Joshua Roman Wants to Know Everything

Joshua Roman
San Francisco Classical Voice

If all musicians were as affable as cellist Joshua Roman, there’d be no chatter about classical music and how it is in jeopardy or doomed to die a slow death in cavernous concert halls.

Roman’s charm and everyday-man persona may be the result of his upbringing. Born in Oklahoma City, the 32-year-old, award-winning musician grew up with parents who sprouted musical prowess like runaway weeds in an untended garden — his mother: violin, piano, voice; his father: piano, trombone, cello, choral conducting, and more. He and his three younger siblings were enrolled in Suzuki, with an eye to their personal development and as a financial move aimed at their acquiring enough proficiency to land scholarships. His siblings didn’t follow Roman’s footsteps into conservatory training and the rigorous life of a solo cellist, but by playing in bands and orchestras as adults they express their versatility and the family’s noncompartmentalized approach to music.

And this is not to ignore his positions as artistic director of Town Music at Town Hall, Seattle and artistic advisor to the Second Inversion — initiatives aimed at shining a spotlight on young composers and ensembles whose music is geared to stir the souls and passions of the next generation of classical music audiences. It’s little wonder his goals for 2016 boil down to necessity: “Focus. Setting limits. Planning. Find the core, then move out, but not so far that I lose myself,” he says.

Roman’s excursion on that river has led him to realizations. Young people, he says, “have strong b.s. sensors.” Seeking diversity for political correctness isn’t inherently bad, but honest curiosity is more genuine.

I want to know more about Bach, or Brahms and how they’re different. I want to know about the feuds between composers in the 19th Century. In the 20th Century it’s the wild pace: I want to know about it all. How do the threads meet and merge and splinter? There are very few bad kinds of music. As far as styles go, I can’t think of styles I don’t want to know about. Same with languages, I can’t stand when I don’t know what people are saying. I want to learn their language.”

His appetite is consistent, even when the activity isn’t musical. Inspired by sprinter Michael Johnson and deciding at age 17 that he wanted to be the fastest man in the world, Roman took his nonathletic self to the streets. “I didn’t discuss this with anyone. I just tried to run as fast as I could. I ended up having knee surgery; the cartilage was so damaged, it was flaking off.” 

None of this indicates that setting limits is likely, which causes him to laugh and confess that his interests and choices are “sort of like shooting down the middle at things that sound alive and present.” The work of composer Mason Bates, he says, is one example of music that tickles his mind, takes him to familiar, Mozartean places, but also allows him to enter awkward, vulnerable territory. Fear of failure lurks, but is constantly overcome by curiosity.

Which leads him to the work he’s creating for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Girls Chorus. In a program April 10 at Herbst Theatre conducted by music director Valérie Sainte-Agathe titled “Echoes of the Classics: Canons by Brahms, Franck, and Haydn,” Roman presents his world premiere, Veni Mater Gracie – Dou Way Robin (Anonymous).

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, all of those high voices and the cello. It will be fun to deal with those different timbres.’ Then I thought about my nieces, the melodies they want to hear, but also girl power.”

Taking on the taut assignment to write his first canon, (that favorite choral procedure in which voices enter with the same melody at staggered times), Roman played with the technique. At given moments, vocal flow is interrupted, as the voices “bottle up” or gather in more complex harmonies or flock collectively on “angel sounds” before turning a corner to dive back into pure canon. The cello plays a supportive role, its deep resonance providing contrast. “I sing with them, but I’m not one of their voices,” Roman says. “I’m there to give them their space.”

Read the rest of the review here