Symphony season breaks boundaries

Joshua Roman
Seattle Times

By Tom Keogh

Seattle Symphony Orchestra's first opening-night concert in the Ludovic Morlot era, Saturday evening at Benaroya Hall, includes an 1822 Beethoven overture written to celebrate the opening of a Vienna theater.

There's also the felicitous pairing of Maurice Ravel's hypnotic "Boléro" and George Gershwin's wide-eyed ode to the City of Lights, "An American In Paris." Both premiered within weeks of one another in 1928, not long after Ravel suggested to Gershwin that he study music in France (Morlot's birthplace).

But how about that far lesser-known, fourth item on the bill: Friedrich Gulda's 1980 Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra?

The Vienna-born Gulda, one of the 20th century's greatest pianists, was so determined to smash musical boundaries as a virtuoso and composer, he was labeled an eccentric.

The concerto — as moving as it is lighthearted — consists of five distinct movements involving jazz, a minuet, rock, a smidgen of polka, a march and a cadenza with two spots where a star cellist must improvise.

"The piece was a late discovery for me," says Morlot. "Once you hear it, it's a no-brainer that it's great music. Gulda was a wonderful musician, and I wanted to share that with the audience."

The concerto is also a good fit for the opening-night guest, 27-year-old Joshua Roman, former principal cellist with the symphony and now a renowned soloist.

"I thought Joshua would be a wonderful voice for this piece," says Morlot. "I've heard him play all kinds of music, experimenting with all kinds of different vocabularies. He's obviously a brilliant player and very open-minded, which is what this whole orchestra and community seem to be."

"I think the concerto is going to be a big hit," says Roman from his home in New York. "It fits perfectly with Gulda's ambitions, which were to break down barriers and straddle different worlds, and really have music for the people.

"Even though each movement has its own style and is very contrasting, there's a continuity of spirit. It's really beautiful, simple music, fun and very jazzy and celebratory at times."

A familiar figure still closely associated with Seattle's music community, Roman appreciates that Morlot asked him to help push the repertoire envelope a bit.

"If you look at his programming for the season," Roman says, "he is bringing in newer pieces, but he is also deepening ties to Seattle in different ways. He's been very wise in balancing the exploratory with a commitment to the Seattle audience itself."

Another of Roman's ongoing contributions to the city, programming Town Hall's eclectic TownMusic series, begins its new season in November.

But he remains very active on the world stage, including a recent conductor stint with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris and duets with Yo-Yo Ma at a U.S. Department of State event for China's president.

Roman is often considered in the vanguard of merging classical music with emerging technology. Last January, he participated in a live video webcast with a student orchestra at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, and he recently performed with DJ Spooky in a fascinating video for the Voice Project.

Above all is Roman's trademark versatility, delving into both classical and new repertoire, determinedly collaborating with such contemporary composers as Mason Bates and artists including the JACK Quartet.

"The career I'm interested in is going to be about relationships," he says. "My relationship with music, and with other people I play for and with. That has to keep growing and developing."