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With the UW Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Roman performs Dvorák's Cello Concerto with lyricism and grace

Joshua Roman
Isthmus The Daily Page

By John W. Barker

The concert at the UW's Mills Hall on evening of Saturday, Nov. 10 was unusual in being a kind of two-in-one event.

On the one hand, it was a full-blown concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra, in its regular home, and under its stalwart conductor, James Smith (who, curiously, was never named in the program). On the other hand, it was one of the substitute events arranged to replace the regular Wisconsin Union Theater concert series, suspended during that venue's refurbishing.

The Union's contribution, in effect, was the soloist, the boyish-looking cellist Joshua Roman, who has blossomed professionally in just the last few years amid considerable praise, promotionalism and even downright hype.

His vehicle was an ambitious one: no less than Dvorák's Cello Concerto, one of the most magnificent of concertos, for any solo instrument. It did not take long for Roman to demonstrate that he was not a showy or competitive soloist. Even letting the orchestra cover him over at times, he delivered a performance more of lyricism than power, more internalized than extroverted. His extensive involvement with chamber music was evident in his chamber-like sensitivities, more poetic than flamboyant.

He invested far more power and sonority in a short encore, an utterly flashy-trashy "pop" piece by one Mark Summers. Overall, however, Roman did prove that he is a thoroughly accomplished musician who has the capacity to outgrow the hype and become a really major performer.

I am always as interested to hear what our orchestras do in a concert as I am to slaver over given soloists. I pay particular attention to what Smith is able to do with student orchestras, drilling and inspiring his players to rise above themselves and produce professional-quality results.

In fact, things got off to an uncertain start with Ravel's Menuet Antique, a quite richly scored piece (after the composer's piano original), despite its diminutive title. There was some hesitancy evident, with some blemishes, especially in little passages in the low woodwinds. In the Dvorák, however, Smith whipped his players up into robust and even fiery playing, precise but sonorous.

It was sad to see many members of the audience depart at the intermission, apparently on the understanding that the concert's final piece was unfamiliar, and therefore not worth hearing. If that was the case, such an attitude does great injustice to what Smith has been offering both to his student players and to his audiences in giving them exposure to literature that goes beyond the straight-and-narrow boundaries of the "standard repertoire."

In this instance, the music presented was by Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1859), the most important Czech master after Dvorák. A prolific composer, Martinu left behind six symphonies that are among the major works of the 20th century in that genre.

While Martinu's music has some parallels to Bartók's in replacing thematic development with exploration of rhythm and color, Martinu combines Czech heartiness with Parisian clarity, plus a palpable feeling for warm songfulness.

His Fourth Symphony, composed in 1945, is infused with the composer's joy over his homeland's liberation from Nazi occupation. Waltz elements compete with a recurrent rowdiness, culminating in a quite exhilarating finale, though the beautiful eloquence of the slow movement is what is most special about the work. It is a tricky score, demanding for the players. I am told that Smith spent the most rehearsal time on this work, and it showed in the performance, which was disciplined and confident, the best of the whole concert.

Perhaps the Wisconsin Union Theater should slow down its refurbishing so it can arrange more cooperative events such as this. At any rate, maestro Smith and his brave students should really be considered as future participants in its programs.