The Sheku and Mirga show

The re­mark­able young cel­list Sheku Kan­nehMa­son and the CBSO’s ir­re­sistible mu­sic di­rec­tor are a dream dou­ble act

The Observer - The New Review - - CLASSICAL - Fiona Mad­docks @Fion­aMad­docks


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.

Pho­to­graph by An­drew Fox for the Ob­server

‘Joy­ful’: con­duc­tor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and cel­list Sheku Kan­neh-Ma­son with the CBSO at Sym­phony Hall, Birm­ing­ham last week.

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