It was hard not to be inspired by Vancouver Recital Society’s packed Orpheum concert on Sunday afternoon; as founder and artistic director Leila Getz said, in an opening speech directed to the noticeable contingent of young audience members, “These two are the classic example that anyone can do anything.”
She was referring to wildly celebrated 20-year-old U.K. cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his 23-year-old sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, who accompanied him on piano. The two siblings more than lived up to Getz’s enthusiastic introduction, their talents on full display in an adventurous program.
Sheku, of course, went viral last year when he played at Meghan and Harry’s royal wedding. Elsewhere on the Interweb, his solo performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” had over 1.5 million views on YouTube at last check. So chances were that many of the newcomers who packed the Orpheum Sunday afternoon were there to check out the cello sensation, hip without trying in a gold-embroidered black tunic.
The pleasant surprise was that fans got two mind-blowing young stars for the price of one. Sheku’s sibling Isata came dressed in a glimmering white-gold-sequinned jumpsuit, her streaked braids sometimes flying as she tackled the almost impossibly lush, cascading fingerwork of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Samuel Barber, plus a surprise Christmas treat—a cleverly reimagined carol (more on that later). (VRS subscribers would have already known what they were in for: the brother and sister, who come from a family of seven kids, made their Vancouver debut in a sold-out performance at the Playhouse two years ago, and were booked promptly again by Getz.)
The two share both a deeply sensitive expressive ability and such a mind-melding intuitive connection that they barely look at each other. In the eerie call and response of Witold Lutosławski’s Grave: Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano, Sheku simply bent his ear Isata’s way now and then, the piece’s growling beginning eventually giving way to shimmering piano and ethereal high notes of the cello.
The encore was the biggest crowd-pleaser, the duo displaying its emotional and technical range with variations on Gustav Holst’s simple yet haunting English carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Never over-emoting, Sheku jumped easily from the angular to the kind of flowing sounds that brought a flood of yearning to every extended note.
Elsewhere, Rachmaninoff’s volatile Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 19 was a highlight, the pianist finding all the romantic textures of the pummelling work, sometimes lifting right off her bench for the rafter-shaking climaxes. Meanwhile, the cellist swung agilely from the spiky pizzicato to swoony, throbbing lyricism.
As several standing-O curtain calls proved, it was something to behold—but not in a showy way. Charming and unpretentious, the young siblings quietly managed to make the matinee concert feel like one of the big events of the classical season.