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CONCERT REVIEW: Returning to the scene of a career birth

Joshua Roman
Santa Barbara News-Press

By Josef Woodard

Sometimes, radical changes at the last minute work out for the best. Originally, dazzling young cellist Joshua Roman's recital in Santa Barbara, part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures season, was slated to occur in the gallery space of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, in loose affiliation with the museum's current 20th century-geared "Pacific Standard Time" show, "Pasadena to Santa Barbara."

Alas, logistical snafus and capacity issues got in the way, forcing a venue-change to Music Academy of the West's Hahn Hall, for an enthralling performance on Thursday night.

What didn't change in the cross-town trafficking, thankfully, was the provocative, unconventional and largely 21st century program Mr. Roman had cooked up for the occasion. To boot, there was the added bonus for the cellist, who studied as a "Fellow" at the Music Academy of the West back in 2002.

Actually, a different kind of civic homecoming happened two years ago, when Mr. Roman, fully engaged in his upwardly mobile solo career by then, appeared as soloist with the Santa Barbara Symphony.

But that was then-  and Tchaikovsky -  and this was now, on boldly contemporary turf. As he pointed out from the stage, the oldest work here was Benjamin Britten's Suite No. 1, Opus 72, which the British composer wrote for cello master Mitoslav Rostropovich in 1964 - some 40 years earlier than the second oldest piece of the night, Aaron Jay Kernis' 2004 "Ballad."

Sitting on a raised, hollow platform, which gave added richness and resonance to the sound of his chosen instrument, Mr. Roman proceeded to demonstrate what the buzz is about this particular junior member of the cello field - one given a hardy stamp of approval as a model "21st century musician" by Yo Yo Ma.

He certainly validated his 21st century cultural citizenship and engagement with the grand opening work, Peruvian-Chinese-Jewish composer Gabriela Lena Frank's "Suite Peruana for Solo Cello," written only last year, so recently that she has taken one movement out of the mix for revision and rethinking.

Working through several connected but contrasting movements, the composer moves easily from sinewy, Bartok-esque passages into coloristic and indigenously Peruvian/Andean soundscaping, and has cohesion on her side, aided in no small part by Mr. Roman's commanding reading.

Two works here came with electronic additives attached, but in an organic and unobtrusive way. Alexandra Gardner's vibrant "Bloom" pits the live, breathing real-time cellist against and amidst other "canned" parts, with an inherent gaming quality between the players. Not surprisingly, the living musician wins out.

One of America's most important mid-career composers, Mr. Kernis has long been an artist of expressive imagination and stylistic curiosity, beholden to no particular "ism" but appealing to head and heart. So it goes with "Ballad," an elegy written soon after the passing of his parents, and scored here for one live cellist backed by seven prerecorded, "otherworldly" cello parts. Passionate without being sentimental, the slow, unsettled melodic journey gradually levitates to a high, ethereal ending.

After intermission, Mr. Roman-as-composer stepped forward with a lovely and moving piece he calls "Grace," inspired by a theater project he worked on with actress/conceptualist Anne Devere Smith. Following the dramatic logic of winning grace through darkness and surrender, the cellist-composer summoned up a mournful hymn-like aura, with a conspicuous understanding of the expressive powers of his instrument. The score subtly wends its way toward lightness and, yes, grace, in a major mode finale.

Britten's Suite No. 1, which Mr. Roman explained was the first major solo cello work he played, is a powerful and kaleidoscopic succession of short pieces bolstering a holistic whole. The pieces flow one to the next, varying in color, feeling and harmonic/technical schemes, including three anchoring "Canto" pieces.

This really is a fascinating piece, played with care, unerring facility and depth of feeling. Young Mr. Roman inhabits this score with command and curiosity, as seems to be his wont with most everything he gets his hands on.

For an encore, Mr. Roman dutifully went back to what is still logically considered "the source" of solo cello repertoire, Bach's profound and game-making solo cello suites. With his performance of the short, ultra-familiar and beloved Prelude from Suite No. 1, the cellist connected with a different part of the classical audience brain, after engaging us in other, newer enticements. It was an ideal exit strategy.