‘Listen to classical music while eating popcorn’

Visiting Sri Lanka last month for two concerts for the Sunera Foundation, acclaimed young cellist Joshua Roman spoke to Namali Premawardhana

“They all thought I was crazy,” he laughs, hazel eyes twinkling, as he describes how at six years old he’d tell people he was going to be a concert cellist. Joshua Roman simply “always knew”. It is truly a rare gift to go through one’s formative years with an understanding of where one is called to be once ‘grown up’, when many of us continually shift and change. “I went through some phases too,” Joshua reminisces with a smile, “I thought if I broke my arm and I’d never be able to play the cello again, I’d be a fighter pilot, I thought that was cool.”

Joshua grew up in a Christian family of four children (of whom he was the eldest) all of who received a musical education, although it was only he who decided to pursue classical music professionally. “When I’m home at Christmas we’ll play string quartets together at church or something,” he shares, adding in a slightly wistful tone that sometimes he wished for more full-time music in the family. “There were times when I’d think “Wow wouldn’t it be cool, being up on stage with your little brother or your little sister, really making something powerful,” he says. He is quick to add though, that he is glad they are able to still experience music, minus the pressure of being professional musicians.

Of the pressure itself, he does not worry much. Smiling confidently he assures “it’s not the sort that bothers me.” His early (and growing) success in the global classical music arena does not however, make him insensitive to the plight of all artists who simply can’t make the cream of the crop. “It’s not the normal pressure when financial/professional problems are tied up with something you care deeply about. I really love what I do and mostly feel lucky about that.”

So much so that Joshua is secure in the belief that he has never had a second thought about his choice of career and lifestyle. In fact, quite unlike many a performer who relishes time off a heavy tour schedule, a week maybe two without having been on stage and he is found “a little grouchy, and off, I get told!” Joshua confides, laughing rather embarrassedly then pushing his thick rimmed glasses up his nose.
His love of exploration has taken the cellist (and of course his – literally – constant companion, the nearly century and a half old instrument) to a variety of places with his music. He shares stories of encountering different cultures and traditions in performance (and the confusions these sometimes cause!), as well as what he calls the “realities of life”.

In December he hopes to make a very special trip to Uganda, with his siblings, one he has already made before to “find deeper ways of making a connection.” He describes their decision to play in the disaster-stricken areas as “a leap of faith by four idealistic young kids who thought they could go and play something and make a difference.” The experience, he says, was “powerful for us”, and believes, altered something in their audiences. The drive to do something socially positive with his talent and available opportunity is evident in Joshua who, in Sri Lanka contributed the proceeds from his performances to the Sunera Foundation whose work he says he is greatly moved by.

His humanitarian ventures (as well as his musical ones) take Joshua around the globe, but this is not the only reason “explore” is an important part of his vocabulary. The word drops from his lips every once in a while no matter what he speaks of, but it is also important in that he “loves” Sri Lankan curry, orders it wherever he eats in the country and wonders what it will taste like on a hamburger! “My imagination started to go wild,” he says, speaking now not of food, but physics, quantum physics and relativity. “It’s an exploration, like music.”

Called a “fearless explorer” in his musical ventures by none other than Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Roman does not limit himself to the classical tradition in which he was trained but takes part in various artistic ventures that aim at a fusion of forms, mediums and cultures. Nevertheless, his firmest belief is in the school of thought that music, being universal as it is, need not be changed in order to be appreciated by different audiences, but that the presentation of different ‘types’ may be adapted to suit the audience. And thus he is often found playing classical music with friends at local pubs and bars in NY where he makes his home. “It’s sad that people try to put a box around classical music,” he shares, suggesting rather that performers “invite people to relax and have popcorn and hot dogs while they’re listening to the Beethoven Symphony.”

What means more to Joshua than being a potential change-maker in his chosen field is the importance of being able to pursue a career that he can remain passionate about. “When you do the thing that you love [for] a living, there’s freedom, because you really get to say something with your work.” And “say something” he does!

Joshua Roman is the class of musician whose work Sri Lanka rarely gets to hear. What has been called the “heart-stopping beauty” of his performances thrilled audiences from Colombo and Kandy; rare pin-drop silences during the recitals bearing testimony. He doesn’t just play the right notes with the right kind of touch and sensitivity, and that extra bit of musical flair – he speaks to you. He doesn’t just perform Schubert and Bach – the ones you already know and recognize – he plays what they mean to him, and challenges you to understand, reinterpret with him.

It becomes difficult in the intensity of his performance, the weight of his philosophy and the sheer brilliance of his achievements to keep in mind that Joshua Roman is still just exploring his groundings in life. But his wide grin and sparkling wit are fleeting reminders that the bow is held by a six-year-old boy who, more than twenty years later, people “still think” is crazy to dream.

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