Cellist Joshua Roman: Going Fast Uphill

Marianne Lipanovich on February 8, 2010
Cellist Joshua Roman has been making a name for himself since he won the position of principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony in 2006 at age 22. After two years there, he left for a solo career, which has included debuts as concerto soloist with numerous symphonies and other solo work, as well as chamber music performances and collaborations with other musicians from the New York contemporary music scene. He was also the only guest artist invited to play an unaccompanied solo during the YouTube Symphony Orchestra’s debut concert. He’s joining the San Francisco Symphony on Feb. 18-20, performing Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

You’re making your debut with the San Francisco Symphony. I suspect you’ve been to San Francisco before; have you heard the Symphony live?

Yes, it’s my debut, but I’ve been to San Francisco. My girlfriend lives there. I’ve seen the Symphony live in Davies Hall and I’m excited to work with them. They have great energy.

You started playing the cello at age 3. Why the cello?

My mom always tells a story about how I got started. My dad played the cello; my mom played the violin. They wanted to start me on an instrument with the Suzuki method, and said it would be my choice. My mom says my dad then took me into another room and told me horrible things about the violin, how you always had to stand up, how bad it sounded, how hard it was. My dad denies this, but he’s never come up with another plausible story. And I was 3. My dad played the cello, so it was cool.

Your siblings [two brothers and a sister] all play the violin, though, so your mom won with that. No viola?

Well, technically no, but when we play together, we vote on who has to play the viola. Because I’m the cellist, I’m always safe.

You and your siblings did an outreach program in Uganda. How did that come about, and are you still involved with work there?

We planned this trip ourselves, with some contacts there. I was just about to start playing with the Seattle Symphony when we went.

It was very hard, but worthwhile. My youngest brother was only 14 or 15. We had no idea what we were getting into. We wanted to play for people, but we also wanted to help. We didn’t have much room because of our instruments, but we brought things like clothes we would wear and then clean and give away, and mosquito netting. We worked for about a week at one school. We played in places like schools and displacement camps. You could just call up a school about an hour before, and they’d say “yes” and gather all the students together for the program. It was very open and flexible.

It was heartbreaking to play there, though. The people loved the music. Many of them had never heard classical music before. They’d come up and tell us how happy the music made them, but they were only half-clothed and they hadn’t eaten. We were happy we could give them the sounds, but they need so much more.

It was a one-time deal, but I still keep in touch with people there. I would love to do more, and I keep trying to work out a long-range plan for more help there.

How did the Popper Project come about?

It was a way to make myself practice. I sometimes get odd ideas. I was sitting down and decided to read through all the Poppers [“must-master” cello études by Bohemian composer David Popper] — taking breaks, of course. I realized there was so much stuff, I could benefit from working something up. I had a teacher in Cleveland who had started something similar, wanting to do a CD with his cello students playing the different pieces, and I had worked up some pieces for that project.

I decided that if I posted them online, I would have to practice to a high level so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.

You also performed with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. How was that different from the “usual” guest performance with an established symphony?

That was cool. There were several components to it. First, just hearing about it, there was so much energy, with Google/Carnegie Hall/Michael Tilson Thomas — all those things coming together was exciting. There were heightened expectations, and it played out with increased energy from the musicians. And there was the excitement of the crowd and the staff, and even the news cameras, which are very unusual for a classical music concert. You’d be at lunch and someone would be called away because CNN wanted to interview them. That’s not what normally happens.

And then this was my first time playing in Carnegie Hall. I had only been there once or twice before in the “bleacher” section — up in the nosebleed seats. It was so cool to hear the sound of a cello I was playing in that space. It took some effort to coordinate the timing with the video, but just to hear that sound ... it was amazing and unforgettable.

You also play at clubs. How do those performances come about?

Sometimes people ask, but usually if you approach the clubs, they’re open to it. It’s often born out of collaborations with other musicians who perform in clubs.

In addition to everything else, you’re the artistic director of Town Music. How is that going?

It’s great. I’m attending a concert by Brooklyn Rider there, right before I fly to San Francisco. It takes some time, and planning pulls me away from the cello. It’s a challenge to think of an entire season. It changes the way I think about a program’s direction and what music goes together. I’m getting to listen to and hire a lot of musicians, which is great.

What direction do you see classical music heading?

In the past couple of years, especially, the playing field has been leveled. I have friends who will play with Sting, then the next day play a modern classical composition, then the next day do a Brahms trio.

Classical music is being challenged to be relevant and unique, and it’s responding. People can find things on the Internet with just a click. You get an immediate response, not recognition 60 years later, although that’s probably still the norm. There are more niches for performers.

If you didn’t play the cello, what instrument would you play?

I don’t know. Maybe electric guitar.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?

Ski patrol. I like downhill skiing. I love to go fast.

What else do you do when not playing, practicing, and performing?

I like to hang out with people. I’m studying a couple of languages. I tend to overcommit to languages, so I’m trying to refine just a couple.

What are you listening to on your iPod? Nothing right now. Well, a little bit of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. My computer crashed in January, and while I’ve gotten some music back online, I’m letting this be a break. I’m checking out some music for artistic purposes, but I haven’t put my earbuds on. I’m listening to the world.