Playing to a global television audience of more than two billion people during the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in May was always going to transform the life of the young British cellist Sheku Kanne-Mason.
“It was a fantastic experience and an amazing event to be a part of,” says the 19-year-old during an exclusive BDLife interview in London.
“I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
He performed three pieces during the signing of the register at the wedding at Windsor Castle including a rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria’.
It had taken us a whole month to track down an interview with the young cellist who has to juggle the demands of being one of the most sought-after classical performers in the UK with his studies at the Royal College of Music.
Played from six
There was little time to enjoy the adulation he received during the Royal Wedding because his college exams began the week after the ceremony. He doesn’t reveal any signs of pressure though: “What I’m studying is what I’m performing so it actually feels really natural,” he says. He booked for concert dates around Europe and the US right into the first half of 2019.
Sheku, who is from the city of Nottingham, started playing the cello at the age of six and is one among seven siblings who are all professional classical performers (He performs with his sister, Isata and brother Braimah, as the Kanneh-Mason Trio).
His prodigious talent has earned him some of the industry’s biggest accolades in the last few years including the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year. In June, he received two honours at the Classic Brit Awards, Male Artist of the Year and Critics Choice Award.
“It was a great honour to receive two awards and it was a really enjoyable evening,” he says of the event that celebrates classical music in theatre, film, television and games.
“These awards mean that I’ve had the opportunity to perform to so many people which is wonderful.”
Since his debut album “Inspiration” was released In January 2018, it has topped the classical charts. The standout classical composition on the album is “Cello Concerto No. 1” by Shostakovich (his favourite composer next to Beethoven), performed with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
“The concerto is one of the great cello pieces and it is full of emotions,” explains Sheku. “It was also the piece I played in the BBC Young Musician final and it was great to play it in that competition with a professional orchestra.”
In fact the young cellist has already played alongside some of the most accomplished orchestras in the world. He has made successful debuts with the BBC National orchestra of Wales, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Barcelona Symphony and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich.
“It is the best feeling to be performing alongside a group of fellow musicians and I’m enjoying travelling around the world to perform concerts,” he says.
As the title suggests, each of the pieces on the album are songs that have inspired him — from a beautiful chamber arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” which he grew up listening to at home.
Should we be surprised that a classical album includes an arrangement of a reggae song? “I don’t think so,” he says. “It is my own arrangement and it’s music that I love playing. I love great music of all kinds.”
His reaction to the success of his debut album, which has transcended the classical circles right into the pop music realm, is typically understated. “It’s been amazing to see the reaction and I’m so pleased people are enjoying my music.”
While Sheku’s success is an exception of a classical musician who has broken the confines of the genre, this young cellist says, more people need an opportunity to access the music. “I don’t think classical music should change in itself, but I think people of all ages and backgrounds should have the opportunity to experience it.”
Finally, we ask if there is a message he can share with young musicians in Kenya who are keen on learning music and attaining the highest professional standards. His message is simple: “Listen to as much music as possible. Don’t be afraid to pick up an instrument. And practice as much as you can.”