Sheku Kanneh-Mason: “Being interested is what makes you interesting as a musician.”

By Keegan Morris and Michael San Gabino |

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Sheku Kanneh-Mason (Photo: Jake Turney)

It’s difficult to name a classical artist with a bigger big break than Sheku Kanneh-Mason. In 2018, 1.9 billion people around the world watched the young cellist — he was just 19 years old at the time — perform in the halls of St. George’s Chapel during the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

In addition to the Royal Wedding, Kanneh-Mason, who is now 20 years old, has had numerous television performances throughout his young career. In 2015, he was a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent and performed in an ensemble with his siblings (which included his older sister Isata, a successful pianist). He also competed and won the BBC Young Musician in 2016.

Kanneh-Mason has expressed that preparation and practice have guided him throughout these major performances. In addition to an active concert schedule, he recently released his second album, Elgar, on the Decca Classics label, with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. Anchored by Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which Kanneh-Mason describes as his favorite, the album also features music by Fauré and Bloch, as well as two traditional songs.

WFMT spoke with Sheku Kanneh-Mason about finding his musical voice, the experience of performing at a Royal Wedding, and his collaboration with Sir Simon Rattle.


WFMT: How have you been able to find your voice as a musician?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: I was often encouraged to listen to as much music and watch as many live concerts as I could to work out what I want for myself as a musician. I’ve learned so much from listening. Not just of classical music but any music that you come across.

Being interested is what makes you interesting as a musician.

WFMT: Let’s talk about the Royal Wedding. What was it like performing for nearly 2 billion people worldwide?

Kanneh-Mason: Generally, I don’t get nervous to perform. That performance was quite different than what I’m used to. I get very excited to be on stage. In terms of preparing mentally, I just kept relaxed and of course did the practicing and preparation. Then I enjoyed the moment of performing.

 

WFMT: What was your favorite memory from the experience?

Kanneh-Mason: For me, the playing itself and playing in such a beautiful space. I really enjoy performing and sharing the music I’ve thought about with as many people as I can. That was an amazing opportunity to do that, and that’s what I enjoyed most about it.

WFMT: On your latest album, you collaborated with Sir Simon Rattle. How did this collaboration begin, and how did the recording process go?

Kanneh-Mason: Just over a year ago, I went to Berlin to play the concerto with him. I loved talking about the concerto with him and that experience. After that, we planned to record it together with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was such an amazing experience to record my favorite piece with such a great conductor.

Recording is an amazing opportunity to focus on something – I enjoyed being able to try a lot of things in the studio. I find that music is such a communicating thing. I therefore had quite a small audience of people watching, just to have that idea of communicating something to someone. I love being able to concentrate and get detailed. I think a lot of my interpretation comes from thinking about the music – that process doesn’t stop in performance or in recording.

WFMT: What advice do you have for young artists?

Kanneh-Mason: I would say to listen to as many recordings as you can. Listen to as much music – violin, symphonies, piano sonatas. Just be constantly searching and discovering. We’re lucky in how easy it is the days to access amazing recordings and videos. Make the most of that.


For more information about Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s album Elgar, visit his website shekukannehmason.com. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.