Sheku Kanneh-Mason is like a young Jacqueline du Pre
PUBLISHED: 12:00 23 November 2016
Talented BBC young musician of the year Sheku Kanneh-Mason joins a host of more established music stars playing a boutique chamber music festival in Highgate churches
Earlier this year I was at a concert in the house of Florian Leonhardt, the Hampstead-based violin restorer/dealer who is always worth a visit if you thrill to the idea of shifting awesomely expensive Strads from chairs you’re just about to sit on.
The performer was a 17 year old cellist, British-born of Antiguan heritage, called Sheku Kanneh-Mason. And he was extraordinary: alive with energy and passion like a young Jacqueline du Pre (as I ecstatically but truthfully wrote later).
What the audience didn’t know on that occasion was that Sheku had just made it to the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year. And a few weeks afterwards, he won it: arguably the most remarkable and charismatic winner for a long while.
That was back in May. And since then, as he told me when we met last week, his life has changed. Immeasurably. He has concert offers flowing in, too many to accept. But one he’s taken up is for the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival which runs from this Saturday.
It’s a fairly big event, featuring 26 performers – many major names like cellist Robert Cohen and clarinettist Julian Bliss. But the part of the programme that caught my eye was a mentoring scheme to provide performance opportunities for young chamber groups. And this year’s group is the Kanneh-Mason Trio which comprises Sheku, his violinist brother Braimah, and his pianist sister Isata.
As you’ll gather, there’s a dynasty of music-making Kanneh-Masons: seven siblings in total, though only four of them are old enough to be performing in public.
The surprising thing about this latterday Bach household is that neither parent is professionally involved in music: Sheku’s mother is a university lecturer in English, and his father works in advertising. They all live in Nottingham. And all the Kanneh-Mason siblings go to state schools.
But they’re clearly high-achievers. And they’ve grown up making music on what seem to be ideal terms. Super-gifted families can be oppressive. But the Kanneh-Masons come across as friendly, warm and sorted. And while Sheku has undoubtedly been driven to succeed – example: every Saturday since he was nine, he’s caught a 5am train down from Nottingham for lessons at the Royal Academy of Music’s junior department, travelling back at night – he seems OK on it.
Winning the BBC prize, though, brings added pressures. He now has an agent, who advises him on what offers to take and what to leave -”the important thing”, he says, “being to do what feels comfortable, and have the courage to believe that if you say No to someone, they’ll ask again when you’re ready”.
But he’s just signed a recording contract with Decca. There ARE concerts on the horizon. And all this has to fit with schoolwork.
“My school’s been very good”, he says. “I’m inevitably missing lessons, and I’ve got A-levels next year: music, maths and physics. But they email me the things I miss, so I can catch up. And my friends are supportive. Most of them aren’t interested in classical music, but they thought it was cool to see me on TV. Maybe they’ll get to like Shostakovich as a result”.
Being a role model is on the cards for Sheku. He’s emerged at a time when diversity is a live issue in classical music, prompted by the fact that few of Afro-carribean background take an interest in Shostakovich (or Rachmaninov, or Mozart) and still fewer take it up professionally.
He has the makings of a poster-boy for inclusivity, and knows it. But he also knows that it could be a burdensome distraction from his chief objective: to become the best musician that he can.
“It’s a responsibility”, he says, “but it won’t change the way I play”. And top of the agenda, right now, is consolidating repertoire. He has concertos by Schumann, Shostakovich, Elgar and Haydn under his fingers. He’s currently immersed in Beethoven sonatas and about to start on Brahms.
And at the end of this month he’s auditioning for entry to a London music college, doing the full rounds of Royal Academy, Royal College, Guildhall School but “hoping”, as he puts it modestly, that the Academy will want him. Somehow I suspect they will.
Sheku, Braimah and Isata Kanneh-Mason play trios by Beethoven and Rachmaninov at the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival, 6pm, Friday 2nd December, St Anne’s Church, Highgate. Entrance free. Other ticketed Festival concerts are on 26th, 28th, 30th,2nd and 4th, divided between St Annes and St Mighael’s Highgate, at varying times. Full details on the website: chambermusicfestival.co.uk