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Brave new aura

Story

Winning BBC Young Musician 2016 propelled young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason into the public eye – a record contract and TV documentaries followed. Helen Wallace finds the 18-year-old taking it all in his stride as he talks about his appearance in Cello Unwrapped.

Watching the BBC documentary Young, Gifted and Classical which follows the seven-strong musical Kanneh-Mason family, one becomes aware of the aura of intense stillness radiating from one child. This is Sheku. Gentle, undemonstrative, deeply absorbed in his practice amidst the household’s lively cacophony. He takes the word chilled to new levels. Just before performing Haydn’s First Cello Concerto in the Royal Festival Hall he quips to his violinist brother, Braimah, ‘Haydn? Standard.’

‘My friends don’t treat me differently. I still play football and do A levels.’

Mother Kadie long ago recognised he had a special relationship with the cello: ‘The moment he picked it up you could see his passion. He would put it down and become a normal boy but when he came back to it, he was transformed. He goes into a different world when he plays the cello.’

Inwardness is not a fashionable quality, but an essential one for a musician. There’s no doubting Sheku’s extrovert, performing gift either: ‘I only practise because I like performing to people,’ is a telling comment; but as a young man he is shy, quietly self-possessed; on film you see a look of almost sheepish pleasure when he hears he has won BBC Young Musician. ‘He’s not a great talker’, observes his teacher at the Royal Academy, Ben Davies, ‘but when he plays the cello, then he speaks to you.’

Like any BBC Young Musician winner he’s been showered with both praise and warnings not to go too far too fast. In fact, he never intended to break his education or leave school without his maths, physics and music A levels, which he’ll take this summer. Nevertheless, the last year has been something of a whirlwind: ‘I’ve been very busy enjoying all the different things that have come my way,’ he says, and you believe it. These include performing with the Chineké! Orchestra for black and ethnic minorities at the Royal Festival Hall, at Proms in the Park with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. ‘A significant moment for me was meeting my brilliant manager Kathryn Enticott, and signing the contract with Decca.’ Enticott, agent to Leif Ove Andsnes, Semyon Bychkov and a host of other high-profile artists, will be ensuring that deal with Decca reflects the real Sheku. ‘My first EP was released when I played one of the tracks (Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen) at the BAFTAs this year. That was a great night!’

Anyone who assumes that mixing with the A-list has gone to his head need have no fears: next on his list of ‘wonderful things’ that have happened this year is gaining a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (where he has been a junior student for some years). He embraces the burden of responsibility he carries, as the first black winner of BBC Young Musicians, and Chineké! Orchestra’s first concerto soloist too. He has used the word ‘exemplar’ for all the other musicians out there, to encourage a new generation to follow him and ‘make it seem more normal’. He’s clearly a master of ‘normal’: ‘My friends at school don’t treat me any differently. I still play football and have to keep up with A-level work.’

One of his most interesting recent projects was playing and recording with Guy Johnston, a former winner of BBC Young Musicians, also appearing in Cello Unwrapped. ‘Guy has been very helpful and advised me to focus on what I want to do and not to be pushed into decisions I’m not sure about. He gets me to focus on the music.’ Johnston first met Sheku when he was nine years old: ‘It was clear what a naturally gifted musician he was. There’s such a special quality to his playing, such an ear for colour, and sound, such imagination – an aura.’ That unmistakable aura again.

Other advice on ‘keeping grounded and balancing engagements with practice and development as a musician’ has come from fellow BBC Young Musician laureate Nicola Benedetti, one of the competition’s most ambitious winners, who chose to start a professional career at just 16, leaving behind her teachers in a bold bid for independence. In the documentary you see her dissolve into laughter when he says the only thing that stresses him is ‘school exams – a bit’. Still young, Nicola’s a veteran of a very tough business. You can’t help wanting to protect Sheku’s bright-eyed optimism as she challenges him: ‘Understand who you are, decide on a life philosophy at this stage, it will strengthen your playing; a certain level of anxiety is what music demands of you.’

 

Perhaps one shouldn’t be so protective: as Chi-chi Nwanoku, double-bassist of the OAE and founder of the Chineké! Orchestra, rightly observes: ‘There’s a fierce side of that boy that we don’t see in him away from the cello. He has a huge emotional range.’ Certainly his chosen programme for Cello Unwrapped encompasses that range. Firstly, there had to be Shostakovich, a composer with whom he’s already become closely associated, and whose Cello Sonata he will play: ‘Shostakovich is very special to me because I can feel so much through his music. There’s darkness, irony, humour, pain and frustration in it. This music hides so much beneath the surface, and when all seems calm, there is emotion bubbling dangerously underneath.’

His programme also includes Gaspar Cassadó’s flamboyant Solo Suite, written by a cellist for a cellist: ‘It’s a particular favourite of mine as it takes the player to the limits of advanced cello technique. It also allows a wide range of expression and passion. Playing solo gives a lot of freedom for interpretation, which, when playing live, can be subject to subtle changes and surprises. I love live performance because I enjoy taking risks and seeing where the music takes me.’ In Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, Sheku’s elder sister plays a particularly important role: ‘It’s a very special gift to have a talented pianist like Isata to perform with. We know each other so well and we’ve been playing together for most of our lives, so we can anticipate and intuit a lot of things.’

Last but not least is the cello itself: Sheku now has on loan a Brothers Amati instrument from 1610, one of the earliest cellos ever made. He first performed on it at the BBC Young Musician final: ‘It is an extraordinary instrument, full of depth and with great projection. I was very lucky for the BBC Strings Final to be playing a cello made by the luthier Frank White, modelled on a Ruggieri with a sweet tone. The Amati is a concert-hall instrument, aged, and with a big voice, but great subtleties of tone. I have been learning how to bring out more and more of what it has to offer, and I feel it will grow with me.’ As JK Rowling wrote, ‘the wand chooses the wizard’, and this precious instrument has found an exceptional owner.

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