“Britain’s Got Talent.” “BBC Young Musician.” Harry and Meghan’s Royal Wedding. These TV ratings magnets have been the steppingstones to superstardom for young Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a Black cellist from Nottingham who has cited as inspirations Jacqueline du Pré, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Bob Marley. Last April, not quite three weeks after his 21st birthday, and still a full-time scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Music, Kanneh-Mason was to have kicked off an American tour at the Kennedy Center, as soloist in the tempestuous half-hour rhapsody known to music lovers as the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1. By that time, however, the pandemic had brought live entertainment to a global standstill.
Kanneh-Mason resumed touring in the U.K. in September, with Continental dates to follow before year’s end. Right now, the good news for his international fan base is this month’s release of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals (Decca), a holiday album of music and story involving not just Sheku but a full court press of his siblings—his elders Isata and Braimah as well as the younger Konya, Jeneba, Aminata, and Mariatu, instrumentalists all, recording commercially en famille for the first time.
Friends and Family
Composed in 1886, the suite’s 14 vignettes conjure up a wild menagerie indeed, including not only a lion, elephant, cuckoo, tortoise, and kangaroo, but also fossils (they walk, they talk…) and pianists (a private joke?). The instrumentation calls for two pianos, two violins, a viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, glass harmonica (rarely available), and xylophone. That’s a slightly larger complement than even the Kanneh-Masons can field without a little help from their friends, so it’s a nice touch that the album was recorded at Abbey Road.
Kanneh-Mason has cited as inspirations Jacqueline du Pré, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Bob Marley.
As it happens, the single excerpt from The Carnival of the Animals that Saint-Saëns published in his lifetime was the cello solo “The Swan,” to which the ballerina Anna Pavlova was to glide majestically across the threshold of the beyond. In Sheku’s hands, the eloquent cantilena should prove the still point around which all the holiday sparkle revolves. And sparkle there will be. To round out the program, Michael Morporgu, author of the beloved War Horse, has contributed original light verse, which he reads alongside the Oscar-winning favorite Olivia Colman, She Who Plays Queens. Morporgu’s children’s story “Grandpa Christmas” is heard as well, embellished with classical bonbons.
As an introduction to Sheku’s artistry, this family debut won’t eclipse the monumental cello concerto of Edward Elgar, which anchors his second full-length album for Decca. Generations of virtuosi have grappled with Elgar’s brooding sea monster of a piece (as a forgotten commentator of yesteryear described it) in a manner best termed “heroic.” Kanneh-Mason, for his part, seems wholly at one with the music: rapt, profound, lyrical.
Michael Morporgu, author of the beloved War Horse, has contributed original light verse, which he reads alongside the Oscar-winning favorite Olivia Colman.
“I think when approaching this piece, I was very conscious of how deeply sad and desperate it is,” he tells me. “I found it very personal. My approach is always to be more personal—rather than shouting to the masses, just playing to one person.” And if Kanneh-Mason could magically commission new works from any three composers living or dead, what would they be? “A cello concerto by Beethoven and a cello sonata by Mozart,” he replied by email not long ago, “because neither of them did those things. And a cello concerto by Brahms, because it would be amazing.”
As a classical artist of color, this fine string player joins that patrician of the keyboard André Watts and a cavalcade of divas from Marian Anderson to Jessye Norman on a very short list of marquee names who wow the critics, win over mass audiences, and motivate youngsters who look like them to pursue passions they might have smothered before. Early as the heady accolades have come, Kanneh-Mason wears them lightly. “I feel quite lucky to be thought of as a role model,” he says. “I never felt playing the cello was something I couldn’t do, but I know a lot of people find it hard to find the opportunity. It’s great to inspire.”
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii