Sheku Kanneh-Mason is one of the most exciting rising young stars on the musical scene, and yet he remains a humble schoolboy.
“I still go to Trinity Catholic Comprehensive School in Nottingham where I will be taking my A Levels in a few weeks’ time,” the award-winning cellist tells me. “I’ll be living at home in Nottingham until September, when I begin full time at The Royal Academy of Music.”
Sheku has risen to fame through winning the BBC Young Musician competition a year ago, playing the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall in London. But he was no stranger to competitions, as his biography reveals. To Sheku, they didn’t seem all that significant,
“I didn’t actually do that many competitions as a child. I entered Nottingham Young Musician of the Year twice and the Derby, Grantham and Suffolk music festivals as well. There was also the Junior RAM Lower Strings Prize, Gregynog, Young Musician, the RPS Duet Prize and then finally BBC Young Musician.
“I prepare for competitions in much the same way that I prepare for concerts and usually I choose pieces that I have performed many times before. I really see it as an opportunity to perform at your absolute best and take some performance risks. Music festivals are very useful for trying out works in progress as well.’’
When Sheku’s name appeared among a list of competition entrants, how did his fellow-competitors react to the fact that he was already a serial winner?
“A lot of the time when I would enter competitions, I would not necessarily know the competitors,” he says.
“But if I did, we would always be friendly and supportive of each other as you know what each of you are going through. Most of the time I don’t think there was any sense that I had any more chance of winning than anyone else.”
Sheku knows how to relax away from music.
“I like to play sports such as football, tennis and table tennis. I also like watching films at the cinema or at home. I listen to a lot of music of all types as well, from Bob Marley to classical music. As a family, we enjoy walking in the Welsh mountains, or if we get a chance, visiting family in Antigua.”
And it seems Sheku’s whole family needs to escape from music occasionally.
“My eldest sister Isata started the piano when she was six years old and we got used to hearing her practice in the house and playing in concerts. This inspired the rest of us and soon we were playing chamber music together. My parents encouraged and supported us and we always had a sense of performing and enjoying the music from a young age. Now that we are all older we still do a lot of performances together, particularly the piano trio with my sister Isata and brother Braimah. We also play as a sextet and a septet with my other siblings, which is great fun.’’
Sheku goes on to tell me about the wonderful instrument on which he plays.
“I was lucky enough to be able to borrow the beautiful Amati cello c1610 from Florian Leonhard Fine Violins to play in the BBC Young Musician Final. I fell in love with it and was thrilled to be able to borrow it again to play the Haydn Concerto with Chineke! Orchestra at The Royal Festival Hall a few months later.
“It was very hard to give it back so it was the most wonderful news when I heard that it had been bought by a generous private collector who wanted me to play it. I’m developing my relationship with the instrument all the time and constantly finding different sounds and shades of tone that I can explore. It’s an amazing cello and an incredible gift for which I am so grateful.”
Julian Lloyd Webber, now one of this country’s elder statesmen of the cello, is taking a huge mentoring interest in promoting our young musicians, and cellists naturally figure on his radar.
Sheku pays tribute to his great role-model.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with my sister Isata at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music on May 5. I had an opportunity to look around the conservatoire last year and I think that it is an exciting hub for young musicians and a fantastic place to study music. I was invited by Julian Lloyd Webber who has very exciting plans for the place and I was very impressed.”
* Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason perform Beethoven and Shostakovich at Birmingham Conservatoire on May 5 (1.05pm). Call 0121 331 5909.
* May 6: The much-loved clarinettist Emma Johnson brings a group of friends to St John’s Church, Hagley Hall (7.30pm, details on 01562 886363)
* May 6: More clarinet music from Martyn Parfect and the Amabile Piano Quintet at the United Reformed Church, Sutton Coldfield (7.30pm, details on 0121 384 4522)
* May 7: The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra hosts its annual Concerto Competition finals for rising young musicians (Elgar Hall, Birmingham University 3pm).