Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto has been enjoying a resurgence this year since the release of the Cate Blanchett film Tàr, wherein the 1919 work makes a protracted appearance. Another reason for its renewed popularity: British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The concerto is the centrepiece of his 2020 release Elgar, which was such a hit he became the only cellist to land a spot in the top 10 of the U.K. Albums Chart. On the album, he places the work among quaint excerpts and cello arrangements of traditional folk songs, including Scarborough Fair (20 million Spotify streams and counting).
Kanneh-Mason’s own celebrity has evolved rapidly since the release of his debut, Inspiration, in 2018 – the same year he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. His talent for curating a comprehensive listening experience has been widely effective in lassoing the interest of the general public, and spotlighting the mainstays of the classical canon.
When Kanneh-Mason takes the stage with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 20, he will be returning to a vision of the Elgar concerto that was inspired initially by the famous Jacqueline du Pré 1967 recording and passed through the prism of his own musical sensibilities.
Ahead of his global tour, which stretches well into June, he talks about his much-anticipated return to Toronto.
You’re slated for almost 40 concerts in the next six months, how do you prepare mentally and physically for that?
I usually look quite far ahead and start working on the pieces of a program at least six months to a year in advance. So that when it comes around, I’m comfortable with the repertoire and I can practice for the next thing, instead of practising solely for what’s happening now. I find that pattern of preparing early makes a massive difference. I can learn things quickly to a high level, but I prefer not to.
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Since the release of Elgar, you’ve recorded another album, Song. Now that your palate’s been cleansed from the initial recording, what are you learning about the Elgar Concerto as you return to it again?
A lot of the new discoveries I find in music are expressions of something very intimate and very inward. Elgar has a lot of outward expression and is quite dramatic and powerful in that way. But the real part of the piece, I think, is something that happens quite intimately, in very close conversation with the audience, with the other instruments, and with the cello. I find that subtlety is something that takes time to discover and putting it away and coming back to it is a nice way of doing that.
Though the Jacqueline du Pré recording of this concerto was your first exposure to it, what recording has trained your ear the most?
For me, one of the most fascinating recordings, one that I really love is the recording of Beatrice Harrison in 1920, that Elgar himself conducted. Actually, I have a copy of Elgar’s manuscript – of course, not the original – but a copy. You can see his original markings and I find that a really fascinating source in combination with his recording. I think going back to original sources will hopefully create a more genuine interpretation when I come to play it.
With six other siblings that all play an instrument, yours is quickly becoming one of the pre-eminent musical families in classical music. Your parents are themselves not musicians. Where did this familial appreciation for music come from?
My parents were always very encouraging of us as children to do lots of different things. We did a lot of art, a lot of sports. Music and cello was another one of those things. It so happened that that was the thing that all of us took to the most. Once my parents could see that we clearly loved music and loved playing, they were then very supportive in, firstly, making sure that we had good opportunities to have good lessons from a young age.
Also, we’re very keen on the discipline of practice. As a child, you can be motivated a lot of the time, but there are also lots of times where you are a little bit more lazy or not feeling like it. That’s where the encouragement from the parents comes in. Of course, it came because they could see that we loved music, so it didn’t feel forced. They knew what it takes to succeed in anything – it takes a lot of time and dedication. They know that music is also gonna take that time, so they were very encouraging and supportive.