Cellist, 19, Makes Vibrant Splash In U.S. Concert Debut

British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason made his Seattle Symphony debut playing Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo Variations.’
(Photos by Brandon Patoc)

By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – “Welcome to the Seattle Symphony, Gramphone’s ‘Orchestra of the Year,’” proclaimed the voice as it commenced to encourage people to silence their cell phones, watches, and pagers. Although the announcer skirted the issue that, thanks to superb recording engineer Dmitry Lipay, the Seattle Symphony actually sounds better on record than it does in the acoustic limits of Benaroya Hall, his words helped increase the palpable excitement around the U.S. orchestral debut of British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason signed an autograph after his U.S. orchestral debut in Seattle.

Kanneh-Mason, 19, who in 2016 became the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award, saw a huge increase in fame earlier this year when, after a run of TV appearances, Decca released his first album, Inspiration. Attention peaked this past May, when he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Dressed in a loose-fitting colorful top, jeans, sneakers, and smartly displayed patterned socks, he cut a winning, distinctly “It’s the 21st century, already” presence on Oct. 18 as he walked onto the stage with his loaner Amati cello, c. 1610, to perform Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme under the baton of Ruth Reinhardt.

Reinhardt followers, who grew fond of the Juilliard-trained German conductor during her 2015-16 tenure as a conducting fellow at the Seattle Symphony, were equally enthused as she welcomed Kanneh-Mason to the stage. Once the music started, the cellist’s command of the stage and consistently warm and beautiful tone signaled that a memorable performance might well be in store.

With Reinhardt ensuring an optimal balance between cello and orchestra, Kanneh-Mason dispatched Tchaikovsky’s first in a series of increasingly difficult, rapid passages with loving care. When the music afforded opportunities to slow down, he excelled in projecting romantic tenderness. In fact, in places where the cello ceded to orchestra-only, it became clear that Kanneh-Mason had more of a handle on Tchaikovsky’s idiom than did his conductor.

Former conducting fellow Ruth Reinhardt was guest conductor.

A few smudged passages aside, Kanneh-Mason remained at the top of his form until Tchaikovsky’s final variation, where some scratchiness betrayed how hard he was working. Even there, however, his tone retained its commanding beauty. After a triumphant conclusion and several curtain calls, his encore, J. S. Bach’s upbeat Gigue from Suite No. 5, produced smiles all around. If the performance did not secure him a return appearance, someone wasn’t listening.

Kanneh-Mason certainly had boosted spirits after the program opener, Robert Schumann’s Overture to Manfred, which fell flat. With bass foundation lacking – Reinhardt seemed to put all her focus on the high strings – the performance lacked drama and sounded dull.

Much better – magical, in fact – was the iridescent opening to Kaija Saariaho’s Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky), which began the concert’s second half. A reworking of the second movement of Saariaho’s orchestral piece, Orion (2002), Ciel d’hiver received its premiere in Paris in 2014. Intended to evoke Greek mythology’s Orion the hunter in his winter sky, the 10-minute piece abounds in luminous effects from celesta, percussion, brass, and strings. Jeffrey Barker’s flute and Ben Lulich’s clarinet were special standouts in a performance that reveled in immersive, mystical effects before fading into tinkly nothingness as, with no offense meant to Orion, the Earth presumably rotated on its axis.

The Seattle Symphony performing under Ruth Reinhardt.

After that highlight, Reinhardt concluded with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 that might have sounded more familiar to mid-20th-century adherents of the grand German tradition than some period-instrument performances of the present day. While the fullness of the orchestra’s sound was everywhere gratifying, the playing lacked the fleetness required for ultimate lift-off. Solo wind lines sounded a bit flat-footed, as though their players had barely learned to dance.

Sloughing off applause between movements, Reinhardt proceeded into an Andante cantabile that lacked light and grace. As welcome as it was to hear instrument after instrument rise out of the sonic grayness that had weighed down the opening Schumann overture, there was nothing about the concluding two movements to command the performance to memory.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera NowListen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, Wash.