Watching British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason pour his heart and soul into a performance can be a powerfully moving experience. His repertoire, which ranges from Dmitri Shostakovich and J.S. Bach to Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley, reveals a healthy, well-rounded appetite for music that conveys a strong current of human feelings. The modest, soft-spoken virtuoso attained classical superstar status after serenading the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at last year’s royal wedding.
Kanneh-Mason began playing the cello as a child and came up under the influence of Pablo Casals and Jacqueline du Pre. An online video documents his recent visit to Sotheby’s, where he had the honor of handling three cellos that once belonged to his idol, Mstislav Rostropovich. We see him cradling a rare specimen built by Venetian luthier Santo Serafin in 1741. Gently applying the bow, thrilling to the sensation of the strings beneath his fingertips, enveloped in the warm resonance that he describes as “blossoming out” from the instrument, he closes his eyes and frowns slightly as if inhaling the sound like a fragrance.
Kanneh-Mason is one of seven siblings, all of whom have embraced musicianship as a way of life. Matriarch Kadiatu Kanneh is a Welsh literary academic who was born in Sierra Leone. Her husband, Stuart Mason, is an English businessman (with a degree in physics) whose parents emigrated from Antigua in the West Indies. The family is busily expanding the presence of people of African ancestry in European classical music–a realm where, as eldest daughter Isata observes, black role models are scarce. Active in the Royal Academy of Music since age nine, she is now flourishing as a concert pianist and inspiring her siblings to follow their own musical paths.
On December 10, Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason will present an evening of chamber music at Rackham Auditorium. The program will begin with Beethoven’s ingeniously constructed variations on a perky aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, in which Papageno sings of his quest for female companionship. By way of contrast, the next work on the program is Witold Lutoslawski’s somber Grave (“Metamorphoses for cello and piano”), composed as an elegy for Stefan Jarocinski, a musicologist who specialized in the life and works of Claude Debussy. The “metamorphoses” are based on a motif from Debussy’s only opera, Pelleas et Melisande. Grave also bears metamorphic resemblance to Lutoslawski’s Musique funebre, a posthumous tribute to Bela Bartok. The remainder of the concert will showcase the duo’s dexterous interplay with Samuel Barber’s florid Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s eloquently poetic Cello Sonata in G minor.