by Melinda Bargreen
When Joshua Roman exploded on the Seattle music scene in 2006 as the new principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony, he was this city’s closest thing to a classical rock star. Young (only 22), personable, engaging, and gifted, Roman stayed only two seasons at the Symphony before breaking away to start a solo career.
That career has been pretty successful, too. This season he has performed the premiere of an Aaron Jay Kernis concerto with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, and played concertos with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, as well as recitals in such locations as Coral Gables (Florida), Napa (California) and Los Alamos (New Mexico).
Roman still maintains a tie with Seattle as curator of Town Hall’s “Town Music” series, in which he was featured in an April 22 recital with Lithuanian-born pianist Andrius Zlabys. As Roman explained from the stage, it was a program of “shifting gears”: some standard repertoire, some new and experimental music, and a time frame that extended from Johann Sebastian Bach to the present decade.
A good-sized audience turned out to hear Roman and Zlabys, who opened with one of the classics of the repertoire: Bach’s Cello Sonata in D Major (BWV 1028). The cellist played with a fine regard for period style (moderating his vibrato, for instance), but without much dynamic variation or the kind of phrasemaking that can make a performance come alive. It was technically highly adept, but lacked the kind of personalized expression and flair that have characterized Roman’s past performances in the solo Bach Suite repertoire.
Zlabys provided an adept and supportive performance from the keyboard. But from where this reviewer was sitting – and acoustics in Town Hall can be quite variable, from location to location – the piano (on “full stick” with the lid wide open) was slightly too loud and a bit overpowering. A more powerful and involving performance from the soloist might have tipped the balance back toward a more equal level.
The Schnittke Cello Sonata (written in 1978 by a remarkable composer who struggled with Soviet bureaucracy and health issues) exhibited the polystylistic influences that characterized much of his work – along with a deep melancholy that so often pervades Schnittke’s music. The performance was beautifully balanced and quite effective.
The Passacaglia that came next, composed by pianist Zlabys in 2011, was a short, serene piece that has occasionally served this duo as an encore; this was its premiere on the main program. “Changing gears” again, Roman and Zlabys presented a 2012 work – “Uriel” -- by Matthias Pintscher, the new music director of Paris’ esteemed Ensemble Intercontemporain. A study in “extended techniques” that was full of slithery pitches, skittery strings, and unusual thumpings and whackings on both instruments, the piece was consistently interesting but seemed to have little to do with its title (the Archangel Uriel’s name means “Fire of God,” but there wasn’t much that was fiery about this score).
Last of all came Stravinsky’s familiar “Suite Italienne,” which found both players at their best, though here too the music could have been more strongly characterized. The speedy Tarantella movement was dazzling in its speed and accuracy.
A rousing ovation brought Roman and Zlabys back for a single encore, the stately third movement from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Viola da Gamba.