Getting down at Town Hall, cellist Joshua Roman does Radiohead

The Seattle Symphony member and Town Hall music director presented a boundary-pushing concert, an artistic manifesto for contemporary classical performances. It's a road worth taking, even with some early bumps.
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Joshua Roman. (Tina Su)

The Seattle Symphony member and Town Hall music director presented a boundary-pushing concert, an artistic manifesto for contemporary classical performances. It's a road worth taking, even with some early bumps.

Joshua Roman, at 24 the Seattle Symphony's youngest-ever principal cellist, has developed a loyal following among area music lovers, including some who have yet to set foot inside Benaroya Hall. And that's a key to the Oklahoma-born Roman's gentle charisma – the refusal to confine his musicianship to separate, predetermined compartments.

Among his many non-SSO-related projects this year, Roman has been serving as artistic director of Town Hall's "exploratory" TownMusic chamber series. Thursday's program, Jan. 10 – the third of five TownMusic concerts throughout the season – presented a kind of artistic manifesto for Roman as both planner and performer. It boldly juxtaposed some of the cellist's preoccupations: the work of a modernist innovator from the world of "concert music" and the alternative-rock band Radiohead.

The atmosphere of the capacity crowd was undeniably charged, and it was encouraging to see so many young listeners eager to follow Roman on the unusual musical journey he had laid out for them. The auditorium lights were theatrically darkened, with just a few spotlights for the players. Their relaxed, unbuttoned look was in keeping with Roman's desire to shake off associations of formality and classical performance ritual.

Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time comprised the concert's first half. For all its musical idiosyncrasies and esoteric theology, Messiaen's 1940 score (written while he was a prisoner-of-war in a German stalag and inspired by the Book of Revelation) has much to enchant the ear even on first hearing. The audience remained largely spellbound during the Quartet's famous rhapsodic slow movements. And there are in fact connections with the seemingly far-off ethos of Radiohead: Jonny Greenwood, the band's lead guitarist, is classically trained and acknowledges the influence of Messiaen and other avant-garde composers on Radiohead's compositions.

But it was difficult to escape the feeling of a partially captive audience waiting respectfully for the familiar music to come in the second half. Messiaen's early masterpiece requires steady, deep concentration across the topography of its eight movements. Yet the performers themselves lacked the total, uncompromising focus that might have made the arduous beauty of Messiaen's vision more convincing. A brief, informal introduction to the music's context perhaps would have also helped open up the work to some listeners. Roman seemed to miss an opportunity here.

Joining Roman for the Quartet were clarinetist Bill Kalinkos, violinist Amy Iwazumi, and pianist Grace Fong. The ensemble sounded too erratic and patchy to register the terrifying joy of the sixth movement's apocalyptic summons – the "dance of fury" in which the composer suggests "gongs and trumpets" signaling the end times. Instead, the score's drawn-out solo passages had the greater impact, outweighing its more fiery incantations. In the "abyss of the birds" (the third movement, for clarinet alone), Kalinkos provided a highlight with his liquid phrasing and extraordinary dynamic range from tantalizing near-silence to violent squawks.

Roman's expressive involvement seemed to outpace his technical control in the infinite melody of the crucial slow fifth movement ("Praise to the eternity of Jesus"). It became a microcosm for the essential problem with this account of the Quartet as a whole: moments of beauty loosely strung together which lacked the overall, sustained intensity necessary to convey Messiaen's timeless ecstasies. In her counterpart slow movement ending the work, Iwazumi's violin phrasing lost consistency in its slow ascent to the peak of her range.

The concert also featured Fractured Jams, a new work scored for the same forces as the Messiaen, by Dan Visconti, a friend of Roman's from their days at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Visconti's notes suggested an intriguing interplay between "the rhythmically driving power of rock and the restrained, carefully crafted lyricism of our Tin Pan Alley heritage." But Fractured Jams as heard turned out to be a clever and enjoyable piece of performance art with a distinctly effective, if somewhat gimmicky, sense of humor. Visconti's comic bag of tricks included spasmodic, out-of-control ensemble free for alls, "barnyard sounds," and a kind of Cubist, out-of-sync rag. Pianist Fong's duties were expanded to blowing into a jug, plucking strings, and slamming the keyboard lid shut in a tantrum.

A lengthy final segment was then devoted to the music of Radiohead. The ensemble was augmented by percussionist Doug Marrapodi, vocalist Sarah Rudinoff, and John Osebold (playing guitar and Theremin) for a suite of selections from the albums OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief. This was clearly a labor of love for Radiohead fanatic Roman. He's stated in interviews that he would drop his work as a classical cellist if he were invited to join the band, and he temporarily traded his cello for guitar and piano in a couple of songs. But the transcriptions – some purely instrumental, others featuring Rudinoff's vocals – were a messy, uneven affair.

Given this pool of talent, I would have preferred hearing improvisations on the original musical ideas, perhaps even a bit of Jonny Greenwood's amazing new score to the film There Will Be Blood. Roman's insistence on amping the musicians up for this segment to intensify the energy level also left me unconvinced. Radiohead's music is so distinctive that approximating covers didn't really add anything. Rudinoff's suggestion of Thom Yorke's falsetto contrasted so eerily with her characteristically earthy, down-and-dirty timbre that it came close to parody.

Still, much of the audience had fun with this invitation to revisit familiar tunes. And along the way, some new musical horizons may have been opened up for them. Kudos to Roman and friends for rethinking the fundamental approach to presenting concert music. There will inevitably be lots of fumbles in the process, but Roman's desire to work outside received ideas–on both the classical and popular fronts – is a healthy instinct.


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