Although he’s just 20, it’s likely that British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has already played for the largest audience of his career: His performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018 was broadcast to a global audience of an estimated 1.9 billion.
But Kanneh-Mason is much more than “the royal cellist.” He won the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2016 – becoming the first black musician to take the top honor in the competition’s history – and is well on his way to cementing himself as one of the world’s leading cello soloists. His latest full-length album, “Elgar” – recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle – pays tribute to one of Kanneh-Mason’s musical influences, cellist Jacqueline du Pré, but it also promises to be among the first of many riveting musical collaborations.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason took some time to chat with 21CM’s managing editor Elizabeth Nonemaker, discussing why the Elgar concerto feels fresh no matter how many times it’s been performed, the importance of music education and what fans can look forward to next.
Elizabeth Nonemaker: Are you afraid that you’re always going to be known as the cellist who played at the royal wedding?
Sheku Kanneh-Mason: I think up until that point [of the wedding], I was. All of the work that I’d been doing before was being forgotten and people kind assumed that [the wedding] was the only thing I’d done. In terms of performances I’m most proud of, musically, [the wedding] wouldn’t come into my top ones. But, also, I don’t mind the fact that lots of people were introduced to me then. Hopefully I won’t just be known as that forever.
EN: You started playing cello at the age of six, and by nine years old you were already winning prizes. What motivated you to practice when you were that young?
SKM: I just remember being very excited. The main thing that motivated me was being able to listen to lots of great recordings and watch lots of live concerts. I was also very lucky from when I started. I had amazing teaching [from Sarah Huson-Whyte]. That’s the thing I’m most grateful for. From the start, I was given a good setup technically. [Huson-Whyte] always pushed me to be very open and free, musically.
EN: Let’s talk about your most recent album, “Elgar,” featuring a recording of the Edward Elgar Cello Concerto. This was an important piece for you as a young cellist – you’ve cited Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of this work as particularly influential.
SKM: I’ve always been really inspired by [du Pré]. The thing I’ve learned most from her playing is the kind of freedom and the directness of the emotions. It’s incredibly expressive. Then [there’s] the score itself – the Elgar concerto is written in such a detailed way. There’s so much to discover in the music. I think it [was] such a personal piece to the composer. When you’re playing it, it feels like it’s your own thing even though there are all these great recordings.
EN: Do you have a favorite moment?
SKM: The third movement is so special. It’s like you’re singing a song to yourself – that’s how I think about the end. 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, [the musical phrase] doesn’t have these pauses. It’s almost as if you’ve overcome all that and you’re able to just sing your song now. But I think it’s not [as if you’re] singing to people – you’re either singing to one person or yourself.
EN: You’ve done some of your own arrangements. Do you also compose?
SKM: I did when I was younger. I love improvising and playing tunes on the cello. It has always been something that I’ve enjoyed doing.
EN: It can be rare to meet classical instrumentalists who are comfortable improvising.
SKM: Yeah, it is. I’ve always done it at the start of my practice because it opens your mind and allows you the freedom to do anything with the tools that you would use, classically. It doesn’t change the way you play written-down music, but it gives you a freedom, maybe a different perspective of it.
EN: Do you improvise in front of an audiences?
SKM: Yeah, at the [Royal] Academy [of Music] there’s a jazz department, and one of my friends is a jazz pianist. We did a concert together last year where we took a mixture of classical music and songs, and we did free improvisation on them. That was really enjoyable.
EN: Speaking of school, you have spoken out about the importance of public access to music education, especially as funding for it in the U.K. has come under threat.
SKM: I, of course, personally know the benefit of having a great musical education. The main thing you get from it is being able to experience amazing music, and that can be a really joyful thing in itself. But also, the things that come with learning an instrument – for example, the skill of properly listening, being able to focus, and combining something emotional with a physical skill – the confidence it gives you is amazing. Whatever a child wants to go on and do, these are skills that are very important.
EN: I don’t think anyone’s ever regretted learning an instrument.
SKM: Exactly. I certainly haven’t.
EN: You have also spoken about the importance of diversity in classical music. Do you have specific thoughts about what classical music organizations can do to welcome a broader audience?
I love being in a position where I’m able to hopefully inspire lots of young people from many different backgrounds
to see classical music as something they can
SKM: The main thing, really, is education. It’s very expensive to have proper lessons on an instrument. That naturally creates a lack of diversity. It becomes a cycle. Because then, the people going into the profession are therefore 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. Lots of organizations are doing what they can to change, but I think, ultimately, education is the biggest thing that needs to change. I love being in a position where I’m able to hopefully inspire lots of young people from many different backgrounds to see classical music as something they can go into. 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 and to watch their natural reaction to this music. It’s really special. I always try to do that as much as I can.
EN: Simply seeing an instrument in person can be a moment of inspiration.
SKM: I think seeing anything up close is the best. Another thing that could happen is to give children the opportunity to see live concerts. I remember growing up and being so inspired by watching concerts. In Nottingham, where I grew up, there was a really great concert hall and a great series [at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham]. They did very cheap tickets for I think under 25 [pounds]. That meant that my parents could take me very often to watch these things.
EN: Artistically, what comes next for you?
SKM: I love doing concerto performances, but recitals and chamber music are what I enjoy most. So I’ve got lots of that coming up – I play in a string quartet and a piano trio. I do recitals with my sister [Isata] and I also play a duet with a friend who’s a classical guitarist. It’s nice to work with and study a piece of music with a small group of friends and together develop an understanding of the music.
EN: Thanks so much for your time.
SKM: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Selections of this interview appeared in The Baltimore Sun.