Due Date: Awakening

by Joshua Roman


#TFW you’re about to hear your first orchestral composition for the first time…

It’s alive! My first cello concerto, has come into the world – kicking and screaming – but alive. What a crazy experience. I’ve never done anything quite like this, and while it was a project that stretched me almost to the limit, it’s been worth it. I feel more in touch with my artistic sensibility than ever, and more motivated to continue the creative process than I have been in a long time.

I’ll save details of the piece for the day when I’m able to share a recording. In the meantime, there were plenty of lessons in the process.

Lesson 1: Everything Takes Longer Than You Think!
Lesson 2: Everything Takes Longer Than You Think, Even After Allowing For Lesson 1.

The other lessons were more fun, and didn’t require all-nighters. (which leads to apologies to my copyist, George Katehis, who should be sponsored by Red Bull.)

I learned that I am not so good at revision – I already kind of knew this, in relation to writing this blog (among other things). I think it might have something to do with my training as a performer, spending years developing the skill of memorizing quickly. Perhaps those neural pathways need to chill a bit, and not wear those grooves in so deeply on first hearing. Luckily, I’ve been getting better at it by necessity. The blog helps, but the concerto really was a breakthrough in that sense. The pressure of an impending performance where I’m presenting my own art led to much more scrutiny than I realized I was capable of.


As usual, Mom and Dad got the first preview via Skype.

I also learned that it takes a bit longer than the warm-up time between dress rehearsal and the concert to switch from the composing mindset to the performing one. It didn’t help that the damn composer (me) didn’t give the cellist (me) the music until very late in the game. As I rehearsed, my focus was very much on the orchestra bringing my imaginary sounds to life. Listening to hear if what I had notated was being played, and if so, was it working the way I expected? In this state of mind it’s hard to do much more than play the notes. During my break, I had time with the cello alone, and quickly realized that I needed to breathe and bring myself back into that special focus that I need to perform. It worked, somewhat, but as with everything else that week it would have been easier had the details of orchestration and rehearsal been more prepared by yours truly when we showed up for the endgame. I’ve kept careful track of these lessons, and am now super excited to apply them next time around.

In fact, I have the opportunity to do much of that as I finish my revisions before the next performance with ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus in January. I’m making changes now so there’s time to sit with them and continue modifying until it seems right. And then, I’ll walk away from it and just enjoy the continuing process as the interpretation can evolve rather than the notes themselves.

There’s not much to do: a couple of sections need an extra measure or two to develop the way I meant. And balance! I was sure, as a cellist who has played many concertos, that I would get the balance right the first time around. Lo and behold, I was overambitious and could tell immediately that adjustments were needed. Some of it was a matter of adjusting dynamics in rehearsals, but we didn’t get quite all the way to balance perfection. No way am I going to practice some of the ridiculous passagework if it can’t even be heard! Those are relatively easy fixes though. The more I hear others play my music, the more I realize the importance of detailed markings. They can convey a shape and a character that bring them out even if a dynamic is soft, or simply serve to hold a players’ attention in a way that attracts the ear of a listener.

I’m very grateful to all who made this project possible. To have created something that speaks of personal emotions is a great feeling, and the fact that I’m able to share it on such a platform and with the support of others is incredibly inspiring and uplifting. This is only part two – eventually there will be music to play for you, and I look forward to that moment. In the meantime, go create something!!


Backstage after the premiere. That was intense! It was great to have David Danzmayr conduct.

My current playlist:
Ingram Marshall: Gradual Requiem
David Byrne and St. Vincent: Love This Giant
Barber: Essay No.2 for Orchestra

Joshua Roman’s cello concerto “Awakening” was premiered on October 17, 2015 with Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor David Danzmayr, commissioned by Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, The Lied Center of Kansas, and The Corral Family. For more about “Awakening,” check out the Chicago Tribune preview and its first review in Chicago Classical Review.

Revisiting Bates

by Joshua Roman


Mason Bates, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and Joshua Roman backstage at Benaroya Hall

That old familiar friend – a piece that already has a life inside of you and is ready to be teased back into the external world. For a cellist, these are usually pieces of very old music: Bach Cello Suites, Concertos by Dvorak or Haydn, Sonatas and Quartets from days of yore.

This time, I get to reignite the flame with a rather new concerto: that special work by my friend Mason Bates. I am so lucky to count wonderful composers among my friends, and to work with them regularly. Last year, Mason wrote his first Cello Concerto for me, and we gave the premiere with the Seattle Symphony. Even by the time of the world premiere, I had given the piece several test runs with pianist Carlos Avila, for small audiences with discerning ears. Now I’ve decided this is a must! I had a similar preparatory experience with “Dreamsongs”, the concerto Aaron Jay Kernis wrote for me the previous year, and on the day of a premiere it makes all the difference to have more comfort, confidence, and a deeper connection with the music.

So pulling the score back out, I had a decision to make. Listen to archival recordings from the performances with Seattle and Columbus? Or rely on memory of what worked and what didn’t? Usually, with a piece that’s already entered the standard repertory, I have a self-imposed rule that listening to other recordings is strictly verboten within a month of a performance. It may be 80% superstition, but I want to be conscious of what makes its way into my interpretation. However, is it any different when the only recordings in existence are my own? If I listen at all, I generally listen to archival recordings fairly soon after the performance to get a sense of whether my intentions come across or not, and try to take notes for later.

An experiment began to take shape: I started by looking at the score as if it was the first time, and began to practice before listening to any recordings. This way, at least I could leave room for any accidental discoveries, which are always fun! Of course, there were a few – opportunities for color changes or subtleties I missed the first time around. Or did I?

Going back, listening to the recordings, it was fun to see what recollections were spot on, and what memories had taken on the subjective hue of emotions surrounding certain moments or performances. Listening to oneself can be a painful process, but the illuminating effect it has is well worth it. There were plenty of sighs of relief on my part, as well as the usual grimacing. Definitely something that I prefer to do alone in the privacy of my own room!

The fact that I had some insight into my own previous interpretations (hued or not) helped me get past my concern about the unseen influence recordings can otherwise have. If anything, it has helped even more as I discover what gestures, colors, and emotions come across in the sound and what is only internal. From now through the time of the last performance of the season, I’ll be listening back to run-throughs, rehearsals, and performances, chipping away at the edges of this particular work of art.

You’ll see in the list below that I’ve chosen to listen to other works by Mason. While I do have certain hesitations regarding listening to a specific piece I’m playing, if I can find other pieces by the same composer, or works that I know have influenced, I find it a good way to absorb more of their style and voice. And of course, being in constant communication with Mason to get ever closer to the heart of his musical soul.

The best part of being with such a new “old friend”, is that I get to introduce so many people to these new sounds for the first time. Long live new music!


Eric Jacobsen and Joshua Roman getting ready for Mason Bates at Greater Bridgeport Symphony.

Joshua performs the Bates Concerto throughout the 15-16 season, beginning Saturday, September 19 with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony under the baton of Eric Jacobsen – check Joshua’s calendar for a city near you!

Stereo is King (whole album)
Violin Concerto with Anne Akiko Meyers, violin

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!