This Friday, Strathmore will host what looks to be one of the most exciting concerts of the season presented by Washington Performing ArtsMirga Gražinytė-Tyla, at age 36 one of the most acclaimed conductors of her generation (and the subject of numerous recent profiles in various media, including this article in the NY Times and this documentary), will conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, one of Britain's most respected regional orchestras, with soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, at age 23, one of the most acclaimed cellists of his generation who has already achieved superstar status in Britain, been named an MBE, and whose albums have broken records for classical music sales. 

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

The program will open with the Elgar Cello Concerto, a piece that has come to be regarded as the pinnacle of British classical music (and which figures prominently in the motion picture Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, which is garnering ecstatic reviews and will doubtless make this concerto even more popular.)

In early 2020 I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheku about his recording of the Elgar which had just been released (and in anticipation of a planned appearance at the Kennedy Center that Spring, which had to be canceled due to the pandemic, which makes his Strathmore concert this week that much more eagerly anticipated.)

The significance of Sheku's recording of the Elgar cannot be overemphasized. This piece was written in the wake of WWI and is considered by many to be a memorial to the horrifyingly large number of casualties Britain suffered in that war - a lost generation. When Jacqueline du Pré  played and recorded the work in her early twenties back in the 1960s, it felt to many Britons that this essential part of their culture was now in the hands of a young generation that would hopefully be free of the world wars to which the previous two generations succumbed (which made du Pré's MS and untimely demise seem especially tragic.) 

So when Sheku recorded this work in Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra three years ago, there was the definite sense that a torch was being passed, and Sheku has in many ways had a hopeful vision for the future of Britain projected onto him at a time when that future seems very uncertain and he's one of the only well-known British figures about whom no one has anything unpleasant to say. 

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Sheku Kanneh-Mason

In these clips we discuss the concerto movement by movement, and we also hear his thoughts on his forays into non-classical music (terrain to which he returns on his new album Song) and his role as a public figure.

In anticipation of his upcoming local appearances and his new album, I asked Sheku a few new questions in writing, and to my delight he responded.

JJ: Your new album is called Song, which contains almost as many genres as it does tracks, from folk tunes, pop hits and jazz standards to Bach, Massenet and Messiaen. Which raises the question: how do you define Song?

SKM: Song is certainly an album that touches so many genres, and so having this theme and title allowed me to be very free in my choices, resulting in quite an eclectic mix of styles, instrumentations, creative approaches and roles of the cello in song and song-like material. I’ve always thought the cello has a very vocal sound, and therefore lends itself to music that can be sung.

JJ: Can a concerto be a song? Can industrial sounds be a song? Animal mating calls? A sermon?

SKM: Concertos can contain many song like music, and definitely animals can make some incredible songs, I don’t think industrial sounds are particularly musical no, but there could be a song like approach to a sermon.

JJ: To what extent do your explorations feed one another? Can you think of a time when playing a folk or pop tune that you discovered something that you then applied to classical music? 

SKM: Sometimes. Not always of course, but definitely some of the creative approaches to make sounds and colours on the instrument is something in common in everything so the imagination for that I think is strengthened by exploring a wide range of music.

JJ: You famously come from a musical family in which everyone plays an instrument. Was singing also part of your family life? If so, what kinds of songs did you sing? 

SKM: Not so much. I can sing in tune but my voice isn’t worth listening to!

JJ: Who's a non-classical musician of the last hundred years that you would have loved to have met or played with or learned from?

SKM: Bob Marley, definitely. 

JJ: Did the pandemic change your perspective on the best ways to connect with an audience?

SKM: I still think a live, in person performance is the most direct and all-consuming way to experience music. But there has been a highlight on other ways to experience music which is good.

While Sheku may be the star attraction this Friday, the excitement won't end at intermission. Maestro Gražinytė-Tyla will lead the orchestra in the local premiere of The Exterminating Angel Symphony by Thomas Adès, containing music from his opera of the same name, an adaptation of the classic 1962 surrealist film by Luis Buñuel, which Britain's Guardian newspaper described as “a turning point for Adès and, it felt, for opera itself.” The program concludes with Claude Debussy's colorful and powerful symphonic evocation of the ocean, La Mer

Enjoy Sheku Kanneh-Mason's album "Elgar"

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