The Sheku and Mirga show
The remarkable young cellist Sheku KannehMason and the CBSO’s irresistible music director are a dream double act
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Barbican, London EC2
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1
Last week Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Tomorrow, Carnegie Hall, New York. In a year of firsts for the 18-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, winner of BBC Young Musician 2016, these latest debuts are hard to beat. On Wednesday, to an excited capacity crowd, he played Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 in E flat major, Op 107 (1959) with the City of Birmingham
conducted by Symphony Orchestra that other irresistible new star, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Sheku and Mirga: an astounding double act whose youth, verve and diversity challenge classical stereotypes in one joyful swoop.
Time will come when events of Kanneh-Mason’s remarkable life so far will not need rehearsing at each mention of his name. For now, let’s celebrate. He’s already played at the Proms as soloist with Chineke! He’s had a documentary made about him and his six musical siblings, all state-school educated in Nottingham. He’s played at 10 Downing Street, presumably in a moment of inertia between scandals and sacking. Still in his first term at the Royal Academy of Music, London, he is a cellist of poise and seriousness. Bold in virtuosity, assured in musicianship, his gifts far outweigh all the role model expectations being heaped on him. Sceptics take note.
One of his own inspirations is the cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-87), who also broke free of convention in her short career. Fittingly, she was soloist in the Shostakovich concerto in 1967, the first time the CBSO played it. Written in a major key but minor in mood and, often, harmonies too, this work entwines asperity and lament, persuasion and combat, comic woodwind song and beseeching string threnody. Throughout, the cello weaves its complex line, opening with the four notes associated with Shostakovich’s own name (which he used again in the String Quartet No 8).
Unfolding into a long solo cadenza, it builds to a furious ending, duetting with horn, celesta, woodwind along the way. Solace never comes. KannehMason’s intimacy with the work, which he played in his BBC Young Musician final, showed in every note and phrase. This unselfconscious performer found an ideal rapport with the CBSO and Gražinytė-Tyla – fortunately, since this performance (together with one the following night in his home town) forms the basis of the young cellist’s first album, due out in January.
The concert also included a louring, magisterial account of Rachmaninov’s
The Isle of the Dead and extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, scintillating and vivid, with the balletic Gražinytė-Tyla more than compensating for any absence of dancers. The CBSO, with a few changes of personnel, is on a new high. Regrettably the audience is still dominated by an older, whiter profile, but we shouldn’t assume (as often seems the case) that this is entirely bad. The brilliant, unsung aspect of older audiences is their dedicated support, their evident pleasure and above all their ability to listen. For musicians, that’s the best possible gift.
Next year is the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth but the celebrations have begun. Marin Alsop, inspired since childhood by this charismatic composer, teacher and conductor, launched proceedings with a rare performance of his Symphony No 3, “Kaddish” (1963). Bernstein’s entire compositional output was idiosyncratic to say the least. Few doubt the genius of West Side Story, but his concert hall pieces have fared less well. This ambitious hotchpotch of a final symphony requires huge choral and orchestral forces – here, the and London Symphony Orchestra London Symphony Chorus, with whom Bernstein had a long association – as well as children’s choir (Tiffin Boys’ Choir), soprano soloist (Laura Claycomb) and speaker (Claire Bloom). This meant some 250 people squeezed on to the stage. Whatever else you might say, they made an impact.
In a much revised work, built around the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, Alsop opted for a version close to the original, with reinstated cuts and a female narrator as God’s inquisitor. As much a work of praise as of mourning, its dual nature extends to its musical structure. Non-tonal music, threatening and uneasy, is intercut with reassuring tonal outbursts. “Do you see how simple and peaceful it all becomes, once You believe?” asks the narrator, as a sweet, cloying string melody unfolds and the ethereal boys’ choir joins in.
Yet darkness always lurks. Bernstein is too knowing to provide the expected golden sunset ending, but there’s no shortage of folksy, foot-tapping adornment en route. Bloom delivered the text with fierce calm, Alsop ever vigilant in cueing her as well as the rest of the multilayered forces. The LSO’s principal flute, Adam Walker, was an imaginative soloist in Bernstein’s
Halil (1981), another work with tonal-atonal turbulence, written as a tribute to an Israeli flautist killed in the Yom Kippur war. They also played the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth: music on another plane, but let this be Bernstein’s moment.
In similarly epic vein – more than 100 players in total, with impressive, pliant string playing – the London
gave a Philharmonic Orchestra rewardingly transparent account of Bruckner’s Symphony No 8, which can last anything from about 70 to 100 minutes depending on the impatience or placidity of the conductor. Lawrence Renes, conducting from memory, came in at a well-judged 90. An artist’s preoccupation with death is hardly a novelty – see above – but when, as in Bruckner’s case, you add in loneliness, professional insecurity and a proneness to depression, gloom can swell to a titanic scale. With playing as good as this, it was worth the suffering.
‘Joyful’: conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason with the CBSO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham last week.