Joshua Roman: Q&A With A Musical Prodigy

Photo: Jeremy Sawatzky

Arguably the country’s finest cellist is no stranger to the Emerald City.

In terms of finding success at a young age, Joshua Roman might just be a modern-day Mozart. Considered one of the finest cellists in the country — and perhaps the world — making beautiful music is as natural as eating and sleeping for this young prodigy.

Photo: Jeremy Sawatzky

“There is something fundamental about [music],” Roman said. “Music is incredibly personal and universal at the same time. Some of the best moments I’ve had were musical moments. Cello is the most moving sound out there.”

A native of Oklahoma, Roman has been playing cello since age three. He grew up with a musical family: his father was a music minister who played the cello; his mother played and taught piano, violin, and voice; and Joshua’s three siblings all play the violin. In high school, he studied cello with a violinist, which he believes provided a unique perspective on the technical side of playing a stringed instrument.

During his studies in Cello Performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM), he began playing in chamber music groups — as many as 12 in a single semester. However, sharing the performing space with so many other talented musicians was ultimately a positive experience for Roman, despite the time and energy he sacrificed in the process.

“[It was] a great way to play with people of high-caliber skill, who all think in new ways,” Roman said. “[Playing with that diverse group] was extremely fruitful because music can bridge those impasses.”

In 2006, Roman was awarded the position of principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony — which, by default, also made him the the youngest cellist in the group. However, his time spent with the symphony was ultimately very fulfilling — largely because his peers treated him as their equal, regardless of age or playing ability.

“It was an amazing experience that really put me on my feet, and it helped me become a rounded musician and person as well,” Roman said. “From the very beginning I felt appreciated, and that I could grow. For me, that was important because it was so much of a learning experience.”

Roman went solo with his music career in 2008, despite reservations about leaving the Seattle Symphony — and his new-found friends — after only two seasons. He had also earned an appointment as the artistic director of TownMusic, an experimental chamber music series hosted by Seattle’s Town Hall; clearly, a reputation for leadership was emerging. Ultimately though, the young man decided that the time had come to strike out on his own.

“It was something that I always wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave symphony too early, but I didn’t want to stay so long that I would let go of my dream. If I had stayed another year, I was worried that I would lose opportunities that otherwise would never have come,” he said.

Photo: Tina Su

Roman’s most recent honor came earlier this year, when he was named among the 2011 TED Fellows. The program recognizes young trailblazers throughout the world, and the cellist from Oklahoma couldn’t be more thrilled about his inclusion in this year’s class.

“For me it was more about meeting people and being in that diverse community. The other fellows blew my mind,” Roman said. “TED opened up that sphere of thinking that I have always been interested in, which is about seeing the ways that my career can have an impact beyond the stage.”

Roman cites Bach as his favorite composer, claiming the great German’s music has the power to transcend elements of passion, architecture, logic and talent, delivering a highly satisfying feast for the ears. As for the stringed instrument that has allowed this young virtuoso to express himself with such publicity, he hopes the cello will play a major role in classical music in the years to come.

“Composers are recognizing the voice that [the cello] has and it’s ability in range to be the baseline, middle, expressive soprano, melody,” he said. “It’s unique because it covers the range of the human voice. I want to continue to get the best composers out there writing the best cello music, and raise awareness for cello music and playing. Cellists have to think about the music they are playing, and be a catalyst for meaningful and well-thought-out connections to bring people together and touch people.”

Roman still acts as artistic director for TownMusic, and will return to Seattle on June 8 for the second time this year to play with celebrated pianist Gabriela Lena Frank.

“This season has been one of my favorites,” Roman said. “The series has really given me a chance to explore musical questions.”

TownMusic will perform at Seattle’s Town Hall on June 8th from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased through Brown Paper tickets.