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Beyond virtuoso

Cellist elicits wows
by Dr. Mitchell Kahn

These days, the word “virtuoso” gets bandied about so much that it has lost its punch. So what do you do when you hear a real virtuoso performance? Joshua Roman has been called the wunderkind of the cello with rock star appeal but his performance at the third Bellingham Festival of Music concert on July 10 was so exciting, dramatic, poetic, and phenomenally virtuosic that all I could say was,”Wow!” He plays the cello like it is an extension of his nervous system. There is no artifice between his musical insight and the audience; he thinks the music and his cello sings it. His flawless technique makes his playing look effortless and sound joyful, ebullient and effervescent even when the music is intense and dramatic.

Cellist Joshua Roman brings a rock star image to the Bellingham Festrival of Music. Photo credit - Tina Su

He generously provided two huge helpings of musical pleasure: two staples of the cellist’s repertoire, one each from the classical and romantic periods. The first, Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto #1 in C Major, is a charming and idiomatic piece that seems as though it was written just for Mr. Roman. The first movement was energetic and youthful with great technical demands for the soloist, presented as though it were no big deal, just tossed off for fun.

The adagio movement, however, with no fast passages, no high or loud notes, just yards and yards of poetry is where his artistry was most manifest. The simple, elegant melody was infused with an intense, yet lyrical emotional outpouring. His bow control was astonishing: long diminuendos all the way to the tip with perfect intonation and tonal color. The final movement was a real “look-at-me” showstopper with brilliant rapid staccato bowings and string crossings so that at one point it sounded as though two instruments were playing in counterpoint. He ended the piece with a perfectly placed high G played so far down on the A string that he was beyond the fingerboard.

After that, the audience needed a rest for a breather. Mr. Roman, however, was just getting warmed up. After the intermission, Mr. Roman returned for Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op.33, a showcase of technical fireworks, precipitous runs, trills, double-stopping, and some of the cello’s hallmark throbbing passion and Mr. Roman’s youthful and poetic elegance.

The Festival Orchestra provided the bookends for Mr. Roman’s opus. Whether inspired by Mr. Roman’s playing, or whether they are just that good, the orchestra gave no quarter when it came to brilliant playing. The concert opened with Musica Celestis, a 1990 composition by Aaron Jay Kernis. For many, like me, the sight of a contemporary composer on an orchestra program causes a breakout of hives. Needn’t fear in this case. One critic said, “Kernis has made it safe for music lovers to return to the concert hall and enjoy new music.” He was right! Very reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, it is filled with wonderful delicacy and gentleness. From the barely perceptible opening harmonics played by the first violins, the piece ebbs and flows through the cosmos until it fades off into nothingness in the eternal beyond. Maestro Palmer spoke to the audience about providing the necessary silence to properly frame the piece. Although the piece did start in silence, some members of the audience must have though they were at La Traviata. In a program note attached to the score, Kermis quotes a third century observation by Aurelian of Rome: “The office of singing pleases God… we imitate the choirs of angels who are said to sing the Lord’s praises without ceasing.” To me, the music seemed more cosmic in the Carl Sagan kind of cosmos than the third century choirs of angels kind of cosmos. In any case, the strings played beautifully.

The final offering of the night was Variaciones Concertantes for Orchestra, Op. 23, by Alberto Ginastera. It consists of a theme and 12 variations, each a mini-concerto for different instruments. Steven Thomas, the principal cellist opened the piece with a protracted solo accompanied only by harp. Think of the stress of having to play it right after Mr. Roman’s two giant performances! A seasoned soloist in his own right, Mr. Thomas hit it right down the fairway, passionate and lyrical. Two double-reed masters, oboist Joseph Robinson and bassoonist Robert Williams joined spectacularly in the canonic variation 6.

Flutist Christina Smith and clarinetist Laura Ardan each played their variations with flamboyant panache. Violist Brant Bayless played the dramatic fifth variation so well, I was wondering how there could be all those viola jokes. Variation 7 featured Charles Butler’s brilliant trumpet playing. One hardly ever thinks of the string bass as being capable as of such gentle lyricism, but the solo in variation 11 by Alex Hanna was exactly that. Under the driving baton of Maestro Palmer, the final variation built to a frenzied climax, culminating with the audience leaping to their feet for the third time in the concert. If these Bellingham Festival of Music concerts keep being this good, I am going to have to do some quad-building exercises in the off-season what with all this leaping to my feet.

There are only four more concerts in the 2010 Bellingham Festival of Music season and the tickets are going fast. The concerts really have been that good. Don’t miss them!

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