Cellist Joshua Roman at Symphony

02.20.10
Joshua Roman
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Joseph Haydn, generally a composer of unpredictable and complex moods, put on his sunniest demeanor in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon, as Herbert Blomstedt led the San Francisco Symphony in an enjoyable but sometimes frustrating account of his Cello Concerto No. 1.

The soloist was Joshua Roman, a cellist of extraordinary technical and musical gifts. His Symphony debut, in fact, was so striking in so many ways that it left a listener eager for something more.

Roman, who was appointed principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony at 22 and left two years later to pursue a solo career, coaxes sounds of remarkable beauty from his instrument. The expansive four-note chord that opens the solo part of the concerto instantly set a tone of warmth and vigor, and throughout the first movement, Roman deployed a light touch to produce a graceful, elegant melodic strain.

His technical command was equally impressive, especially in the virtuosic finale. It's rare to hear a cellist tear through this high-flying passagework so beautifully and precisely - with never a note out of tune or out of place - and rarer still to hear it done with such offhanded panache.

But if Roman's easy, unruffled approach and charismatic suavity paid dividends in the concerto's outer movements, the central adagio was so lacking in vigor or intensity that it practically ran aground. The extra-slow tempo adopted by Blomstedt and Roman (at the behest of one or both, who can say?) didn't help matters, but it was Roman's nonchalance that proved most problematic.

The same problems surfaced elsewhere - in Roman's original cadenzas, which were deft but low wattage, and even in his charmingly casual encore, the crossover tune "Julie-O" by Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Summer. I, for one, would happily have traded some of Roman's gorgeous, expertly tuned passages for a bit more urgency and passion.

Those qualities, fortunately, were in plentiful supply after intermission, when Blomstedt led the orchestra in potent account of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. The first movement exploded with pent-up energy, and even the funeral march moved resolutely forward, if at a slower pace; the horns sounded a welcome note of clarity in the trio section of the scherzo.