Back in the day, when Joshua Roman was the hot-shot, super-talented, ever-modest, principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony the press and younger concertgoers — many who had never set foot in a recital hall before Roman came along — fawned over him. Roman was the closest thing Seattle had to a classical music rebel – the Cameron Carpenter or Nigel Kennedy of the cello. His programs showed musical interests stretching beyond the standard repertory. Steve Reich’s Clapping Music showed up on one recital program as did Roman’s own arrangement of a handful of pop songs. You could count on him to dress down (jeans, casual t-shirt) from to time. We loved it. He loved. And Seattle’s classical music world happily rode the waves Roman created.
I can report (with some personal sadness) that Seattle’s classical music world has returned to the placidity of the pre-Roman days.
For Thursday’s concert, a sea of gray hair turned out to hear Roman and pianist Helen Huang conclude Town Hall’s Town Music chamber series. To a degree, Roman even embraced classical music orthodoxy. His program – a reliable arrangement of music for cello and piano by Britten, Brahms, Schumann and a new piece, Americana, by Dan Visconti – probably seemed old fashioned compared to earlier recitals. Instead of jeans, the cellist sported a sharp, dark suit.
Like most young talents trying to make a career as a solo artist, Roman has toured a circuit of smaller orchestras dotted with appearances at major orchestras now and then. He premiered David Stock’s Cello Concerto in Seattle last year; Roman made his San Francisco Symphony debut this season too. Last season, I delighted in knowing Roman appeared with my hometown orchestra – the Quad City Symphony. His visit to the Quad Cities reminded me of the stories orchestra die-hards would tell about the musicians who made their way through river city en route to super stardom. “Joshua Bell came to the Adler before anyone knew who he was,” they would say. Someday, the same will be said about Roman.
A sober Britten Sonata in C and a supple Brahms Sonata in F Major opened and closed the program. Zoltan Kodaly’s Cello Sonata had been scheduled for the program. It was replaced with Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style. It’s Schumann’s birthday this year; plenty of his music is finding its way into concert programs these days.
The focal point of Roman’s recital was the world premiere of Dan Visconti’s Americana – a suite for cello and piano. Visconti told the audience the idea for Americana came after living abroad for a year. Living in Berlin, away from his home country, made him acutely aware of being American. On first listen, Visconti’s sound experiments and use of American source material reminded me of Charles Ives. But unlike Ives, who sometimes seemed to be experimenting for the sake of experimenting, striving to elicit discomfort in his audience, Americana is a cohesive tale that winds its way through the best aspects of our shared, American culture.
Verses from American songs inspired each of the piece’s five movements. The hymn like first movement comes from America the Beautiful. This Land is Your Land gave Visconti the idea for the percussive, rowdy second movement. Colliding dissonances played on the piano are meant to evoke the sea in the third movement, reminding us of Columbia, Gem of the Ocean. Accelerating passages for the cello and piano in the fourth movement imply a march that derives its impulsion from Yankee Doodle Dandy. For the final movement, the Star Spangled Banner catalyzed Visconti to imagine America’s adaptive spirit in music.
I haven’t heard Roman play for two years. I took a voluntary break from all things Roman after his farewell concert in 2008. Back then, I wrote a lengthy (too long frankly) piece exploring Roman’s impact on the Seattle classical music scene. The piece responded to the zealous media coverage that followed him from his very first days in Seattle. At the time I felt Roman was being made bigger than he was. Moving to New York, embracing the anonymity that comes from living away from Seattle’s adoring throngs has calmed the cellist. Roman, helped by Huang, reached across hundreds of years of music on Thursday. They played Britten with the same vigor as Brahms. But for those people who loved Roman because he offered something fresh, different, and adventurous he delivered a stunner with Americana. If he can continue to replicate Thursday night’s concert experience, we just might look back at this recital as a pivotal moment in Roman’s career.
P.S. Roman made a short video introducing Americana. I’ve posted it below.