The acclaimed young cellist is making his American orchestral debut Oct. 18-20 with the Seattle Symphony, performing Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations.”
As royal weddings go, the one that brought together Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle in holy matrimony last May was a corker.
While there was no shortage of the expected pomp, there was also the stunning address by a Chicago-based Episcopal bishop, Michael Curry, who spoke passionately about the redemptive power of love. There was U.K. gospel ensemble The Kingdom Choir, which performed Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me.” And there was 19-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who, in 2016, was the first black instrumentalist to win the BBC’s esteemed Young Musician of the Year Award.
Now, Kanneh-Mason is in Seattle, making his American orchestral debut Oct. 18-20 with the Seattle Symphony, performing Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations.”
Sitting with focused serenity beneath a flower-adorned entry to the Quire of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, Kanneh-Mason played three short pieces, while the prince and newly minted Duchess of Sussex signed the registry, away from cameras. No doubt a trending subject on search engines later on was: Who was that kid with the cello, and what was he playing so beautifully?
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The answer to the latter is that Kanneh-Mason performed Maria Theresia von Paradis’ “Sicillienne,” Gabriel Fauré’s “Après un rêve” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” As for who he is, the young native of Nottingham, England, is the third of seven musical children born to Stuart Mason, who works for a luxury hotel chain, and Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh, who used to lecture on literature at the University of Birmingham.
Neither parent plays an instrument.
“All seven of [the kids] are classical musicians and we all perform regularly,” says Sheku Kanneh-Mason via email from London. “Four of us are full-time scholarship students at the Royal Academy of Music, and two of my younger sisters travel there every Saturday to study at the Junior Royal Academy. Even my youngest sister, who is 9, is becoming brilliant at the cello. Our parents are very supportive, and they are an inspiration to me.”
Kanneh-Mason began playing cello at age 6. Three years later, he was winning competitions and receiving his own Junior Royal Academy scholarship. After claiming the BBC honor, he was in demand, performing at the 2017 and 2018 British Academy Film Awards; as soloist with the Chineke! Orchestra during London’s BBC Proms summer festival; and signing a recording contract with the Decca label. His debut album, “Inspiration,” hit No. 1 on classical charts.
Then came the call.
“I was contacted by phone from Kensington Palace. They told me someone wanted to speak to me, and Meghan Markle came on the line and asked if I would like to play at her wedding. I was thrilled and, of course, immediately said yes. I met the Queen a couple of months before the wedding, where I was presented to her at Buckingham Palace. I also played to The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and wife Catherine) at Kensington Palace, and I played a private solo recital to Prince Harry the summer before. The wedding was a beautiful ceremony and I felt completely inspired and happy.”
Though Kanneh-Mason’s visit to the U.S. will mark his first time with an orchestra here, he has performed twice before on this side of the Atlantic.
In 2016, Kanneh-Mason appeared with his brother Braimah and sister Isata as a piano trio for The Color of Music Festival in Charleston, a celebration of black musicians and composers from around the world. He also played solo last November at “The Children’s Monologues” in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, a star-studded theatrical fundraiser for African children’s charities. The latter was directed by a famous name from the film world.
“It was a fantastic experience to perform at such a prestigious venue, and wonderful to work with Danny Boyle,” says Kanneh-Mason. (Boyle is the director of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trainspotting.”)
Seattle is catching Kanneh-Mason at a moment when the wind is really picking up at his back. He has toured Canada, and played in Zurich, Amsterdam and Barcelona, and, in the Caribbean, in Antigua and Barbuda. He’s getting booked up for the next two seasons.
He also loves the Tchaikovsky piece he’ll be playing at Benaroya Hall.
“‘Variations on a Rococo Theme’ is the closest we cellists have to a Tchaikovsky cello concerto,” he says. “It is a virtuosic set of variations on an original theme, inspired by the style of Mozart, whom Tchaikovsky greatly admired. It is an elegantly beautiful piece of music which is really fun and joyful to play. I find the mix of Classical period music and typical Tchaikovsky Romanticism really fascinating to explore.”
Sheku Kanneh-Mason with Seattle Symphony, Ruth Reinhardt conducting. “Beethoven & Tchaikovsky,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20; $22-$125. “Beethoven Untuxed” (a shorter program with no intermission), 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19; $13-$63. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org