by Joshua Roman
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.
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!!
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.