Playing in a Crypt, a Cellist Imagines Waking the Dead

United StatesUnited States Bach, Ligeti, Crumb, Roman: Joshua Roman (cello), The Harlem Crypt, New York City, 3.5.2017. (KG)

Bach – Suite No.2 in D minor
Ligeti – Sonata for Solo Cello
Crumb – Sonata for Solo Cello
Joshua Roman – Riding Light

In the basement crypt of the Church of the Intercession, built in 1915, Joshua Roman introduced his 1899 cello to the small audience, and spoke for the instrument. “My cello was like, ‘Yeah, my people! We’ve been through the same stuff!’” And if we were to follow him in the anthropomorphism of his instrument, we would likely conclude that it enjoyed itself in the space’s resonance.

Roman began where the solo cello begins, with Bach. The Suite No.2 in D minor started off nicely unrushed and almost unbelievably loud, amidst the stone arches and catacombs. Applause after the first movement led Roman to address the audience again, as he laid out the structure of the rest of the suite and said—perhaps as a way of giving the small but exuberant crowd permission to make noise—that the final gigue is “where we get to stomp our feet and wake the dead.”

He played the rest of the movements with only slight pauses (and without a score), picking up the pace with an assuredness that all but excused the rocket speed, as he executed the final gigue without audience stomping, but with a slight grin.

According to Roman, the cello suites had an “undeniable influence” on the composers of the other pieces in the program, after the suites had essentially been brought back to life by Pablo Casals in the 1930s. Ligeti wrote the two movements of his Sonata for Solo Cello five years apart, inspired as much by Bach as by two women (one for each half). Indeed, the master was all present in the capriccio movement—not so much in the strummed chords as the lines between them, which slowly took over, singing like the suites, if not as dense or complex. The second movement was more of a showboat, and in Roman’s hands mirrored his handling of Bach’s Allemande movement. Especially in the resonant room, it was unusually rambunctious for Ligeti the charmer, ending with a flourish that didn’t reach for resolution.

George Crumb’s Sonata for Solo Cello, also written when the composer was young, had Roman softly pummeling the strings, interspersed with fragments of romantic melody. The bold strokes quickly grew bolder, opening into the theme and variations of the second movement, and then the impossibly circuitous toccata, during which Roman ran up and down the length of the fingerboard, displaying the chops he developed as a guitarist before taking up the cello.

The natural reverberation was almost a duet partner, which made Roman’s inclusion of his own Riding Light to close the recital a smart move. Originally commissioned by the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, which boasts an 8.5-second echo, the piece still sang in the smaller space.

Roman asked the audience to imagine riding a light beam, passing through gaseous clouds, bouncing off planets, and refracting against water. His writing showed what drew him to the other pieces: the dramatic gestures, the sinuous lines, the sudden shifts in dynamic. To say his composing didn’t reach the level of the masters on the program is unnecessary—it was more homage than one-upmanship.

The full house enthusiastically demanded two encores. For the first, Roman chose the immediately recognizable prelude from the first Bach sonata, which seemed to begin before he was seated. He then turned to the Sarabande, returning as if by design to the more measured approach he’d given the first prelude. Roman is a heavy player, given to displays of prowess, but in the end it seemed to make sense, setting Bach’s perfect architecture within those thick, stone walls.

Kurt Gottschalk

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