Cellist Joshua Roman set to premiere his new concerto with Illinois Philharmonic

Mon Oct 12, 2015 at 2:41 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Joshua Roman will perform the world premiere of his Cello Concerto with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Frankfort.
Joshua Roman will perform the world premiere of “Awakening” with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Frankfort. Photo: Hayley Young

When Antonín Dvořák began work on the cello concerto that would become the most popular and celebrated work in the genre, he reported his progress to a friend in a letter sent from America. “And now to something more about music,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “I have actually finished the first movement of a Concerto for violoncello!!! Don’t be surprised about this, I too am amazed and surprised that I was so determined on such work.”

Besides some subsequent scribbles of the first movement’s principal themes, that’s the most insight we get from Dvořák, writing from across the Atlantic at the turn of the 20th century.

More than a century later, cellist Joshua Roman’s dispatches are a little different. The 31-year-old musician-composer’s cello concerto Awakening will have its world premiere Saturday night  with Roman as soloist and David Danzmayr conducting the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. And Roman has been much more prolific than his Czech predecessor, reporting his progress regularly through blog posts on his website.

“Composing is something that’s rather new in my life, so it’s still growing,” Roman said in a recent interview. “I’m excited about it, but I’m also curious to see exactly where that influence will go.”

For Roman, it’s just another venture in an already omnivorous career. At only 22, Roman was appointed principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony, only to strike out on a solo career two years later. Since then, his career has been marked by a particular commitment to new music, giving the premieres of concertos by Mason Bates and Aaron Jay Kernis and curating new music as artistic director of Town Music in Seattle.

Roman’s activities are bolstered by a robust online presence that has garnered him a sizable fan following, especially among student musicians. His pedagogical “Popper Project” on YouTube—for which he recorded all 40 études from David Popper’s High School of Cello Playing—has been viewed more than half a million times.

“Someone like Josh very much sums up what I’m standing for in terms of programming,” said IPO music director David Danzmayr. “We have to have a living person to introduce to the audience, a person who is very much connected to the audience. And Josh is a very modern person.”

Danzmayr and Roman first met in 2013, when Roman played Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the IPO. According to Roman, the collaborative spark was immediate.

“David’s got some incredible energy, and it just felt really good,” he recalled. “We clicked on a personal level right away, and musically I think we’re very much on the same page. We’re excited about a lot of the same music, and I think he’s so smart and so focused that it’s really exciting to be able to do this with him.”

Roman would go on to perform with Danzmayr with his other ensemble, the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, both of which co-commissioned Roman’s cello concerto. But when Danzmayr was planning the IPO’s upcoming season—his last with the orchestra—he hadn’t initially thought to feature Roman as both a composer and soloist.

“I didn’t know that Josh was composing until he told me,” Danzmayr said. “I think there’s something really special about composers who are good at their instruments and perform, as well. I think it’s too rare nowadays. So I was already looking for opportunities, and he seemed made for that project.”

Awakening won’t be Roman’s first public foray into composition. He has also written chamber music and another piece for solo cello, and last year, his song cycle we do it to one another premiered with the Music Academy of the West.

But, as Roman himself noted, a concerto is another beast entirely. “With the song cycle, once I picked the work and poetry that I was going to set, the structure was there,” he said. “But the cello concerto was just a blank piece of paper.” (A blog post from August, entitled “The Birth of a Cello Concerto,” begins simply: “Damn. This is hard!”)

And yet, even before Roman began work on the concerto, he knew how he wanted it to end. Though not explicitly programmatic, Roman envisioned the piece as a quasi-narrative which hinges on the cello’s eventual submission to other forces.

“There’s got to be a moment where the cello just gives up, and then everything clicks,” Roman said. “There’s this desire to control life, but sometimes, in order to have a beautiful moment, you have to give up.”

From there, Roman filled in the blanks. The result is a five-part piece, about 20 minutes in length, which draws inspiration from different musical idioms while remaining solidly rooted in the classical tradition.

“It’s very YouTube-culture inspired, in that culture can come from anywhere,” Roman explained. “It’s interesting trying to write something that is just honest, and seeing how, though it may seem straightforward to me, it could seem varied in style [to someone else].”

Now that the final double-bar line has been scratched in and the score submitted, Roman has been left to reflect on the experience—namely the unexpected dividends the compositional process can offer.

“I think you start to realize things that are obvious to someone that doesn’t study music technically, but sometimes get lost in the shuffle when there are so many things to be concerned with,” he observed. “Sometimes the big picture gets sort of put to the side—what the composer is saying, and finding your own way to interpret that and put it across powerfully.”

Even the motifs scribbled by Dvořák in his letter  over hundred years ago have taken on new meaning.

“Right now, it feels so different to look at the Dvorak Concerto and think about the notes that he chose and why he chose them,” Roman said. “It’s a different process than just playing it as the Dvorak Concerto, as if it never could have been anything else.”

Joshua Roman will perform the world premiere of Awakening on the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in Frankfort and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. The program will also include Wagner’s Rienzi Overture and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. ipomusic.org.

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