For cellist Joshua Roman, composer is just a text away

Joshua Roman will play a 120-year-old Italian-made cello during TFO’s masterworks program this weekend, but the sounds coming off his strings will be anything but old. Roman believes in the new, in fresh works that reflect the current thinking among active composers who strive to add meat to the repertoire.

Sure, Roman can crank out Dvorak’s Cello Concerto and sell lots of tickets, and he often does. But judging from the arc of his young career, Roman enjoys the aroma of contemporary pieces, such as the Cello Concerto by Mason Bates, which he performs in Tampa and St. Petersburg under the baton of guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein.

“Contemporary music isn’t always part of the training for classical musicians,’’ Roman said by telephone. “But it can be a new experience to work with someone who’s alive.’’

The 41-year-old Bates wrote his Cello Concerto specifically for Roman, a close friend who premiered the work with the Seattle Symphony in 2014. During rehearsals, Roman would ask Bates questions about this or that phrase, which is an advantage in working with living artists. You can’t do that with a dead composer.

“If I have a question about the (Bates) Concerto, I can just text or call him. You get to know the composer and ask him things and get a sense of his personality and how he’s connected to the music,’’ he says of his relationship with Bates and other young composers. “The point is to communicate. As much as I think (classical music) is sacred, it’s written by humans who can change their minds. With Dvorak, it’s all guesswork because he’s not around. I can’t play a passage for him and ask what he thinks.’’

For Roman, this accessibility to living composers also deepens his respect for those of the past: “I feel very lucky to be working with today’s composers, and it makes me feel much more connected to Beethoven and Brahms and Dvorak.’’

Bates’ 25-minute work is abstract, and follows no narrative. Cast in three movements, it opens with a plaintive melody that floats over a restless orchestra, moves into a lyrical and emotional slow movement, and ends in a blaze of virtuosity ─ with the cellist at one point trading his bow for a guitar pick. Bates blends the blues into his harmonies, as well has his interest in electronic music, which adds a rhythmic pulse.

TFO Music Director Michael Francis calls the Concerto “music in a real American language’’ that uses “rhythms in such a powerful and imaginative way.’’

Roman ironed out any issues with the Bates concerto over the last few years in performance, and comes into his TFO concerts more than prepared. Every note is fresh in his head.

“I’ve played it with 12 orchestras now, and have done it five times this season,’’ he said. “It’s absolutely beautiful music and it’s so much fun to play.’’

This weekend’s program also features Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 and the TFO premiere of William Grant Still’s Poem for Orchestra.

Tampa Bay Times Masterworks
Schubert’s Symphony No. 9

Joshua Weilerstein returns to conduct Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, “The Great,” as well as rock star cellist Joshua Roman on Bates’ Cello Concerto, and Still’s Poem for Orchestra.

Free tickets for kids and teens in advance.

Fri, Jan 18, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, Jan 19, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Jan 20, 2 pm, Mahaffey Theater – Matinee

Click here for tickets

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