Programming a Classical Season

by Joshua Roman

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 7

My mandate from the beginning was clear and concise: Town Music’s programming should reflect my musical interests. A live iPod playlist, if you will. Well, my interests are broad and evolving! What can I say?

Nine seasons in, I’ve seen the development of an audience that comes for an experience. We’re lucky, in this sense, to be tied to an organization like Town Hall Seattle, which fosters community discussion and debate around issues important to Seattle. This spirit of engagement naturally flows over into the music series, and has prompted me to explore musical connections that might not be obvious based on traditional metrics. When an audience member leaves one of the Town Music concerts, I want them to have had an experience that generates curiosity and excitement. Hopefully, they will have been surprised at some point, whether by unknown sounds or their own reaction to something of which they previously had a different expectation.

But how to do this without having a total mishmash of unrelated projects? There are several things which remain consistent from season to season:

Every season includes music by J.S. Bach, whether it’s a concert of Bach or mixed in other programs. I love Bach, and find it an ideal anchor for explorations of many kinds of music. In past seasons, Bach has been played by Baroque specialists like Catharina Meints and paired with other music, like Karen Gomyo’s evening of Bach and Piazzolla. This season, Johnny Gandelsman plays all six Sonatas and Partitas. Yesss…

Every season ends with a commission. A musical series which seeks legitimacy must, in my mind, be a part of the continuing tradition of creativity and innovation which is classical music. This means commissioning and/or performing new works. End of story!

Every season has at least one concert where I perform. My relationship with Town Hall Seattle began with a solo performance, before I was asked to join the team as an Artistic Director. My identity is very much wrapped up in performance, and I learn so much from sharing the stage time and time again in front of an audience that I know, and that knows me.

So how to bring it all together? Several of my past seasons have had an arc, or a particular focus. The season of extra-musical influence comes to mind, where concerts had textual, dance, or other non-musical influence. Or the season where each concert had a different number of players. However, I find that these ideas work best when they develop naturally during the planning process. I like to start with one or two intriguing performers or programs, and then find the connections (obvious or not, at this point) to at least one other idea that’s been on my mind. From there, I might consciously begin to search for other performances that will enhance or contrast the developing theme.

My best example of this process is a season from several years ago, where each concert featured a composer/performer playing their own work and works that had inspired them. I had already decided on a couple of the performers when I realized the commonality: they were also composers. It wasn’t hard to find other people I’d already wanted on the series who also composed. In the end, we had Derek Bermel, So Percussion, the JACK Quartet, Gabriela Lena Frank, and to bring it all back home to Seattle, players from the Seattle Symphony who also compose.

Which leads me to the last piece of the puzzle: maintaining a connection and sensitivity to the community I serve with this series so I can properly inhabit my role as provocateur. Some of that comes from talking regularly with friends and colleagues in Seattle, during my many (many!) trips there or over the phone and email. I also like to find special occasions to highlight local musicians, whether in an all-cello ensemble or the composer/performer concert. One of the more gratifying endeavors was in June, where we managed to pull Seattle Youth Symphony players, alumni, and mentors from the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras together to share the stage in a program of inspiring string ensemble music.

And, my most frequent activity as an Artistic Director: listening. Hours are spent scouring the internet for music and musicians I haven’t heard. Following trails of interesting ideas to see where they originate. Going to concerts when I can (usually at home in NYC) and asking colleagues what’s new and what’s great as I travel around the country.

In the end, I’m on the hook for the programming decisions, and I take this job very seriously. This is a never-ending path of discovery that has taken me far beyond simply programming my own recitals, and it has had a profound impact on how I see my artistic voice developing. Sharing is such an important part of being human, and as an artist I see opportunities to improve that quality in myself, and they are certainly not limited to the concert stage. I love the the feeling of giving someone else a chance to share their voice with an audience and enjoy the dialogue this beautiful interaction spawns.

Take a look at this upcoming Town Music Season and past concerts.

Music I’m listening to:
Ieyoka: “Say Yes Evolved”
Bela Fleck: “Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn”
Xenakis: Complete String Quartets (JACK Quartet)

The Birth of a Cello Concerto

by Joshua Roman


Damn. This is hard! My respect for composers has gone through the roof since I first began scrawling on manuscript paper, and at no time has it been higher than the present. The focus and skill required to compose a work for soloist and orchestra are not easy to come by. Taking a few initial ideas – whether they come as a sound, a form, a gesture, a transitional mechanism – and turning them into a cohesive musical narrative is a process that can only be learned through experience.

There have got to be as many ways to do this as there are composers. I’ve gone through several myself, even on this one piece. To begin with, I had the idea to write from the piano. Supposedly, this would help me focus on the relationship between soloist and orchestra, rather than writing a solo line with incidental backup music behind it. Ironically, I realized several weeks into this method that all of the best moments were in the orchestra part, and the solo line was now secondary! Not to mention, it was taking forever due to my rudimentary keyboard skills.

A fun fix for this came from my growing experience playing the great concertos each season. I close my eyes, cello in hand, and imagine this scene: Walking out onto stage, bowing, shaking hands with the concertmaster (a friend), looking over at the conductor (another friend), and nodding that it’s time to begin. At that point, what happens? Who starts? What have I always wanted to do and hear that has not yet existed?

This method is very fun for me; involving more than one sense in the creative process. Picturing people I know helps, too. When I see them in my mind’s eye, I want to give them something meaningful to do musically. The natural outcome is that the orchestra becomes a partner, and the dynamic between solo line and ensemble is one that takes on a malleable quality. In the end, it even affects the form of this piece, and shapes the climactic moments, as a metaphor for individuality and life purpose emerge.

A little bit of a teaser: my concerto is in five sections, or movements (attacca). The rough outline follows that of a love affair, beginning and ending without the love interest. Of course, this is mostly a structure, the themes and motifs themselves interact on their own terms, and in the end, their momentum supersedes any story I might be using as inspiration. The orchestra is sometimes the broader setting, sometimes a reflection of the solo line, and sometimes used in smaller units as a partner or even antagonist.

It’s difficult to describe this process completely without musical examples. The work is not quite finished, but it’s getting there. Along the way, much has fallen to the cutting floor, and many moments and connections undergo intense scrutiny and revision. And yet, there is so much more that could be done. I understand both the desire to continue working on a piece forever – revising every few years as Stravinsky might – and the feeling of wanting to leave it behind and go on without looking back, taking along only the lessons learned.

Composing is a tough path, and I’m beginning to see that one must really earn their way to a good piece every time. It is a beautiful thing, something I hope we all learn to turn to from time to time as our artistic journeys deepen. And for those who are already in the thick of it, I offer my heartfelt gratitude as you bare your souls to give your music that touches something unique in each of us, and ignites our shared humanity.

Spotify Playlist
Taking a break from other music until I’ve finished the concerto, at which point the regularly scheduled playlist will resume… AKA, Silence, until I’ve finished the concerto!

A Shared Lesson

by Joshua Roman

Roman_15There’s something about stretching the limits, pushing the boundaries, that turns me on. When it’s a shared experience, the reward is greatly magnified. I recently had the honor of working with young musicians in a setting that kept all of us on our toes. In partnership with my series at Town Hall Seattle, the Seattle Youth Symphony called on some of their lovely players and alumni to join me and a few colleagues acting as mentors for a concert of 20th and 21st century string ensemble music.

It’s important to demonstrate to young musicians that ours is a tradition of innovation and creativity. Classical music is a living, breathing thing, not stuck in the past. The same discipline used to bring a Beethoven Symphony to its peak form can be turned to the task of helping birth a new work, and share a new idea. One of the most fruitful ways of passing along a teaching is to lead by example, and I’m ever so grateful to my friends from the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras who played in our ensemble as mentors. Sitting alongside their future colleagues, working together to prepare a very challenging program and present it in a few short days was not an easy task. Through Town Hall Seattle’s partnership with Second Inversion and KING FM, we also gave these aspiring musicians a chance to participate in a video recording session, the results of which are now viewable online.

The program: the world premiere of Running Theme by Timo Andres, which was commissioned by Town Hall. Then, John AdamsShaker Loops; and lastly, Béla Bartók’s Divertimento. The schedule: 6 rehearsals including the recording session and the dress rehearsal, from a Wednesday to a Saturday. A chance for the young musicians to have a glimpse of the condensed and intensive experience professional musicians are often faced with.

The diversity of style within the program was integral to its success in creating a powerful experience for the students. The Divertimento is a fantastically fun work that retains much of Bartok’s folk influence, while delving into more chromatic and idiosyncratic ideas in the slow movement. It’s a difficult work, and there are many solos, another opportunity for our mentors to lead by example. Shaker Loops has long been one of my favorite works, and to me represents minimalism at its most exciting and transportive. To see musicians who had never played this kind of music learn to embrace and inhabit a new way of feeling musical structure and phrasing over a few short days was very cool.

Perhaps the best part was the way they rose to the challenge of putting together Running Theme, an entirely new piece of music for which they could not sit and study previous recordings or hear in concert before taking on the responsibility of presenting it to the world for the first time. Every piece in the canon had a birth, every composer in history has counted on musicians and audiences to give them a shot at leading into the unknown. The evolution of one’s feelings as moments begin to be recognized, form really takes shape, and the conviction borne of seeing both the big picture and feeling the importance of subtlety is a beautiful process, one that for me is so integral to how we then share our hearts with the audience.

What’s the value of this experience? Hopefully, for the protégés, a glimpse of what it takes to be a professional musician. To learn to be prepared at rehearsals, on the ball and focused regardless of the familiarity of the music. To be inspired by the level of the mentors, and of course hear the little tips that come along the way. And to be empowered by the notion that they can be a part of the amazing lineage of classical music and its creation, by working directly with an exciting – and in this case young – composer.

For the mentors, to see the growth and feel the energy of youth, and be challenged to lead by example. Also, to be reminded of the wonder they felt sitting in such a group for the first time when they were that age, and the confidence that develops as something unknown becomes a familiar tool in now capable hands.

For me, the incredible joy of seeing the chemistry between musicians, mentor and protégé. And the honor of leading the team as we work together to the best of our ability to convey something that will transport an audience to a place where the impossible becomes possible, and our inner selves are given a common voice.

Fiona Apple – Tidal (album)
Timo Andres – Shy and Mighty (album)
Olivier Messiaen – Fête des Belles Eaux – performed by Ensemble d’Ondes de Montreal (2008)

Shifting Gears

by Joshua Roman

Follow Joshua on Facebook, Twitter, and see his schedule at


Dear Reader:

Is it really May, already? It’s such a cliché, but I really do feel sometimes that the calendar must be lying. April was a more typical month for me, with multiple concertos and recitals. Mostly traditional repertoire: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, Bach Suites… there were a few newer pieces mixed in as well, including my own “Riding Light”. In fact, that particular performance was one of the few in my life where my Cstring has had the audacity to snap during a juicy moment. Audiences seem to love that, although for me it’s just a pain to have to go grab another one and retune, then decide where to start again.

Along with all of that, April is also of course tax season, and every self-employed Musician knows just how long that can take. So between all of these things, plus other random tasks, I did not get as much done on my upcoming cello concerto as I’d like. Luckily, this month is dedicated to producing notes on paper!

One thing that I’ve always been curious about: where do ideas come from? I know much has been written on the subject, both in the form of studies and also from the notes and journals of creative types. Among my composer friends, the variety of work habits is astonishing. Some are night owls and do the bulk of their creative work after the sun goes down. Others do it first thing in the morning. And this is not always where the genesis of an idea occurs! I’ve been encouraged to carry a notebook around with me everywhere, and this has been immensely helpful, as many times ideas will strike at the most inopportune moment. Often, for me this happens on airplanes, or on the elliptical machine (I hate that thing. My excuse: knee injury). Sometimes, it’s a response to something I hear in a concert, or on the radio. Usually, I’ll hear a composer do something structurally, or turn a phrase or color on its head in an interesting way, and wonder to myself: “would I do that? Or would I do the opposite? Or something in between?”

Which brings me to an exercise I want to share with all of you musicians out there. Perhaps you’ve tried this in the past, but it’s something I don’t think it hurts to revisit. As you’re practicing whatever piece it is you’re playing, take one of the more obviously interesting (okay, that’s subjective, but that’s kind of the point so just go with your gut) passages and play through it a few times. As you do, try to pinpoint what the underlying idea is, what led the composer to the notes they chose. Is there an increase in tension? Is there a moment where something breaks away? Anything will do for these purposes. Then, forget for a moment that the piece was written by someone else. Take the idea, and begin with the same note the composer does, but modify the phrase as if you are composing it yourself. Try different notes and rhythms, dynamics and accents, colors, everything. What would it sound like if YOU had written the notes to achieve the emotional/structural impact the composer did?

This can take a while, especially if you’ve not improvised before. Be patient. Explore, and don’t judge what you’re doing. Just observe! Notice how many options you come up with, and what makes them different from what the composer did. Perhaps some of them may even be equally effective in their own way! In the end, you’ll see a little bit of what distinguishes this composer’s voice from your own, and others. Bonus points: change the phrase to create the same effect in the voice of other composers. Even more bonus points: see if you can keep as much the same as possible, but achieve the opposite emotional impact.

So what’s the point? Interpretation. Interpretation depends on our relationship to a composer, and our understanding of their voice. It helps to have insight into what having a voice means in the first place, and that comes very strongly through improvisation, composition, and other means of creative exploration. This is something I’ve been playing with a lot. There’s much more to try, and to share, but for now I’ll leave you with that bit of nerdy fun and open up the score to my own piece, which is calling out for attention from the top of my keyboard. Had a few good ideas during my workout today, now it’s time to see whether they pan out.

Music On Rotation

Bela Bartok: Divertimento for Strings (buy)
Peteris Vasks: Vox Amoris (buy)
Amon Tobin: Foley Room (buy)

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Juan Pablo Contreras’ “Silencio en Juarez”

Contreras 15-1

Here at Second Inversion, we love it when composers approach us with their music. When Juan Pablo Contreras dropped a line  about his latest album, “Silencio en Juarez,” I thought it would be great to have HIM tell you all a bit about the music (available on Amazon and iTunes).

Q. You say that this CD exemplifies your quest to establish a new synthesis of classical contemporary music and Mexican popular and folk music.  Musically speaking, how would you describe this synthesis?

A. I like to think of it as a musical fusion that allows for these two different sonic worlds to coexist in a unified musical language. As a composer, I find that it’s necessary to embrace all of the musical influences that shape my identity. I’m interested in telling stories about present-day issues that people can relate to. My works draw inspiration from Mexican corridos, sones, and banda music that you can listen to by turning on the radio in Mexico. Folk music embodies the essence of a nation. By alluding to it while using a contemporary music canvas, my music feels alive and relevant in our society.

Q. You get to play the role of composer-performer, doubling as vocalist on “La mas Remota Prehistoria.” Do you enjoy singing your own works?

A.“La más Remota Prehistoria” is a song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra that was originally commissioned by the North/South Consonance Chamber Orchestra in New York. Max Lifchitz, the orchestra’s artistic director, knew that I am also a tenor and asked me if I could sing for the premiere performance. It was a very enjoyable experience, and when the time came to record the work, it felt natural to perform it myself.

Q. Which Mexican composers inspire you the most?  Who should we be playing on Second Inversion that we might not know about?

A. I really like the music of Enrico Chapela and Javier Álvarez. Chapela has written works for the LA Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony. I highly recommend his heavy metal/jazz influenced electric cello concerto “Magnetar.” On the other hand, Javier Álvarez is like the Mexican John Adams. His music is richly orchestrated and very energetic.

Q. The harp is such a cool instrument. What was most fun about writing a harp concerto?

A. It was certainly an interesting challenge to write a Harp Concerto. I had previously written a set of harp preludes for Kristi Shade, who performs the Concerto on the album, which won an Honorable Mention at the 2014 Dutch Harp Composition Contest. This experience facilitated the writing of “Ángel Mestizo,” my Harp Concerto. I was privileged to work closely with Kristi during the writing process. This allowed me to discover idiomatic solutions to complex and “flashy” passages. Shortly after we recorded the Concerto, it won the 2014 Arturo Márquez Composition Contest in Mexico.

Q. The Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra sounds like a very unique ensemble.  Tell us about how this idea became a reality?

A. I founded the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra in 2012 with the purpose of creating a dynamic ensemble of musicians to perform my music in prestigious venues in New York City. After several performances, we decided to embark on this wonderful recording project. I created a successful Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the album, and I’m very excited to finally share it with the rest of the world.