Rising cellist Joshua Roman blends refined artistry with internet savvy

By Dorothy Hindman

Joshua Roman will perform music of Beethoven, Schumann, Stravinsky and Prokofiev September 8 for Sunday Afternoons of Music.

Cellist Joshua Roman could be the prototype for the 21st-century classical musician.

At 29, he already has a thriving bicoastal career as a soloist and chamber musician, curates the TownMusic chamber series in Seattle, and has famous composers writing works for him. He also has a keen interest in the internet, and Roman’s blossoming career provides an exemplar of how today’s young musicians are using technology to navigate the musical terrain.

Roman will give his third local performance in less than a year September 8 when he opens the season for Sunday Afternoons of Music at Gusman Concert Hall. Although he often performs contemporary music, Roman’s Miami program will present well-established repertoire, including Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C major, Robert Schumann’s Five Folk Pieces, and the Beethoven Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major. “On this program,” says Roman, “I really wanted to do something thick and juicy and old.”

Tall and youthful with Midwestern good looks and thick red hair, Roman’s enthusiasm is infectious in a drive down Dixie Highway and lunch interview, giving a hint of why he has become a rising presence in classical music.

The young cellist has just wrapped up a performance in Seattle with the JACK String Quartet for TownMusic. On that program were new arrangements of Renaissance composer Gesualdo’s music, a premiere of Jefferson Friedman’s new quintet, and a work by Roman himself. He was then headed to Manhattan to repeat the JACK program at the hip downtown music club Le Poisson Rouge.

Roman is particularly excited about Le Poisson Rouge’s new technology that enables artists to make performance DVDs. While the breadth of the JACK program reveals an artist with an instinct for programming provocative classical concerts, the planned DVD and instantaneous digital release of the concert also show a shrewd marketing awareness that is increasingly the norm for musicians of his geneeration.

“From a young age, we’re taught that you’re a crazy musician, or you’re an organized musician and a businessperson, and that there’s no in between,” says Roman. “And if you start getting interested in the business, then you’re going to lose some sort of magical quality that you otherwise have, which is not true.

“There’s a dovetail happening right now with the rise of understanding the need to have some business acumen. It used to be that one company owned several radio stations, a record company, orchestras, and an artist roster, so you really could have the ‘big break,’ but that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Roman knows excellent musicians still waiting for that obsolete break who are resistant to learning self-promotion and digital marketing tools. He finds this impractical. “Even musicians who might not be so good are getting somewhere through technology and marketing. I think enough people are going to realize that they need to learn technology as a marketing tool. Then the playing field will even out again, and the cream will rise to the top.”

Roman’s exquisite musicianship and his open-mindedness places him among the cream of the cello world, recognized by major composers like Aaron Jay Kernis, Osvaldo Golijov, and Matthias Pintscher, who entrusted Roman with his Reflections on Narcissus last spring with the New World Symphony.

“I think it’s important to stay open to anything,” Roman says. “I always had wanted to do what I’m doing now, which is to play the concerti, do some chamber music, do recitals, to follow in the footsteps of my heroes. But staying open to other things has led to some great experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise had, like directing the TownMusic series, or playing in an orchestra.”

At 22, Roman was appointed principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony, the youngest principal in the symphony’s history. “Sometimes I’ve thought playing in the orchestra was a diversion, but now I see it as an integral part of shaping how I do what I do. From being in that atmosphere, I understand what it’s like to be a player in the orchestra, and to relate to them from the soloist position.

“Also, the sheer amount of repertoire that we played in just two years—almost all of the symphonies of Beethoven, the Brahms symphonies, the big concerti. It has really shaped my understanding of music, even of the smaller pieces that those composers wrote.”

Playing with the Seattle Symphony led directly to a collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis, which resulted in an enduring friendship. “We met in Seattle when he came for a performance of his work Newly Drawn Sky with the orchestra,” Roman recalls. “Because of my openness, I pretty much always said yes when the symphony asked me to play for donors or whatever. They said, ‘We want you to play Air by Aaron Kernis, with him at the piano, for a donor event.’ So I learned it, we played it together, and we really clicked.”

When in New York, Roman continued to play with Kernis, and with Kernis’ wife, also a pianist. When Roman finally moved to New York, he spent a lot of time with the Kernis family, “because they were some of the few people in New York I knew that weren’t friends from the Cleveland Institute.” Three years ago, Roman and his wife moved uptown to the very same block that the Kernis’ live on. “So now we hang out, I get to see their kids, it’s great.”

The performing connection proved fruitful for creating as well. “We had tossed around several ideas for pieces over the years, and a concerto had always been one. We managed to get an orchestra that I’d played with to say yes, and we built a consortium from that,” recounts Roman.

“When this concerto began to be written, Aaron would come over and say ‘I want to hear you try this sort of thing.’ It was very cool to see his professionalism, and some of his creative process as well. To see that joy of ‘Oh, I found this new sound,’ or ‘I really love this moment and I want to make it even better,’ really makes me respect him even more. The process of writing this work was very personal, and I feel privileged to have seen some of that.”

Roman’s involvement with composers isn’t limited to the concert stage. On Roman’s YouTube channel, a video project of Etudes by David Popper shows the cellist downloading, performing, recording, and uploading them immediately, from wherever he was in the world. Another collaboration with DJ Spooky on a cello and iPad cover of Radiohead’s Everything in Its Right Place, was recognized by Paste magazine.

“The Internet seems to me to be one way of people connecting over music, without having the judgment of releasing a CD, or putting on a concert,” says Roman. “It’s not quite being in the home and doing it, but you have these communities developing on YouTube where people post things for each other. I know of concerts that happen in the virtual world, on Second Life. Most of it is not that organized, but I still think it’s valuable.”

Roman’s ideas about the Internet and performance got him invited to give a TED-X event in 2011.  The increasingly popular Technology, Entertainment and Design talks, another example of how a movement can use technology to spread like wildfire, are a particularly appropriate way for Roman to reach new audiences.

“I spoke about the Internet and classical music, and in particular about an idea of that I picked up from the YouTube symphony, which is that we need to encourage an amateur base of performers.

“Back in the day, when a lot of chamber music repertoire was written, it was to be performed in small settings and homes, and this amateur performing has lost its centrality in the focus of music. A lot of times, it’s more about the greatest recording. Why play it, if you could listen to the Takács Quartet play instead on a recording?

“The Takács Quartet is one of my favorite quartets in the world, but I don’t think that anyone should say that because of that, they’re not going to try to play it also. I think encouraging that is very important. If you have this availability, go find people who appreciate and love doing what you do, and do it together.”

Sunday Afternoons of Music presents cellist Joshua Roman and pianist Cory Smythe 4 p.m. September 8 
at Gusman Concert Hall, University of Miami. 305-271-7150; sundaymusicals.org

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Sun Aug 25, 2013
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