Cross-cultural Cello

Joshua Roman
The Strad

This month in Columbus, Ohio, American cellist Joshua Roman gives the world premiere of Dreamsongs, a two-movement concerto by US composer Aaron Jay Kernis. He is accompanied by a chamber orchestra peppered with brass, a harp, congas and African metal rattles. The contrasting halves of the 18-minute work – one expansive and romantic, the other a dance flavoured by the music of Azerbaijan – are unified by themes inspired by the kora, an African instrument with 21 strings. In the second movement, Roman is even asked to recreate the kora’s sound. With the added issue of pizzicato competition from the harp and double bass, this has proved to be quite a challenge. “I’ve ended up making picks of different thicknesses from credit cards and using those, combined with left-hand-pizzicato techniques, to get the right sound,’ says Roman. “You have to be creative when you’re trying to balance pizzicato on a cello against an orchestra.”

Roman, a good friend of Kernis, has been involved throughout the composition process. “I’ve seen the piece form,” he says, “so I understand where the ideas came from, what they mean, what sort of mood needs to come across. Watching it take shape, you start with the ideas and then go to the notes, which is a great way to go about it.”

Tchaikovsky’s Rococco Variations, which inspired Kernis to write what for him is an unusually light piece of repertoire, also features in the concert.