String Theory

01.15.08
Joshua Roman
Seattle Metropolitan

Classical cellist Joshua Roman expands his musical universe with Radiohead, world travel, and an unshakeable belief in his own potential.

From the looks of his apartment, Joshua Roman has other places to go. Oh, it’s a nice studio with a Puget Sound view, the kind of home a 24-year-old should be proud to afford. “Actually, coming from Oklahoma, I feel guilty,” Roman winces. “I think I’m paying more for this space than my parents pay for their house.” Well, maybe, but he’s saving money elsewhere: Although he moved in last summer, there’s not a stick of furniture in sight. No couch, no table, no… wait- there is one chair over in the corner and some shelving for sheet music. He has no plans to purchase any plush sectional or modish settee. He sleeps on his yoga mat. The 40-inch flat screen television shoved next to the wall is up for sale. By the time it’s gone, what’s left on the floor will be a laptop computer and Roman: principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony.

The apartment is just across the street from Benaroya Hall, where Roman has a 24-hour passkey to rehearse and spends much of his time performing. But other halls beckon. “recitals are becoming more and more frequent- and that’s always been my goal: to follow in the footsteps of my heroes, like Yo-Yo Ma,” he acknowledges. The calendar he’s flipping through is filled. “Sometimes I hate knowing my schedule ahead of time,” he says, with a contented sigh that suggests he doesn’t really hate it at all. “I can already tell you that I’m busy at 10am on June 12.” He looks up. “And don’t ask me to do anything that night, either.”

He plops down next to his computer, scrolling through a playlist. He settles on the dark-hued ballad “Pyramid Song” by British rock band Radiohead. “I’m kind of obsessed,” Roman says.  “There are lots of things that go into music- you have delivery, passion, song construction, and then all sorts of colors and effects. And Radiohead is so versatile. They’re like a chameleon.” Somewhere in that praise is a yearning for kinship. As the song wells out over the sound system hooked up to his TV speakers, a moody piano glides along with singer Thom Yorke’s signature falsetto.

“This is pretty bare,” Roman says, referring to the song and not his surroundings. “We won’t have to do much with it.” By we, he means himself and six other musicians he’s recruited. By do, he means turn Radiohead’s brooding rock into a different kind of music. On January 10 at Town Hall, where he has been named artistic director of a new exploratory classical music series, Roman and crew will perform selected Radiohead songs, transcribed to suit the needs of cello, violin, piano, clarinet, guitar, and drums in addition to a vocalist.

He isn’t the first classical artists to take on Radiohead. “Let me play you something,” he says, crawling back across the floor to the computer, a glint in his eye. He punches up a track by pianist Christopher O’Riley on a CD of Radiohead covers called True Love Waits. O’Riley’s ivories dip and lift and pick out a latent melody in the band’s “Everything in Its Right Place.” True Love Waits met with praise (NPR named it part of “that small category of crossover that actually works”) and criticism (the Wall Street Journal found the piano alone inadequately conveyed Yorke’s vocal longing). There are no guarantees Roman’s own sonic experiments will fly. “If I think it sounds bad,” Roman says, suddenly, as if the concern had only just come to him, “I’ll work harder on it.” Big grin. No shrug.

Working harder is Roman’s happy answer to every challenge. In his boyishness and beatific calm he resembles Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince: open face, shining eyes and, notably, an animated mass of hair curling up and out and over his head. Even that book’s famous line- “what is essential is invisible to the eye”- seems apropos for the young man coolly inhabiting an empty apartment. But Roman’s story is still being written, a page-turner in progress. And in a city that’s giving him all the opportunities in the world, the suspense arises from the fact that he dares to be wrong about himself on the tantalizing off-chance that he just may be right.

“My left hand is bigger than my right hand,” announces Roman. He’s in a tiny dressing room at the Edmonds Center for the Arts, preparing to guest with the Cascade Symphony on Dvorak’s Concerto for Cello in B Minor. Roman puts his palms together and, sure enough, the left-hand fingertips- the ones that do most of the work- stand tall over the digits on the other hand. “From the age of three,” he boasts, then with a goofy smirk adds, “I’m deformed.”

Roman warms up for the evening’s dress rehearsal, his fingers and bows dancing over the strings with unwavering confidence. He’s inside the Dvorak- he plays exactly how he feels about any given piece at any given moment- yet he sees the experience from the outside too. He rolls his eyes mischievously and tosses his mass of curls; the Oklahoma kid showing off the thrill of the music.

The Dvorak finished, he returns to his “deformities.” His fingertips are coated with calluses. “Even sliding (down the strings) takes skin off, so calluses are good,” he explains. “You resign yourself to a life of calluses- the pursuit of calluses. Some people pursue happiness, I pursue calluses.” The smirk spreads into a full-blown smile. “See those bumps on the strings?” he says, holding out the cello for closer inspection. “That’s my skin. Yeah- gross, huh?”

He’s been handling such hazards since childhood, not long after his birth in Okemah, Oklahoma. Joshua, the oldest of David and Becky Roman’s four children, grew up hearing all kinds of music. “He was jumping in the womb to Christian rock,” jokes David, a deacon in the Methodist church, over the phone from home in Guthrie, Oklahoma. “A little bit of Garth Brooks, a very little bit. Some jazz. Where he got the Radiohead kick I do not know.”

Becky, a violinist, was the one who looked into Dr. Shinichi Suzuki’s teaching philosophy that presumes children have the ability to acquire musical skills as naturally as language, given proper encouragement and some work. Her instincts were right about the Suzuki method:  Joshua’s two younger brothers and younger sister are all earning their college tuitions by playing violin in orchestras. According to family lore, David, who played the cello, nudged Joshua away from the violin by telling the impressionable child how “squeaky” that instrument could be. “It’s got this huge, expansive range,” Roman says now of the instrument that has become his whole life, “but then within that there’s this tiny sound- that human voice- that’s so touching.”
Whatever moved Joshua toward his calling, the bigger question then was finding a teacher who would agree to mentor a three-year-old. “When they came to me and asked me to teach Joshua they had been trying to find a cellist, but nobody was interested in teaching a child that young,” Lacy McLarry remembers. At the time McLarry was the concertmaster of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic and the principal violinist. “I told them I was willing to do it if they would understand that it was somewhat of an experiment on my part. The string and the bow operate pretty much the same way.”

McLarry set his young pupil up on a small viola, and, taking a cue from the parents, demanded a lot. He watched with pride over the next 10 years as Joshua graduated to a full cello and mastered whatever music McLarry put in front of him. “I’ve known for a long time that he stood a good chance of having a career,” McLarry recollects. “I had him memorize everything that he studied from the beginning. So he has a memory like an elephant.”

Homeschooled, Joshua managed straight A’s between soccer games and enough activity to get him within two merit badges of becoming an Eagle Scout. One Christmas when he was around seven years old he received a gift of Dvorak’s Songs My Mother Taught Me and the Bach suites performed by the most famous American cellist today, Yo-Yo Ma. “I just loved it,” Roman says. “At the time I didn’t know a lot of music or cellists. I just thought, this tape is good. It was a very personal and warm sound.” That did it: He wanted to be the next Yo-Yo Ma. By 16, the aspiring Eagle Scout headed to Cleveland to pursue his music studies. If it was difficult to be on his own, he doesn’t recall it. “I’ve been going to summer camps since I was a kid, so I’ve always been around musicians,” he says. “I’ve always known people who’ve been around that kind of life.”

Roman earned a bachelor’s degree in cello performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and received his master’s degree soon after. “He’s incredibly smart, extremely quick, very dedicated, has a desire to do well and he doesn’t give in,” says Desmond Hoebig, the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal cellist, who taught Roman for over a year and calls him the most talented student he’s ever had. “He’s also gifted physically, which means how quickly he can memorize a piece with his hands. If your muscles can retain the memory, that’s a gift.”

Roman was considering pursuing a doctorate when he decided instead to try for the Seattle Symphony position left open by the retirement of principal cellist Ray Davis, who’d been in the seat for over 40 years. The job is a demanding one: play all the cello solos; communicate the conductor’s interpretation of the repertoire to the rest of the section- up to 10 other cellists depending on the piece of music – and, among many other leadership roles, determine the specific requirements of each piece of music, down to the direction the bows are pulled across their strings. Such positions are internationally advertised. About 80 to 90 musicians sent resumes and recordings for the Seattle Symphony job; only about half were invited to audition.

Roman had managed to land four such auditions for himself across the country. The Seattle Symphony was first on the schedule in April 2006. Requirements for the auditions included solo pieces by Dvorak and Tchaikovsky; a list of over a dozen orchestral excerpts (Beethoven, Prokofiev, Wagner, Shostakovich) for which to be prepared; and on-the-spot sight reading. Roman made it through all three rounds- preliminary, semi-finals, and final- with a lack of trepidation that was unusual even for him. “I was surprised by comfortable I felt,” he admits. “I wasn’t concerned about wanting the job. I wanted the job, obviously, but I was more focused on what I wanted from the music. I wanted them to hear what I felt. I mean, that’s the point, I hope.”

It is the point: The audition committee knows nothing at all about the candidates- only symphony personnel managers see the resumes- except what it communicated through music. Committee member literally don’t see the candidates until the final round of auditions; during the first two rounds they listen from the audience while the hopefuls play onstage behind a screen. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s music director, says the committee is careful to listen for “audition players,” those who’ve got the required pieces down pat but nothing more. It was clear who possessed extra talents. “Joshua actually just sat and played wonderfully,” says Schwarz. “You don’t know anything else at the time. You don’t know his leadership abilities. You don’t know about his maturity. You don’t know how he’ll deal with people who are all older than him. But you always take the chance.” The Symphony took that chance. The 22-year-old got the gig.

Roman’s arrival in 2006 from Cleveland set the city abuzz and splashed him across local media. One critic called him “eloquent and uncommonly mature.” When he sold out a solo recital debut at Town Hall in 2007, another proclaimed him “A musician of imagination and expressive breadth.” Roman gave interviews sounding like a fresh-faced rebel, expressing a desire “to see the classical-music industry crumble” until it could reinvent itself. He established an exhaustive “have cello, will travel” policy. He played dates at nightclubs, began his experiments at Town Hall, tried jazz in coffeehouses. Seattle proved just big enough to let him test himself and just small enough to give him a sense of how much more he has yet to try.

The summer he arrived, Roman planned to join his siblings in Germany for a World Cup soccer game. Then a friend came from Cleveland gave him We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing book about genocide in Rwanda. By coincidence he had just rented the DVD Hotel Rwanda based on a selfless hero from the book. Suddenly Germany didn’t feel like the right summer plan. “I was looking at how much money we were going to spend just to watch the game we were going to see,” Roman explains. “I just thought, There’s no way I could feel good spending money on this right now. I called my sister in Oklahoma, and it just sort of evolved from there—that we weren’t going to Germany but we were going to Africa.”

By that time, a lot of focus had shifted from Rwanda to neighboring Uganda, a country so mired in violent politics as well as the AIDS pandemic. With logistical assistance from a college friend of their father’s, a native Ugandan, the Roman kids packed up their violins and cello and headed there, landing in Kampala and Gulu, site of a government military base fighting a rebel army. They traveled in and out of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps armed with bows and strings and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. “When you’re playing it for people who haven’t heard it,” Roman says, “you realize how amazing and beautiful it is.” The refuges taught them their own songs and hymns, and Roman’s outlook on the relative perils of life expanded even further. “The things that I have to worry about,” he says, “are so easy.”

Maybe so, but back in Seattle, Roman faces so much work, so much attention, so few days in a week. “Being the principal cellist of an orchestra is a full-time job,” conductor Schwarz notes. “It’s really a difficult position. What he’s doing now, so many different projects, you can’t maintain that for long.” A symphony job alone is so physically demanding, Schwarz adds, that string musicians especially “have to be careful of their workload to avoid injury. He could actually do some harm to his hands.”

The same cautionary tone echoes in the voice of Hoebig, Roman’s former teacher from Cleveland. Clubs and cafes and international outreach are enticing, but the principal cellist of a symphony has obligations. “It’s important to be respectful of your situation,” he says. “It’s a very small world we work in. Sometimes you can piss off people and they remember it five to ten years later, and you have doors closing on you and you don’t know why. He wants to keep challenging himself. Most of the time he may succeed, but sometimes he’ll fail—and that’s not a negative thing. We have to test and find out what’s possible.”

Legs outstretch, sitting again on the floor of his unfurnished apartment, Roman is surrounded only by the thrill of possibility. Thanks to his symphony position, the Oklahoma upstart finally found himself onstage with his idol. When Yo-Yo Ma came through town with his Silk Road Project last spring he had suggested that they play together and told Roman to e-mail him. The disciple was too nervous and didn’t get around to it until August. At last, for Seattle Symphony’s season-opening gala last September, they agreed to play Jean Barriere’s Sonata for Two Cellos in G Major, a blast of kinetic joy that Yo-Yo Ma had recorded in 1992 with Bobby McFerrin. Roman rehearsed the piece with himself, singing the other cello part while playing his own. He and Yo-Yo Ma got together for a few minutes of rehearsal the afternoon of the gala and then, says Roman, “I just got ready to play really fast.” That night, the master pulled their chairs together and the two idealists—one just beginning to dream, one at the height of his success and reaching even further—flew into the piece, driving one another on for the next few minutes both of them beaming like a couple of kids.

“I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so big onstage before,” Roman says, reliving the moment all over again. “My arms were part of my smile.” The memory spills out with few pauses for punctuation: “Sitting on stage next to him felt like—I don’t think I can put it into words. You feel this power. Some of it is him and some of it is just all these ideas you had about him and who he is, and then these things feed off each other until something amazing starts to happen, and that’s what you want music to feel like and that maybe only happens a few times. It’s, like, suddenly it doesn’t even feel like real life.” He stops. “Or maybe that was real life and everything else is just waiting around.”

Turning back to his Radiohead project at Town Hall, he muses that he’ll probably use his cello to play the bass lines or backup guitar of the band’s songs. He will head to Singapore in May and participate in a recital series in New York later in the year. Family? Stability? Those can come later. “I’ve got this thing that I want to do, and if I’m not doing it. I’m not happy,” he says. “If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. But if I don’t try I’ll hate myself. Right now I know that what I want is to learn more so that I can be the best at what I do.” What’s essential, it turns out, is not invisible to the eye. It’s outside these walls, waiting to be explored.