He’s a visionary cellist and composer with a genre-bending repertoire, yet Joshua Roman, 38, spends a lot of time thinking about tradition.
“What is the tradition we want to continue of classical music?” he wonders during an interview about his residency with the Las Vegas Philharmonic. “What is the tradition that matters? … and how does that continue so that we’re not just playing the greatest hits from 100 years ago, but we’re keeping that alive?”
His questions about this centuries-old music genre and how to make it relevant to modern-day audiences are helping to shape Roman’s artist in residence role, now in the first year of three. Described by Roman as a work in progress, it’s the philharmonic’s first residency but not Roman’s, though the cellist is quick to point out it’s his longest, by far, and “to have three years to experiment is really exciting.”
A native of Oklahoma City, Roman first picked up the cello at 3 years old. By age 22, in 2006, he was named the Seattle Symphony’s youngest-ever principal player. He embarked on a soloist career soon after, playing across the nation and all over the world, including with the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and New World Symphony, even being chosen as a TED Fellow, and gracing the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Roman is also a composer, possibly helping to re-popularize the composer-performer tradition for classical music (the norm up until the 20th century). His work has been described as “cinematic,” with a broad feel and organic storytelling quality.
Roman didn’t set out to write music, classical or otherwise. Instead, it happened out of necessity, while working on one of his extensive musical projects.
“What we were looking for didn’t exist musically, so I ended up creating it and, without realizing it, becoming a composer,” he says. “Then it got more serious and now I do write a fair amount of music. I tend to write music that I will play; I don’t write a whole lot of music that doesn’t involve me in the performance.”
Roman has long loved the cello and notes with enthusiasm that the instrument has exploded in popularity with young musicians over the last 60 years, showing up in both classical and nonclassical songs. He credits a “Yo-Yo bump” for its popularity, referring to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as other great moments in pop culture such as the television performance by grunge-rock legends Nirvana with cellist Lori Goldston on “MTV Unplugged” in 1993.
“It started to really become popular in classical music in the 20th century,” says Roman. “Then artists like Yo-Yo Ma, who have done so many collaborations with different people, and different genres, and even different art forms, have really paved a path that young cellists are excited about. I’m one of those.”
Calling it a versatile and soulful instrument, Roman is thrilled to see the cello represented in different ways, playing any type of music, whether classical or contemporary. “It can be the bass, it can be the melody, it’s percussive, sad, happy, aggressive, or sweet,” he says. “I don’t think there’s really anything bad you can do with a cello, except maybe break it.”
As the artist in residence at the philharmonic—led by Music Director Donato Cabrera—Roman will continue spreading the gospel of cello and classical music by playing for, and mentoring, young music students throughout the valley and leading public masterclasses. He describes a masterclass as “a regular lesson that gets turned into something a lot more intense” and “a good moment to have breakthroughs for students.”
Additionally, Roman will perform with musicians from the philharmonic at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and other venues, and collaborate with a variety of established Las Vegas institutions. He intends to check out shows and attractions in Las Vegas and get to know a variety of the city’s eclectic innovators and creatives, including visual artists and dancers, even those in the food scene. He doesn’t want to simply say, “You should listen to my music because it’s good for you,” but to see how he and other local creators can unite their passions to enrich the Las Vegas community.
“I want to not just be an ambassador for the philharmonic, but to really help explore the place of the philharmonic in the community,” says Roman. “It’s a balance between helping reinvigorate…celebrating the good that is there…and looking at how I can use that extra little bit of attention from being an artist in residence to open doors and build bridges.”
Before the time comes to pick his own successor for 2024, Roman envisions a program that’s inclusive of the community at large and reflective of Las Vegas as a whole.
“There’s no model that can be copied and moved to one city from another,” he explains of his residency. “You have to find what’s unique about a particular city and find a way to emphasize that.”
Roman next performs in A Cello Celebration with Joshua Roman, part of the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s 2021-2022 Spotlight Concert Series, on April 7. The intimate concert in the Smith Center’s Troesh Studio Theater was curated by Roman and puts audience members up close and personal with cellists including Roman, Andrew Smith, Mert Sermet, Kevin Mills, and Jeremy Russo, as they play some of their favorite pieces. Tickets are $72.