22-Year-Old Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason Makes New York Philharmonic Debut

By Charlotte Mayer

Vol. 82 Issue 6 December 14th 2021

On Nov. 11, 22-year old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason made his debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was an evening of “bold, charismatic musical storytelling,” said the New York Times.

In the introduction, Kanneh-Mason sat patiently with his instrument — the soloist in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto does not enter until after three and a half minutes of orchestral music, says the New York Times — but when he finally begins, he is “suddenly animated, matching the ensemble’s grandeur with his own: fiery vibrato, dramatic phrasing,” and “richly voiced yet crisp forzando chords.”

The third of seven children, Kanneh-Mason grew up in Nottingham, England and began learning the cello at the age of six after briefly playing the violin. His household was always full of music. When practicing, he goes “in [his] bedroom, [his] brother goes in his bedroom, and then the girls fight over the pianos,” he said in an interview with Caroline Crampton from U.K. magazine The New Statesman. In fact, in 2015 his brother and four of his sisters performed with him on Britain’s Got Talent where they made it to the semi-final.

When Crampton first met him in 2016, “it was hard to tell where the cello ended and he began,” she said. His cello playing was “astonishingly emotive” and public reactions to it were “almost universally positive.” According to Crampton, commentators have remarked on “the startling maturity that shines through his interpretations of music” — the “raw emotion” in his Shostakovich concerto, the “grimly frenetic passages” and “Russian melancholy.”

His love for the cello started when he saw his sister perform in ‘Stringwise,’ an annual weekend course for young string players in Nottingham. He then switched from violin to cello and began to take part in the Stringwise courses, “impressing conductors with his astonishing ability to play everything from memory,” said Music for Everyone, the local charity running Stringwise courses. At the age of nine, he passed the Grade 8 cello examination with the highest marks in the U.K. and won the Marguerite Swan Memorial Prize, says the Nottingham Post. Also at the age of nine he won a scholarship to join the Junior Academy of the Royal Academy of Music. 

At age 17, he won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition — the first Black musician to win the award since its launch in 1978. 

At age 19, Kanneh-Mason was a royal wedding cellist at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, 2018. He played three songs for guests as Harry and Meghan signed the register, reported CBC News.

On Jan. 26, 2018, Kenneh-Mason released his first full-length album, “Inspiration.” This album includes the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 as well as shorter works by Shostakovich, Saint-Saens and Offenbach, among others. On Feb. 2, 2018, the Official U.K. Charts Company announced that “Inspiration’s” success had made Kenneh-Mason “the U.K.’s youngest cellist to break into the Official Albums Chart Top 20 with his debut album.”

In early Feb. 2018, the BBC reported that Kanneh-Mason’s album “Inspiration” was “the biggest-selling British debut of the year to date,” becoming number one on the U.K. classical albums chart and achieving 2.5 million streams on Spotify, according to BBC News Online. 

As of today, he has over 1.5 million monthly listeners on streaming service Spotify and is currently a student of Hannah Roberts at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

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