Joshua Roman is riveting, with or without cello

Joshua Roman
The Seattle Times

Here's how compelling a musician Joshua Roman is: He doesn't even need to play his cello. All he did was clap his hands, and the audience at Town Hall on Thursday night was riveted.

The piece he clapped, with clarinetist Bill Kalinkos, was Steve Reich's "Clapping Music," a crunchy and fun duet whose phasing rhythms and revolving percussive patterns brought to mind the sounds of popular performance group Stomp.

However delightful that little novelty was, it was nothing compared to the piece which opened the first concert of TownMusic's 2008-09 season, George Crumb's Sonata for Solo Cello. Roman's virtuosic technique and quiet intensity illuminated this difficult piece from within, so that its disconnected tones and textures became a thing of beauty. Roman transformed a lengthy pizzicato sequence into a cascade of popping bubbles and drew tones from his cello that seemed like shafts of light.

There were several other sparkling moments in this evening dedicated to 20th-century American music, most notably the piano work of Kevin Loucks on John Adams' "China Gates," a soundscape that evoked sunlight rippling on water. In "Gra," Kalinkos used his clarinet to stream out notes that splattered against the air like brushstrokes. Weird, but effective.

Not all the pieces worked so well. John Adams' clarinet solo, "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me," started out pretty and plaintive, and then progressed into stiff little stilted rhythms. That was what the composer intended, but more pretty and less pain would have been preferable. John Corigliano's "Soliloquy," a work for quartet with clarinet, never quite jelled. Was it the piece or the playing? Hard to say, as I couldn't tell if the psychic distance between the players was intentional or not.

My instinct is to blame the composer, because that same group of players (Iryna Krechkovsky, violin; Nicholas DiEugenio, violin; Beth Meyers, viola; Kevin McFarland, cello), sans clarinet, went on to play a superbly nuanced Philip Glass String Quartet No. 5. The group produced some gorgeous scrambling effects in the third section and turned the shifting scale progressions near the conclusion into a fierce display of unanimity and control.

As a parting surprise, Roman returned to the stage to play a Sonata by Aaron Jay Kernis for cello and backup tape. Meant to be played with eight other cellos, or with a recording, this piece was played live into a microphone and accompanied by an audio mix of Roman playing all eight parts. The result was delightful, but I couldn't help thinking how stunning it would have been had Roman played it unplugged, with eight other cellists in the flesh. Maybe someday soon.