Young cellist brings a rock vibe: At age 25, Phil soloist Joshua Roman is a star on YouTube

Joshua Roman

By Rich Copley

Cellist Joshua Roman's curly reddish locks bounce as he plays, dressed in a rumpled, untucked oxford shirt and gray pinstripe trousers whose hems flop over low-top Chucks.

Give the man a guitar, and the rock star pose would be complete. In fact, he has been called a "classical rock star." Sitting backstage at the Singletary Center for the Arts recently after rehearsing Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, Roman, 25, mused about the term rock star.

"Well, they didn't bring my M&M's with no green ones," he jokes. "It depends on what I think that means. ... My impression was that it was more about the spirit of getting out there and making it all about the music. I hope that it's like that. That's what I want. So if that's rock star, that's awesome, because I think being a rock star would be great.

"But I don't dye my hair or show a bunch of tattoos. It's not often that I slide across the stage on my knees with Midge." Midge is his cello, an 1899 model by Giulio Degani of Venice with intricate inlays on the back and the scroll that Roman shows off.

"I just feel like a cello should have a name," Roman says. He chose the moniker Midge over other contenders including Bella and Brunhilde.

Roman and Midge are not hard to find on the Internet.

One of his claims to fame - and there are several - is that he was the only soloist featured during the YouTube Symphony Orchestra last spring, introduced in a video segment by cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma.

"That was nuts because they didn't let me see the video beforehand," Roman says. "So I'm standing there at the edge of the stage when the video starts, watching with everyone else, and Yo-Yo is saying, 'He's blah-blah-blah and blah-blah-blah,' and I'm like, that's me, and they're all going to stare at me now while I play.

"It was all kind of like that. It was all super-big and super-overwhelming and awesome," he says of the symphony project in which musicians auditioned by uploading to YouTube videos of themselves playing. Winners were flown to New York for a concert April 15 at Carnegie Hall conducted by San Francisco Symphony Orchestra maestro Michael Tilson Thomas.

"It was this massive force of energy, with Google and YouTube putting everything they had behind classical music," Roman says.

Roman has a substantial YouTube presence, quite a bit of it self-generated. He has embarked on a project to play and post all 40 etudes from David Popper's The High School of Cello Playing: 40 Etudes. He films the pieces himself on his laptop. One of the postings is from Lexington.

Roman laughs and says he is not quite on his 40-week track, but notes that as a solo artist, the project isn't just a good way to help further the presence of classical music online. It is also a way to push himself to maintain a practice discipline as he hops around the world.

Maintaining his craft is important to Roman. He didn't reach his star status just through good looks and Internet savvy.

The Oklahoma City native started playing cello when he was 3, and at age 16 he was invited to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees by age 21. At 22, he won the principal cellist's chair with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for two years until he decided that it was limiting his solo options.

"It was important in a lot of ways," Roman says of the Seattle job. "You have, every week, a new program in the Seattle Symphony. Every week you have another symphony, or something like that, and it's amazing to be plowing through that much music." He says all that studying gave him invaluable insight into composers and music. The orchestra experience made him appreciate the jobs of the people often playing behind him, such as the Lexington Philharmonic, whose cellists he complimented after Tuesday's rehearsal.

Leaving Seattle meant leaving the security of a regular paycheck, but life hasn't slowed down for the cellist that Musical America magazine named its artist of the month for August.

There was another consequence of Roman's move: "I had to sell my guitar and amp." The cellist also plays bass and drums, but he sold the bass because of limited space in his new home in New York, where he's now based.

So the classical rock star has no intention of being an actual rock star, but there's little doubt that he's a new kind of classical star.