seat for 44 years. Roman breezed through all three rounds. Roman’s 2009-10 calendar includes dates with the Arkansas, Santa Barbara and Albany symphonies and the Lexington Philharmonic in Kentucky. He has also embarked on his own online video series called "The Popper Project": every week he uploads to his YouTube channel a performance of an etude from David Popper's "The High School of Cello Playing: 40 Etudes." Each performance is unedited and filmed wherever Roman, his camera and his laptop happen to be.

“I need to really force myself to stay in the game with something consistent,” he said. “It’s exciting to be practicing and thinking, ‘Gosh, everyone knows this. I have to get it right.’”