Sheku Kanneh-Mason didn’t have to look far for inspiration as an aspiring cellist, growing up in the English town of Notting. The third of seven gifted children, all of whom have attended London’s Royal Academy of Music, he picked up the instrument at age 6 and spent his childhood harmonizing in a household of melodies.
“It was so great growing up, having music always around and having siblings who share the same love of music and were always really, really hard working,” Kanneh-Mason says. “That inspired me.”
Kanneh-Mason, now 20, wants to pay that inspiration forward. The classical musician flirted with global stardom in 2018 when his expressive performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle made him a viral sensation. But British audiences had been introduced to his talents two years earlier, when he became the first black contestant to win the BBC Young Musician competition.
“I grew up watching this competition and was so inspired by seeing musicians not that much older than me performing at such a high level,” he says. “I hope to play that same role of inspiring the next generation of musicians and hopefully inspiring a more diverse generation.”
Having made his Carnegie Hall debut last month, Kanneh-Mason is returning stateside for three performances of Saint-Sakns’s First Cello Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, and Friday and Saturday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.
Kanneh-Mason is embarking on the tour fresh off the Jan. 10 release of his second full-length record, “Elgar.” He recorded the album, which is anchored by a performance of Edward Elgar’s iconic Cello Concerto, at Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra, as helmed by the renowned British conductor Simon Rattle.
Speaking earlier this month, Kanneh-Mason opened up about his influences, hobbies and ambitions as a classical music trailblazer.
Q: You were fortunate enough to discover your passion at a very young age. Did you ever consider a different career path?
A: I suppose that there was nothing else that I could seriously think of spending the rest of my life doing. Music is something that I’ve always really, really enjoyed. I don’t think there was a defining moment when I suddenly realized I wanted to be a musician. It just developed naturally, and I feel very lucky that I’m able to spend every day being a musician.
Q: In addition to cellists like Jacqueline du Pri and Mstislav Rostropovich, you’ve also cited Bob Marley as one of your influences. In what ways do you connect with his music?
A: All great music shares this passion and honesty and meaning, and I think Bob Marley was a musician who always had meaning in his music. He’s inspirational in so many ways, in terms of being a musician, but also his ability to deliver a message of change.
Q: In what ways has that message worked its way into your music?
A: For me, I feel lucky to have such a great music education, but I am very much aware that many, many children in 1/8Britain 3/8 don’t have the opportunity to have a proper music education because it’s not being taken seriously in the education system. I always have been committed to trying to change that and do what I can to bring this wonderful music to as many people as I can.
Q: How do you hope to accomplish that?
A: I want to perform for as many people who don’t often have the opportunity to hear this music as I can. Also, through showing what I can do coming through a state school system and, therefore, inspiring people to see the benefit of music education and see what’s possible. Hopefully that will change people’s perceptions of what classical music is.
Q: Aside from classical music, what do you like to listen to?
A: I listen to a wide mix of music. There’s a lot of jazz and rap, just a range of things. I’m constantly fascinated and influenced by lots of different musicians and the way they create something expressive.
Q: How do you like to spend your time away from music?
A: I love playing football (soccer), and reading and sleeping and going for walks and hanging out with my friends. I do think it’s important to have a balance between all of these things.
Q: You’ve spent a lot of time traveling lately. What have been your favorite places to perform?
A: Just for Christmas, my sister (Isata) and I did a tour of the U.S., and that was really, really enjoyable. I had a great time there. I also love Amsterdam, and I’ve been there a few times to play. And I played recently in the new hall in Hamburg, and that was one of my favorite experiences.
Q: The royal wedding was an introduction to you for many viewers around the world. What do you remember from that day?
A: It was such an enjoyable experience. The opportunity to perform for many people around the world was really special.
Q: One of the things that people appreciated about that performance was the way your passion for the music came across in your body language. What do you think when you see footage of yourself performing?
A: (Laughs) I rarely watch myself back performing for enjoyment. It’s usually to analyze and learn from it. But I enjoy being able to record myself and watch back for the purpose of developing.
Q: Your popularity has challenged the perception that classical music predominantly appeals to older audiences. What do you think it is about your music and your personality that reaches such a wide range of people?
A: I think classical music definitely takes focus and, in a way, patience to really get the most out of it. It is such wonderful music because it speaks about so many different things and so many different moods. I guess my role often is to make people excited about this music by seeing someone who they can relate to and trust. I think the music itself is wonderful and can speak to everyone – it’s a case of giving people the confidence and the opportunity to want to go and hear it.
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