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INTERVIEW | Sheku Kanneh-Mason On Reuniting With Family For Toronto Debut

By Holly Harris on May 2, 2022

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (Photo: Jake Turney)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (Photo: Jake Turney)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason with Isata Kanneh-Mason at Koerner Hall, Friday, May 6.

Audiences are in for a royal treat when rising British superstar cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason marks his Toronto debut at Koerner Hall on May 6th.

The 23-year-old artist, joined by his pianist sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, performs an intimate program of chamber works by Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bridge and Britten as part of their whirlwind US-Canadian tour, including a whistle-stop at Carnegie Hall two nights prior to their local appearance.

“I always enjoy performing to any audience, and particularly introducing myself to new audiences,” Kanneh-Mason says via Zoom from La Jolla, California, where he performed later that night during the West Coast leg of his tour.

“I feel very connected to the program that we’re playing, and it’s music that both my sister and I really enjoy,” he adds, noting that Bridge’s lesser-known Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, H. 125 is among his personal favourites, described as “incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking,” while another, Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Major, op. 65, is “full of lots of character.”

However, his premiere concert in the city will be even more personal for the artist, hitting closer to home.

“I have a lot of family in Toronto that I’ve never met before,” Kanneh-Mason reveals, affirming that Saturday’s audience will be liberally peppered with his proud cousins and distant relatives now living in Canada. “I have a big family [originally] from Antigua and know a lot of them are coming, so I’ll be able to see them afterwards,” he says amiably.

Kanneh-Mason first rocketed to international fame after winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition, notably as the first Black musician to win the award since its launch in 1978. He later dazzled a whopping two billion viewers around the globe with his televised performance at the Royal Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. He’s now in hot demand with orchestras and chamber groups from Berlin to Boston and beyond.

Appointed a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 New Year’s Honours List, and featured in several British and American TV documentaries, Kanneh-Mason has two critically acclaimed recordings (Decca Classics), Inspiration (2018) and Elgar (2020) already firmly under his bow; the first cellist in history to reach the UK Top 10 for the latter. When not electrifying listeners on both sides of the proverbial pond, he continues his intensive studies with Hannah Roberts at London’s Royal Academy of Music.

Born April 4, 1999 in Nottingham, UK, and first a pianist and then violinist, Kanneh-Mason began studying cello at age six with Sarah Huson-Whyte and later Ben Davies at the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music. He was inspired to learn the soulful instrument after hearing his family’s CD of the legendary 1965 recording of Jacqueline du Pré performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. He cites the near mythical British cellist and Russia’s Mstislav Rostropovich as his musical heroes — his favourite composers are Beethoven, Mozart and Rachmaninoff — and has now performed the Elgar that he says, “directly connected with [his] emotions” countless times himself.

Sibling revelry is a natural part of his DNA. His large, close-knit family of six siblings — all classically trained on violin, piano or cello, or various combinations of the above —born to parents, Stuart Mason, a business executive and Kadiatu Kanneh, a former university lecturer, proudly support each other’s artistic proclivities. The five eldest children took the stage together at the 2018 BAFTA awards, while all seven played during the December 2019 Royal Variety Show.

Having moved back home — like so many — during the global pandemic, and passionate about making classical music accessible to all, Sheku and his siblings livestreamed chamber performances from their parents’ living room, as well as continued to hone repertoire with the Kanneh-Mason Trio, comprised of Sheku, Isata and their violinist brother Braimah Kanneh-Mason.

“Family is certainly one, if not the most important thing in life. I’m lucky to have this very strong family bond,” Kanneh-Mason says when asked what “family” means to him. “It’s a wonderful feeling to always have that support between us, and I’m very grateful to have them,” he says, adding his kin keep in touch via FaceTime, Zoom and Messenger apps, including having family group chats whenever possible.

The touring life of any international star is notoriously gruelling, as artists traverse numbing time zones and maintain rigorous schedules, not to mention the inordinate demands of performing for hundreds of eager fans each night. The cellist shrugs off the pressures of a full on tour like a long seasoned pro; also carefully managing his publicly shared Type 1 diabetes with carefully packed supplies of insulin.

“As long as I’ve prepared properly before the tour, then that makes a massive difference for sure,” he says of taking everything in stride. “Remaining focused on the concert each day and sort of reflecting after each performance also helps. But I’ve always wanted to always be a performer, and so to be able to do that is wonderful; it’s really great.”

The soft-spoken artist is exceedingly gracious when asked those inevitable questions about performing for the biggest house of all, the Royal Wedding at Windsor Castle while still merely a teenager.

“It was a very different kind of performance than what I was used to, but I suppose I was just performing to the people in the room. I wasn’t thinking about it being broadcast around the world to that scale,” he states matter-of-factly, with those “people in the room,” including the entire royal family with its revered matriarch Queen Elizabeth looking on. “Yeah, yeah, I just enjoyed the feeling of performing for everyone,” he says, understated.

Besides the duo, the third star on the Koerner Hall stage will be Kanneh-Mason’s gleaming, seven-figure 1700 Matteo Gofriller cello he’s performed on since May 2021, and on indefinite loan, which he feels “very, very lucky to play,” with its “gorgeous, rich, dark colours.”

“To find a cello of such quality which so perfectly facilitates my self-expression is a dream come true,” he told The Strad at the time. “It is an exceptional instrument, the kind that comes around very rarely.”

Had destiny not led him to become a cello phenom, Kanneh-Mason’s answer surprises when asked what else he might have chosen as his life’s work – and play.

“I play a lot of football actually, and might have done that however I’m not really qualified to do anything else but make music,” he says with charming humility, referring to the high-kicking sport a.k.a. soccer in the UK. “I also love to cook, so I might have become a chef.” The very rare times he’s not practising, performing — or packing — he also enjoys watching TV, reading, or discovering new music of all genres.

The word “family” runs like a leitmotiv through conversation with the artist. Kennah-Mason is thrilled to be touring with his equally gifted sister, who provides calming, steady ballast for their mesmerizing concerts while making their performances truly a family affair.

“We definitely get along,” he says of their highly supportive relationship. “We have a great deal of trust onstage, which is nice, and are both very excited to perform this music that we love so much.”

For concert details, including tickets, see HERE.


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Holly Harris
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