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Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s BSO Debut!

Sheku Kanneh-Mason sits in a chair, turning towards the camera as his hand rests on his cello. He's wearing a white t-shirt with a baby blue button-down over it, navy blue jeans, and white converse. He looks left of frame.
Jake Turney
Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Saturday, September 30th, 2023

In an encore broadcast, British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason makes his Boston Symphony debut with Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, and Andris Nelsons conducts the world premiere of Carlos Simon’s Four Black American Dances and Beethoven’s poetic Symphony No. 7.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello

Carlos SIMON Four Black American Dances (world premiere)
Ernest BLOCH Schelomo: Rhapsodie hébraïque, for cello and orchestra
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7

This concert was originally broadcast on February 11th, 2023 and is no longer available on demand.

For information about Carlos Simon's Requiem for the Enslaved, visit Hub New Music.

For information about Sheku Kanneh-Mason's Song, visit Decca.

Listen to a preview of Bloch's Schelomo with Sheku Kanneh-Mason with the audio player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who's here in Boston for actually the third time, but the first time with the Boston Symphony. Sheku, thanks a lot for your time today. I appreciate it.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Thank you so much for having me.

Brian McCreath Well, I am so interested in this piece of music that you've chosen for your BSO debut, Schelomo, by Ernest Bloch. And it's such a dramatic piece. It's unlike other concertos. Tell me about what drew you to this piece. How long has it been in your repertoire, and how did you learn to navigate this piece, to bring out the whole drama of the story of the piece?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Yeah, it's an incredibly dramatic and extreme piece of music, emotionally extreme. And what I love is how Bloch really explores the emotional range of the instrument, the cello, which I think is so vast, and it really goes to the extremes. I've known this piece already for a long time, but actually have only started working on it recently. This week will be... I performed it for the first time last week. This is relatively new to me, performance-wise, but it's a piece I've known and listened to a lot growing up. And Bloch's music, he has this wonderful suite called From Jewish Life, for cello and piano, and I played one of the movements for my Grade Eight cello back when I was, I think, nine years old. And ever since then, I really, really loved his music. And so it's great to be performing this, his sort of biggest piece of music.

Brian McCreath I'm amazed that you're here playing it for only the second time in performance. We're so lucky in Boston that we get to be here, right as you're getting this piece, you know, going is part of your repertoire. Tell me about your way of approaching the piece. It's just not like other pieces. It's not like you play in A theme and a B theme and then a, you know, development and recapitulation. It's got a story behind it and a character behind it. How do you dive into that character? What do you do to put yourself in the mindset that you, I think, have to be in to bring across the character of the piece?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Yeah, exactly. It's definitely a programmatic piece of music and it's a rhapsody as well. And so you can't really draw on things, or on traditional things like form, which you would in normal concertos and things like that. It's very much about the character of what the person is saying in that moment in the story. And Bloch's intention is for the cello to represent the voice of King Solomon and for the orchestra often to be the sort of chaos of the world around him. And very often it is quite clearly. And I think to be the voice of someone like that, that's a character that you have to really get into. And I think to be a voice sometimes of nobility, and particularly when it's lower down in the range of the cello, it's very, it's making very, very big statements a lot of the time. It's also really crying and wailing out against all of what's happening. It's very, very, very powerful. It takes a lot of commitment and actually, practically, a lot of sound as well, because the orchestra is huge. It's written for... The title of the piece is Schelomo: Rhapsody for Cello and Grand Orchestra. So it's really, he doesn't hold back with the number of players in the orchestra. And that's wonderful and it's really, really powerful. But it means that it's a genuine struggle for the cello. And that's, I think, part of the intention as well.

Brian McCreath Well, tell me about that way of playing in front of an orchestra for you. You grew up in this family, this incredible family, all your siblings playing instruments. You were playing chamber music so much together. And sitting in front of an orchestra, especially, as you say, a big orchestra in this piece is a little outside of that character. Does it take you a little bit of work to put yourself into that space and really kind of get that mindset around your instrument to get all that sound out of it?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Yeah, it is certainly a different way perhaps of playing, but I think a lot of what I want to come out comes from really study, I don't know, studying the piece and analyzing what all of the intervals and the phrases really mean to me. And then it's a case of expressing that in a much more, I guess, outward way. But it's a really enjoyable experience and it's incredibly... The sound of a full orchestra like that is incredibly motivating and inspiring and gives me so much energy. So I really, I feed on that in a piece like this.

Brian McCreath You've been here before at Symphony Hall, but for a chamber music concert with your sister. And so what are your impressions of playing now in the hall here in Boston with the full orchestra?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason I think it's a one of the most incredible halls, certainly, that I've played in. It's really fantastic. And for something like this, I feel very, very excited to be playing a piece like this in such a space. It was also lovely for recital as well, and that was a surprisingly lovely experience because my full recital, I'm used to playing in much, much smaller halls as is normal. But actually in there it was also a lovely experience. But with orchestra, I think it's the ultimate feeling in a hall like this.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Your most recent recording is Song, and it's just got this fantastic variety, this fantastic collection of pieces, and I just wonder what it took to bring together those selections. There's got to be a lot of other music that you love as well. But what was it that you were looking for as the sort of guiding principle for Song?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Yeah, yeah, it was sort of a process of sort of putting together all of the pieces of music on the album, because it is quite a variety in terms of style, in terms of instrumentation and the different collaborations that I was with on that album, but it was an enjoyable experience. I basically just, with the theme of song and vocal sounding music, I basically pulled together a selection of some of my favorite music, and music that I've grown up loving and means a lot to me for that reason, music that's quite new to me and I want to explore more. And I think, yeah, it's lovely to be able to pull together all of those influences that I have in one place.

Brian McCreath Yeah, absolutely. Now you've been on the road, just being a guest artist in so many places for a number of years now, here in the United States and throughout Europe and probably everywhere else too. I'm curious because that's a life that a lot of people don't live in quite the same way. What's your way of getting to know a city? Do you prefer to come into a place that you've only been a few times and just sort of like focus on your work and stay, you know, in a sort of like place where you're really all about the work. Or do you get out and see the city? Do you have ways of sort of approaching that issue?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason It depends. I mean, it depends how much, while I'm in a place, how much work I feel I need to do. But ideally, yes, I try to at least see something in the place. Often it's best to just ask someone who has lived here or who is who is from there. And quite often that's the case. I'll know someone either who is living here or has lived there or can recommend a few things, but often also to just walk around on my own. I quite like being in a new city on my own because you can explore things at the pace that I want to. And so that's actually quite nice. But also, yeah, being on my own, I also have to make effort to get to know people, get to know people in the orchestra and things like that. I find very helpful as well.

Brian McCreath Yeah, sure, sure. Well, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, it's so good to have you back in Boston and here with the Boston Symphony for the first time. I really appreciate some of your thoughts today. Thanks a lot.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Massive pleasure. Thank you.