The last time British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was scheduled to play in Los Angeles, he had to cancel at the last minute. As he explained apologetically, he had a gig back home playing at a wedding.
Granted, that doesn’t sound like a great reason for a 19-year-old to pass up what was to be his American orchestral debut. But then, it wasn’t just any wedding. The nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle led to millions of viewers around the world catching at least a few minutes of the prodigy’s artistry.
A year and a half later, Kanneh-Mason is entering the aristocracy of revered classical soloists. Not unlike the new Duchess of Sussex, he is a person of color newly navigating a high-profile, high-status, mostly white milieu.
“My impression has always been that the U.S. is more ahead in terms of diversity in classical music than the U.K.,” he said via a muffled transatlantic telephone interview and a subsequent email exchange. If that is shifting, he and his family are a major reason.
The cellist, now 20, will make his belated Southern California debut at 8 p.m. Tuesday, when he and his sister, Isata, give a recital at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. The performance is a co-presentation of the school and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble whose invitation he was forced to decline in May 2018. They move on Wednesday to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, followed by tour stops that include the Ordway Center in St. Paul, Minn., Carnegie Hall in New York and the New England Conservatory in Boston. Kanneh-Mason will return to Los Angeles as a soloist with LACO in May.
Sel Kardan, the Colburn School’s president and chief executive, was thrilled when LACO proposed the joint project. He heard Kanneh-Mason, who won the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award, at the Edinburgh Festival in summer 2018.
“It was a stunning performance,” Kardan said. “What struck me was the maturity for somebody that young. There were no theatrics. It was very deep playing on a very high level.”
Kardan said a supportive family can provide essential stability and guidance to a gifted young musician, and Kanneh-Mason very much enjoys that advantage. He and his six siblings — all of whom play musical instruments — trace their ancestry to the West Indies island of Antigua. His mother, an academic, immigrated to Britain; his father, a business manager, was born in London. Both were amateur musicians in their youth and encouraged their kids to take lessons.
Isata, 23, was the first to show great promise, which was fulfilled when she released her first CD this year featuring the music of Clara Schumann. Sheku said he has been playing sonatas with her since he was 8. They also play in a trio with their 21-year-old violinist brother, Braimah.
“It’s great to be able to work together in such detail with people you know very well and trust,” he said. “It gives you more freedom to experiment in performance, to challenge each other in rehearsal and generally be more spontaneous because you have that mutual understanding.”
Sheku Kanneh-Mason began studying at the Royal Academy of Music’s Junior Academy at age 10. He enrolled in its conservatory program in 2017, meaning he has a year and a half before he earns his degree.
“I am lucky to have a really understanding management company and teachers who are helping me develop at the right pace and who ensure I have sufficient time to prepare new repertoire each season,” he said. “I am very careful about the number of concerts I accept. It’s a balance between practice and lessons, but I learn a lot from performing.”
His cellist heroes are Jacqueline du Pre and Mstislav Rostropovich, both of whom were renowned for the emotional intensity of their playing — a quality critics have noted in Kanneh-Mason’s work. “It was the range of sound and color that really drew me to the cello,” he said. “I so enjoy exploring the extremes of the instrument from deepest to the highest register.”
He is a fan of, and occasional soloist with, the Chineke! Orchestra, which tours to Walt Disney Concert Hall in April. Its mission, he said approvingly, is “to inspire young people of color to see classical music as something they, too, can get into.”
Kanneh-Mason and his sister hope to provide some inspiration themselves while in Los Angeles. On Monday Sheku gave a master class at Colburn, and Isata held a Q&A with the conservatory’s students.
Kardan suspects those budding musicians will treat them as rock stars. But if the students are hoping for Buckingham Palace gossip, they’re likely to be disappointed.
“I didn’t meet any members of the royal family on the day of the wedding, but have occasionally done so before,” he said. “From the small conversations I had, they seemed very nice.”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday