Joshua Roman Raves with the Chicago Philharmonic
The soloists save a mixed night of Chicago Philharmonic premieres
By Tim Sawyier
For its first concert of 2023, the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) celebrated the music of Chinese-American composer Tan Dun at the Harris Theater on Saturday night, under the leadership of artistic director and chief conductor Scott Speck.
“The CPO was lucky to have cello phenom Joshua Roman as their soloist, as one can hardly imagine a finer protagonist for this genre-spanning score. Roman has spent much of his young career straddling styles and innovating in the spaces between them, and was unphased by the significant demands Tan places on the soloist. From the languid erhu-channeling slides of the opening, to the use of a metallic pick to evoke a pipa sonority on the cello, Roman was a commanding solo presence, clearly enjoying himself as he performed the involved solo part from memory.
… Roman was again in the solo spotlight for the world premiere of Rise, a cello concertino by Reinaldo Moya, the CPO Donna Milanovich Composer in Residence. Moya did not attend the performance, but sent recorded remarks from overseas in a video clip seemingly shot on a handheld iPhone.
Moya explained that Rise was written in response to his brother Manuel’s death last year, which he sought to “memorialize through a lyrical work,” with the solo cello asking the kind of hard questions that accompany grief. Again playing from memory, Roman brought a persistent urgency to his line, always pressing against Moya’s restless orchestral textures. The solo culminated in an unhinged wail high on the fingerboard, a moment where the work’s inspiration was palpably felt. Rise is an affectively engaging if somewhat formless essay, at least on a first hearing, but with advocacy like Roman’s it should have a future well beyond Saturday night.”
The Chicago Philharmonic’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ charms
By M.L. Rantala
Composer Tan Dun, born in Hunan, China in 1957, went from cultivating rice to joining an opera troupe. From there his ascent crossed both national and musical boundaries. He studied music in Beijing and later at Columbia University in New York City. His music is most striking for its combination of influences from both East and West with his score for the 2000 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” being one of his most famous works.
Tan Dun took the film score and recast it as a cello concerto entitled “Crouching Tiger Concerto” and this was the main work on the program for the Chicago Philharmonic’s concert Saturday night, Jan. 14 at the Harris Theater. Cellist Joshua Roman joined forces with the Chicago Philharmonic, all led by Scott Speck at the podium, for this engrossing six-movement work.
The program notes explain that the film “joins the quintessential Asian genre of martial arts cinema with the drama of a western romance with a deep metaphorical message.” As one of the few folks who has never seen “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” I found that description both helpful and exciting.
The music itself was astonishing and imaginative, gripping and alluring. The musicians offered a highly polished performance that supplied drama, surprise and a soundscape like no other. “Poetry in motion” is a cliché, yet what transpired in this concert was precisely that.
The concerto was written for Yo-Yo Ma, who premiered it in London over 20 years ago. The Chicago Philharmonic found another outstanding cellist to serve as their soloist, with Joshua Roman offering a powerful and effective performance. Just after he took his seat at the front of the stage a technician connected his cello to an amplifier. At first the amplified cello sound was surprising, but this was soon forgotten and the amplification had remarkable results. At times, Roman used the amplification to create the sort of wowing sound of an electric guitar. At other times, it allowed him to be heard over a gorgeous wash of fortissimo orchestral sound.
At times Roman set down his bow and used a small metal pick in order to pluck his cello strings just an inch or two below where he was fingering the notes, offering a plinky sound surely meant to imitate a Chinese instrument.
Speck led the musicians in a sweeping recital of the music, displaying commitment and providing stunning detail. Flutist Mimi Tachouet on alto flute created haunting sound that drew you into the music while percussionist Peter Ferry picked up his drum and physically wandered through the orchestra offering suave percussive punctuation.
It was a remarkable performance that the audience loved.
After the intermission, the musicians took on the world premiere of a piece composed by Reinaldo Moya, the Philharmonic’s Donna Milanovich Composer in Residence. “Rise” was written to commemorate the composer’s brother who died last year. Moya spoke about the work in a short video he made himself in Spain, explaining that the cello part represents grief.
It is a short work but it packs a punch. The solo lines stand out from the orchestral texture, but they interplay naturally. Roman again was a marvelous soloist and your only regret was that the composer could not have been there to hear his work played for the first time.