Reserved and soft-spoken, Sheku Kanneh-Mason weighs his words carefully; it’s almost as if he prefers to let his cello speak for him, which it does with preternatural elegance. But in conversation with the Georgia Straight, he does let slip one shocking thing.
“Music can’t change the world,” he says from his London home, where he’s preparing for a flight to Frankfurt. This comes in response to a question about what it is like to be black and a British citizen, practising the intellectual art form of classical music at a time when the U.K. is witnessing rising levels of racial discrimination and anti-intellectualism. It’s an especially odd thing for Kanneh-Mason to say, given that he’s publicly professed his admiration for world-changing reggae legend Bob Marley, alongside such epochal figures as Ludwig van Beethoven—but the 20-year-old virtuoso quickly backs it up.
Music, he reasons, is “maybe one thing that can unite lots of people. It’s a language that can be understood and can be spoken by anyone, so I think it’s an important thing. People like [Edward] Elgar and Yehudi Menuhin have always inspired me in their beliefs about the world and how music can be an element that can be spoken by everyone.
“At the end of the day, it can move people and it can bring people together,” he continues. “But I guess the point of music is not to necessarily bring about a political statement or a big message: it’s to move people. That can be used to change the world, but the music itself is not for that.”
Elgar has been on Kanneh-Mason’s mind recently. While he will not play any of the British composer’s music in his upcoming Vancouver recital, he’s recently recorded Elgar’s Cello Concerto, one of the key pieces in his instrument’s repertoire, for the Decca label.
“It has always been my favourite piece of music, so it’s a special feeling, performing it,” Kanneh-Mason says. (A video of his stirring interpretation of the Cello Concerto at the 2019 BBC Proms has received almost 100,000 YouTube hits.) “And, yeah, it has always been a deeply moving piece for me. I’ve definitely changed the way I think about the piece and perform it over the years of playing it, but it always has this special moving feeling to play it.”
Also on the upcoming record are a pair of shorter works, initially identified only as “traditional material”. They’re from the English tradition, it turns out, and although Kanneh-Mason doesn’t say so explicitly, he seems to be making the point that although he’s the child of immigrant parents from Antigua and Sierra Leone, he has a genuine feeling for the heritage of the country where he was born.
“Oh, ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’? I wanted to include them because, I don’t know, there’s an element of that style of music in the Elgar concerto,” he explains. “And I really enjoy the freedom and spontaneity that comes with playing folk music. That’s an area of music that I just really enjoy.
“I always think back to performers like [Jascha] Heifetz, who was constantly arranging jazz and popular music from his day, and recording whole albums of it, yet always maintaining that high level of expression and high level of violin-playing,” he adds. “I enjoy doing that as well, as long as it’s something that I believe I can do something good with.”
For his Vancouver concert, however, Kanneh-Mason intends to stick with the classical canon, although he’s exploratory enough to include Witold Lutosławski’s appropriately sombre Grave next to Beethoven’s Variations in F Major, Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Piano and Cello. It’s a program intended to show off his range—and that of his pianist sister Isata, who will accompany him—rather than advance any particular thesis.
“The Rachmaninoff has always been one of my favourite pieces of music, and it’s the same with my sister as well,” he says. “We’ve always wanted to play it together, and that was the reason I wanted to learn it. And that piece of music goes really well with the Barber. I think it’s similar in the sense that it’s music where expression is at the front of what it’s about.
“It’s almost at the brink of too much sugar,” he adds with a quiet laugh. “And then in contrast to this very lyrical and romantic music, it’s nice to play the Lutosławski, which is the piece that’s probably the least-known on the program, and also the Beethoven Variations, which has very little to do with everything else but offers a kind of… I don’t know, a positive and joyful start to the program.”
It’s arguable that positivity, joy, and intelligence are rare in these dark times—and that by sharing these qualities, Kanneh-Mason will change the world in spite of himself, one listener at a time.
The Vancouver Recital Society presents Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason at the Orpheum at 3 p.m. on Sunday (December 8).