A New Kind of Classical Phenom

03.19.10
Joshua Roman
Santa Barbara News-Press

By Josef Woodard

While the young and open-minded cellist Joshua Roman makes his professional Santa Barbara debut, as soloist with the Santa Barbara Symphony this weekend, the local classical music community can say they knew him when he was part of the large, transient population of Music Academy of the West alumni.

Even though the stellar student body of the summertime Music Academy of the West program in Santa Barbara is an inherently transient population, the local classical music community tends to have a proprietary interest in the musicians' careers. Some are genuine celebrities, such as baritone Thomas Hampson, others take their place in the expansive world of classical music. Whoever they are, we like totrack their progress out in the "real world."

And so, even as the young but increasingly reputed cellist Joshua Roman makes his official, professional Santa Barbara debut as soloist with the Santa Barbara Symphony this weekend, we may think of him as a returning hero, thanks to his Music Academy badge of honor.

Just after his Music Academy appearance, the Oklahoma City native assumed the impressive post as principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony in 2006, at the ripe age of 22, through 2008. At that point, he decided to make the leap from orchestral player to soloist. Last year, he had a solo spot in the coveted YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall (which, incidentally, also included pianist Yuja Wang, who performed in Santa Barbara last year and will make a return appearance at Hahn Hall on April 23).

Recently, the articulate young musician — set to play Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme" with the Symphony here — was on the phone from San Francisco, where he had recently performed with the San Francisco Symphony, before heading to Santa Barbara. Again.

I was just on your MySpace page and enjoying the variety of music there. Great to hear Ginastera, for one thing. You seem to be Internet savvy, plugged into that world, aren't you?

It's funny. I try to be. I don't consider myself very involved, but some people are just un-involved in the Internet, so that makes me look more involved, comparatively.

That's especially true in the classical world. A lot of musicians haven't caught on yet.

Right. There is a definite need for that. I like to utilize it for myself as well as for the connections with other people. It's such a great way to connect with people in their own environment and have them experience classical music in a positive and comfortable way.

I think that people's personalities can also become slightly different, or maybe just more opened up when there is this certain anonymity, of writing a blog, for example. People are more likely to say things than they would on the stage, or in a situation where you have time to sit and think and write it down. A lot of people can have a very personal approach, which is different than they would otherwise. You hope people could be the same, but it has paved the way for closer relationships with a fan base and certain musicians, and other artists, as well.

You appear to have more of an open mind and open ears to different kinds of music — and contemporary music — than a lot of classical musicians. Do you think that's true?

Maybe. I definitely love a lot of things. If you ask me who my favorite composer is, I would say Bach. He's got it all. It's hard to imagine someone being better than that. But at the same time, I love the process of creating new work or collaborating with someone who plays a different style of music or jamming out to Radiohead — my favorite band. I wish The Beatles were still around.

Maybe it is about having an openness, musically. I grew up around a lot of different kind of music. It has always seemed natural to me, to enjoy whatever is worth enjoying, and not to make hard distinctions between style or genre, but make the distinction based on what compels me. Usually, that doesn't have much to do with the genre. The music that compels me usually has something to do with maybe the message, or maybe it's the ambition you can hear in the playing. Maybe it's the nostalgia that comes across.

You do have this broad spread of interests. You work with actual, living composers, for instance — including Aaron Jay Kernis, Samuel Adler and other younger composers — but then you're asked to give your all to Tchaikovsky in an orchestral setting, as you will in Santa Barbara. Is that all part of the big picture of making music for you?

I definitely feel that. There are so many different ways to look at it. There's a career and a pursuit of something. There are also so many ways, on a micro level, to look at one piece. You can learn so much, long-term and within a single project, about something by looking at it in different ways.

And working with living composers is great, because it takes you out of this search on the page and into the search of the person. When I play music by my friend Dan Visconti, it's impossible not to think of Dan's personality and what I know about him. We went to school together. He's writing a sonata for me right now that I will premiere in June.

On the flipside, you can take that back to looking at Tchaikovsky. Considering the little that we know, it's fun for me to imagine that this informs his personality. You can also take the approach you use with Bach or with Tchaikovsky and use that with a modern-day composer's and learn something, too.

Being able to have the flexibility in approach, I think, is something that comes only through doing it. It comes best through doing it, and trying different things and mixing up with living composers and the greats from the past.

You've had connections to Yo-Yo Ma, and I assume he has been a big inspiration for you. He, of course, also has this broad view of music, which also extends to other cultures. Did that rub off on you, in a way?

I never actually studied with him. I've played for him and played with him, and I know him. But the times he has been in my life have been very important times for me. He has had a big influence on my life, for sure. It has rubbed off on me.

He is an absolutely committed explorer, of opportunities to connect with people. That's something that has always resonated with me, from the time I was a little kid. I have wanted to go out there and do something with music — not just sit there and play the notes in the practice room and again onstage, but to somehow see a change taking place, whether that means bringing people together or making new projects come about or whatever it is.

He is definitely somebody to look up to in those terms. He has the "Silk Road Project" and other previous collaborations, like "Appalachia Waltz," the project with Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer. For awhile, I think I listened to that twice a day. It is still one of my absolute favorite albums that he has done. That's a great example of very well-chosen collaborators, between people who do different things.

Yes, he is definitely a role model, in that sense.

You're just in your mid-20s now and at the starting gate of your career as a soloist, but do you have long-range visions of what you'd like to do, and how you'd like it to pan out? It sounds like you'd like to head in multiple directions at once, for one.

Well, yes. I had a high school band and I played some in college, too. When I moved to New York, I finally sold my electric guitar and my amp. The challenge in my life right now is finding a way to harness my different ambitions or different exploratory lines that I want to follow. I'd like to make those come together, to create something that really reflects who I am and helps me define my place.

As far as my career goes, that's a big part of it. I would probably be pretty happy to play the Dvorak Concerto over and over again. I love that piece. And I'd like to play the Bach suites everywhere. I actually want that to be a big part of my career. It's great music and one of my goals is to bring already existing, amazing music to more people who haven't had the opportunity to experience it, and to help people find a new level of appreciation for that music.

But at the same time, I want there to be growth and a reflection of our current times and our current hopes and disappointment, as individuals, as a society and culture, and globally, too.

Especially right now, there is this great mixing of cultures in the musical world. It's important for me to be a part of that and see what I can do to bring people together. So my career path is something that I would really like to see take on that tone — so it's not just 'how deep can I go into this piece,' but what if there is something sitting next to it that could also be delved into? I think it's a very deep and wide path that I would like to follow, or blaze or whatever it is.

(Laughs) That all involves a lot of practicing, which is fine by me.