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More than a royal wedding performer: Sheku Kanneh-Mason brings his cello to the BSO

Rising star Sheku Kanneh-Mason comes to town to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ first Cello Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Rising star Sheku Kanneh-Mason comes to town to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ first Cello Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was just 19 years old when he landed the gig of a lifetime: playing at the royal wedding for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. When Kanneh-Mason serenaded the couple as they signed their wedding register in the May 2018 ceremony, he also introduced himself to a broadcast audience of 29.2 million people in the United States, according to Nielsen data, and as many as 1.9 billion people worldwide.

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But breakthrough performances can have a pigeonholing effect, too. For better or worse, Kanneh-Mason will likely always be known as “the cellist who played at the royal wedding,” even though he pointed out in a recent interview that “in terms of performances I’m most proud of, [the royal wedding] wouldn’t necessarily come into my top ones, musically.”

Instead, Kanneh-Mason has capitalized on the fame of that performance to further drive his musical development, even as he launches a career as an international artist.

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To date, his two full-length albums — including the January release of “Elgar,” which features collaborations with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle — and recent tours throughout Europe and the United States showcase an artist of exceptional musicianship, but one who is still — eagerly and actively — exploring his voice.

Baltimore audiences will have the chance to get to know this rising star better when he comes to town to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ first Cello Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, an appearance that includes a rehearsal that’s open to the public and an appointment with students in the BSO’s OrchKids program.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Jan. 30-Feb. 1
Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Jan. 30-Feb. 1

To be fair, Kanneh-Mason was making waves even before the royal wedding. In 2016, at the age of 17, he won the BBC Young Musician competition, a televised musical contest broadcast nationally in the United Kingdom, becoming the first black musician to win the competition since its start in 1978.

He signed to Decca Classics the same year and his career has been gathering momentum since then: 2018 saw the release of his first full-length album, “Inspiration,” which included a recording of the full Shostakovich cello concerto (No. 1 in E-flat Major) that won him BBC Young Musician, and he performed increasingly high-profile concerts even as he maintained status as a full-time student. (Kanneh-Mason is a student even now, at the Royal Academy of Music in London.)

Much has been made of Kanneh-Mason’s upbringing. He is one of seven siblings, all of whom excel at either piano, violin or cello. In 2017, the Kanneh-Mason family was the subject of the documentary “Young, Gifted & Classical,” and Sheku’s mother, Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, is writing a memoir about raising the family.

What’s noteworthy — in addition to each child’s musical talent — is the fact that the Kanneh-Mason parents are not professional musicians themselves, that they don’t force their children to practice, and that the children are the product of public schooling.

Certainly many talented musicians can, and do, come from a variety of backgrounds; but when it comes to excelling at classical music, development can be hampered by restricted access to quality teaching, time and support. It’s much more common to encounter talent in young musicians who come from families already “in the know” about these needs.

What might distinguish Kanneh-Mason’s parents was the extent to which they went about putting themselves in the know when their first child, Isata, showed promise on the piano. (The now 23-year-old Isata Kanneh-Mason released her own debut album in August of last year; “Romance” features the piano music of Clara Schumann.)

By the time Sheku, the third-oldest of the Kanneh-Mason siblings, expressed interest in the cello at the age of six, his parents were able to find a teacher (Sarah Huson-Whyte) who gave him both “a good setup, technically” as well as the encouragement “to be very open and free, musically,” according to Kanneh-Mason.

From there, Kanneh-Mason attributes much of his early musical drive to the invigorating and joyful atmosphere of his home life.

“The main thing that motivated me was being able to listen to lots of great recordings and watch lots of live concerts,” he said. “In Nottingham, where I grew up, there was a really great concert hall” — The Royal Concert Hall — “and a great series. They did very cheap tickets. That meant my parents could take me very often to watch these things.”

Then, too, there was the presence of so many musical peers, always close at hand to provide feedback, a competitive edge and new musical ideas. Rare for classical musicians, Kanneh-Mason enjoys improvising — but for him, “messing about with difference pieces of music” was just something he did for fun with his brothers and sisters.

From his parents, Kanneh-Mason absorbed the music of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart; recordings of performances by violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and cellist Jacqueline du Pré; and the music of one of Kanneh-Mason’s personal favorites, Bob Marley.

True to its name, Kanneh-Mason’s debut album “Inspiration” honors these early influences — the album features Kanneh-Mason’s own arrangement of Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” — and the recent “Elgar” album continues the theme. It was Jacqueline du Pré’s 1965 recording of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor that Kanneh-Mason regards as having a significant impact on his playing. To extend the parallel, du Pré was also just 20 years old when she recorded the work.

A different artist might be intimidated to so directly follow in the footsteps of their idols. And du Pré’s approach to the instrument — the way she shapes a phrase, the sumptuous depth of her sound — can be heard in Kanneh-Mason’s playing. But du Pré was more an inspiration to Kanneh-Mason for her “freedom and directness of emotions” than anything specifically technical.

And when it comes to the Elgar, said Kanneh-Mason, “there’s so much to discover in the music. It feels like it’s your own thing even though there are all these great recordings.”

For him, the third movement is particularly intimate. “It’s almost like you’re singing a song to yourself,” he said. “It starts with this phrase that is kind of broken up, almost as if you’re crying or you’re singing, and you kind of run out of breath. When it comes to the end, it doesn’t have these pauses. It’s as if you’ve overcome all that — you’re able to just sing your song now. But you’re either singing to one person or yourself.”

It is that inward sense of discovery that distinguishes Kanneh-Mason’s playing. When watching him perform, one almost feels, despite his expertise, as if he’s hearing the cello for the very first time. To watch a performer express such awe naturally inspires the same feeling in the viewer.

At the same time, it’s always worth asking why we do need yet more recordings of already famous works — and, when young stars emerge, why, or even if, their youth should add to their appeal.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is 20 years old. It is impressive that at that young age he’s already achieved so much. But it’s somewhat more exciting to think about what Kanneh-Mason might pursue, artistically, five, 10 or 20 more years from now.

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Already, Kanneh-Mason has demonstrated his interest in becoming a musician who does more than play exceptionally well. He has spoken out for the necessity of providing music education in public schools and diversifying classical music audiences and players.

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For him, the two are linked. Both the lack of high-level public music education and the expense of learning an instrument “naturally creates a lack of diversity.”

“That becomes a cycle,” said Kanneh-Mason. “The people going into the profession are less diverse. If you are a young black child, for example, and you go to watch a concert, very rarely would you see someone who comes from the same background as you. Therefore it’s difficult to be inspired and to see yourself doing it.”

In addition to his appointments with major orchestras, Kanneh-Mason makes a point of visiting and performing for children. “One of the things I find the most rewarding is going into schools and playing for young children who maybe haven’t had the opportunity to even hear the cello before. To watch their natural reaction to this music is really special.”

Classical music, after all, doesn’t need more prodigies. What we do need are thoughtful artists who are willing to take the time to consider what they can contribute to the art form, and what that art, in turn, can contribute to its audience.

As we celebrate Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s talent, we should also celebrate the level-headedness and curiosity he brings to his music. That’s the work that sustains a practice, and allows fans to continue enjoying their music for decades to come.

IF YOU GO

Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at 8:00 p.m. Thursday’s performance takes place at Strathmore Music Hall, Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff. General admission tickets start at $25.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at nonemakerwrites@gmail.com.

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