Composer, solo cellist: Both hats fit Joshua Roman just fine

Joshua Roman
Chicago Tribune

The centuries-old tradition of the composer-performer has pretty much fallen by the wayside in our increasingly specialized classical music era, when the creators and re-creators of music do their thing more or less independently, typically coming together only when it serves their purposes.

The burgeoning dual career of Joshua Roman triumphantly defies that trend. Active as a solo cellist since he gave up the principal cello chair at the Seattle Symphony in 2008, Roman devotes the rest of his energies to composing works for his own use, as well as other musicians.

As a matter of fact, the two Joshua Romans will merge at this weekend's season-opening concerts of the south suburban Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, at which the composer will perform the world premiere of his own cello concerto, "Awakening," under the baton of music director David Danzmayr.

The 31-year-old Oklahoma City native, now a resident of New York City, regards the two sides of his artistic personality as complementary, one fueling the other — inseparable from the other activities by which he defines himself as a switched-on, tuned-in classical musician of the early 21st century.

Roman's cello concerto — an IPO commission that's being shared with Danzmayr's other American orchestra, the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio — takes its title from an awakening from a failed relationship, he explains.

"While the music loosely evokes the love affair, it's also as much about realizing that sometimes you just have to let go and surrender to the flow of life," he says of the five short, interconnected sections that make up the concerto. "The cello represents the protagonist. The orchestra sometimes represents the world as it is, sometimes the other person in the relationship: Love song, fight song, a song of despair and a moment of apotheosis." 

The score's melodic sensibility, the composer adds, reflects "broad and evolving" influences ranging from contemporary classical composition (both Mason Bates and Aaron Jay Kernis have written cello concertos for him) to his favorite alternative pop groups and composers, in this case the British indie rock band Alt-J and American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.

Eska Koester, the Illinois Philharmonic's executive director, observes that the world premiere is "an incredible opportunity for us," given that "orchestras our size aren't typically able to commission a piece, especially by an artist of Joshua's caliber."

Adds Danzmayr, who is launching his fourth and final season as IPO music director with these concerts in Frankfort and Joliet: "This is something special for our audience, because often when the public hears a piece of contemporary music they can't connect it to a face or a personality. With Joshua playing his own work, the connection is immediately there."

Not only that, Roman is presently producing a video series for YouTube he calls "Everyday Bach" — movements from the Bach cello suites performed by him in different outdoor and indoor spaces around the world. He's posted roughly a dozen such videos so far, from locations ranging from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, to a public square in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to the rooftop of his sister's apartment in New York City, with Freedom Tower gleaming in the background.

"I am curious to find out how (people's visual perceptions) affect how they hear a piece of music," Roman says of the video series. "I tried to match each movement to the setting. Hopefully this beautiful, powerful music of Bach's can inspire an emotional response from viewers and even create an ongoing dialogue." 

Read the rest of the review here