Artist Spotlight: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

A. Kori Hill

Meet Sheku Kanneh-Mason. A cellist from Great Britain, he travels to different countries every year, playing solo recitals or concerts with orchestras. On April 26-27, Sheku will perform with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and serve as the 2024 MAC Music Innovator. If you call the Queen City home, this is a rare opportunity to hear one of the most exciting new performers active today.

Sheku was born in 1999 and grew up in Nottingham, England. He’s one of seven kids, each one a skilled musician (you’ll hear about his older sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, next month!) Sheku started on violin and switched to cello when he was six. In 2015, he and his siblings competed in Britain’s Got Talent as The Kanneh-Masons and just a year later, Sheku won first place in the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition. As of 2024, he’s released six albums, two with his siblings: Muse with Isata and Carnival of the Animals with The Kanneh-Masons.

The Kanneh-Masons

Classical musicians often pick canonical rep when they record an album, especially for their debut. Doing that allows the soloist to put their unique stamp on the music, showing listeners that they know and can handle the classics.

But Sheku shook it up. His debut album, Inspiration (2018), has several classics, not all of them classical. There’s Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, an arrangement of Jacques Offenbach’s “Jacqueline’s Tears” from Harmonies des bois and Sheku’s arrangement of Bob Marley and The Wailer’s “No Woman, No Cry.” These works hold special significance: Bob Marley is one of his artistic idols; programming Offenbach is his “tribute to” the inspiring impact of English cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945–1987), and he won the BBC’s Young Musicians Award with his performance of the Shostakovich concerto, which he’ll be playing with the CSO.

Jacqueline du Pré with husband/collaborator, Daniel Barenboim, Gramophone magazine via Warner Classics
Bob Marley and The Wailers by Adrian Boot, Bob Marley Music Inc.

A lot of Dmitri Shostakovich’s music sounds pretty and wonky at the same time. He wrote his Cello Concerto No. in E flat major, Op. 107 (1959) for his friend, Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich, who, with du Pré, was one of the most celebrated cellists of the twentieth century, memorized the concerto in four days (!).

Rostropovich, David Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten, and Shostakovich

The concerto is in four movements instead of three. The first, Allegretto, is built around a pokey melody. Listen to how the woodwinds and strings help the soloist drive the drama. The second, Moderato, is all cantabile (“singing”), contrasting sharply between hopeful and sorrowful. The third movement is Cadenza (attaca); see if you hear any melodies from the previous movements! The last movement, Allegro con moto, has a lot of call and response and interlocking themes. It is furious, animated, and barely slows down. This concerto requires a cellist to pull out the expressive, emotional stops, one of Sheku’s many artistic strengths.

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