Cellist Joshua Roman set to premiere his new concerto with Illinois Philharmonic

Joshua Roman
Chicago Classical Review

When Antonín Dvorák began work on the cello concerto that would become the most popular and celebrated work in the genre, he reported his progress to a friend in a letter sent from America. “And now to something more about music,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “I have actually finished the first movement of a Concerto for violoncello!!! Don’t be surprised about this, I too am amazed and surprised that I was so determined on such work.”

Besides some subsequent scribbles of the first movement’s principal themes, that’s the most insight we get from Dvorák, writing from across the Atlantic at the turn of the 20th century.

More than a century later, cellist Joshua Roman’s dispatches are a little different. The 31-year-old musician-composer’s Cello Concerto will have its world premiere Saturday night  with Roman as soloist and David Danzmayr conducting the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. And Roman has been much more prolific than his Czech predecessor, reporting his progress regularly through blog posts on his website.

“Composing is something that’s rather new in my life, so it’s still growing,” Roman said in a recent interview. “I’m excited about it, but I’m also curious to see exactly where that influence will go.”

The cello concerto won’t be Roman’s first public foray into composition. He has also written chamber music and another piece for solo cello, and last year, his song cycle we do it to one another premiered with the Music Academy of the West.

But, as Roman himself noted, a concerto is another beast entirely. “With the song cycle, once I picked the work and poetry that I was going to set, the structure was there,” he said. “But the cello concerto was just a blank piece of paper.” (A blog post from August, entitled “The Birth of a Cello Concerto,” begins simply: “Damn. This is hard!”)

And yet, even before Roman began work on the concerto, he knew how he wanted it to end. Though not explicitly programmatic, Roman envisioned the piece as a quasi-narrative which hinges on the cello’s eventual submission to other forces.

“There’s got to be a moment where the cello just gives up, and then everything clicks,” Roman said. “There’s this desire to control life, but sometimes, in order to have a beautiful moment, you have to give up.”

From there, Roman filled in the blanks. The result is a five-part piece, about 20 minutes in length, which draws inspiration from different musical idioms while remaining solidly rooted in the classical tradition.

“It’s very YouTube-culture inspired, in that culture can come from anywhere,” Roman explained. “It’s interesting trying to write something that is just honest, and seeing how, though it may seem straightforward to me, it could seem varied in style [to someone else].”

Joshua Roman will perform the world premiere of his Cello Concerto on the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in Frankfort and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. The program will also include Wagner’s Rienzi Overture and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. ipomusic.org