Joshua Roman’s short-lived adolescent rebellion took place somewhere around age 12. He had already been playing the cello for about six years at that point, and decided he was ready to move on.
“I didn’t want to practice,” he recalled. “After I harangued her for months and months, my mom finally said, ‘You can quit the cello if you want, but you have to find something else to do. Maybe you can focus on your soccer.’”
Victory at last? Hardly. “I remember bursting into tears,” he said. “She was supposed to make me practice!”
Roman hurried back to his instrument, never again to question his choice of vocation. Today, at age 28, he is widely considered an unusually exciting performer—“a cellist of extraordinary technical and musical gifts” in the words of San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman. He will give a solo recital at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 15, in Hahn Hall, on the campus of the Music Academy of the West.
UCSB Arts & Lectures moved his program to Montecito from its original location at the Museum of Art. In the process, it turned the gig into something of a homecoming: Roman studied at the Music Academy during the summer of 2002. He returned to town in 2010 to perform works by Tchaikovsky and Golijov with the Santa Barbara Symphony.
Roman was born into a musical family: His father worked for many years as a choir director, and his mother holds that same position today. His parents played together in their college orchestra: He on cello, she on violin.
“My mom says that my dad coerced me into choosing the cello,” he said. “He says that’s not entirely true. I don’t remember; I was three.”
By adolescence, he was branching out musically. “Around age 11 or 12, I started playing jazz bass,” he said. “From there, I went to electric bass and then guitar, which I kept up for a long time. In high school, I played and sang in bands. I only sold my guitars when I moved to New York a few years ago. I had a nice setup I had to get rid of. No room!
“There’s a great energy and drive that takes precedence in a lot of rock and pop,” Roman noted. “It’s about making a strong visceral connection. That’s something that I think great classical music can have, too. In that way, it’s definitely influenced the way I approach things.”
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Roman spent two years as principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony. While he was aiming for a solo career, he recalls that time fondly, noting he learned “lesson after lesson after lesson” observing great conductors and soloists at work.
His recital begins with a piece written for one of the greatest cello soloists of all time, Mstislav Rostropovich: the First Cello Suite by Benjamin Britten. “It’s an amazingly cohesive statement—a great balance of innovation and the desire to communicate directly,” Roman said. “It’s a very deep, profound work.”
Next is Ballad by Aaron Jay Kernis, Roman’s next-door neighbor in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. “It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching, romantic piece, written to be performed by a solo cellist playing against a recording of seven cellos,” he said. “Aaron has a brilliant mind and an open heart, and you can hear it in his music.”
Roman will also perform some new music he composed himself. “A couple of weeks ago, I was in San Francisco, where I performed a theater piece with Anna Deavere Smith,” he said. “I’ve taken some of the themes I wrote, completely rewoven them, and added some new material. We were exploring the idea of grace; the piece was called On Grace, and we did it at Grace Cathedral.”
On the subject of spiritual inspiration, it’s worth noting that Roman has also written an arrangement of the Led Zeppelin rock classic “Stairway to Heaven” for four cellos. While it won’t be on his program, “It’s on YouTube,” he said. How could it not be?
Joshua Roman’s solo cello recital at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall is on Thursday, March 15, at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.