European Chamber Orchestra

European Chamber Orchestra

European Chamber Orchestra with its young star

Delight and amazement follow cello performance

When the Cambridge Corn Exchange is packed to its creaky rafters for a mid-week classical concert, there has to a solid reason behind it. Was it the classy note-perfect orchestra? Or was it a chance for Remain-minded Cambridge to show support for the European Union by attending a concert of its Chamber Orchestra? Or did this young ensemble -- one of the glitziest touring Britain -- have something special on offer? Or someone? The latter in fact: a large TV audience has fallen collectively in love with the orchestra’s principal guest performer, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a Nottingham-born 18 year old with star quality. 

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ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent voted him -- and his seven-strong family band -- into the semi-finals of a competition watched by millions. Simon Cowell no less, called them ‘Britain’s most talented family; a title hard to beat when each one of them excels at a classical instrument. 

At only16, Sheku won the BBC Young Musician of the year two years ago with his performance of Shostakovitch’s demanding cello concerto and last night he captivated the audience with Haydn’s Cello Concerto no.1. The tone of his priceless 1610 cello (on loan) came expressively alive; he combined a youthful openness with an authoritative skill.  A hushed audience fell quite silent as he played Haydn’s once-lost masterpiece. 

With a strangely unearthly feel, this moving concerto is technically demanding. There are lovely melodic passages but towards the end the notes appear to crowd to together with growing energy. Musicality is all there in abundance for a performer with the stamina and skill of Sheku Kanneh Mason. Since he first played it, Haydn’s piece has become a showcase for his eloquent interpretative style. It went down a storm in London’s Barbican last year. 

Now the classical world is at his feet with performances booked across Europe and America. His success is phenomenal and well-merited. He combines skill with feeling to brilliant effect. It seems almost other-worldly; a musician so young  plays a piece three hundred years old with such moving impact.

And the Cello Concerto itself has a strange almost haunted history. It was only found by serendipity. An archivist at the Prague Museum, Oldfich Pulkert by name found a set of orchestral parts from the court of the famous Prince Esterharzy in Eisenstadt. Signed by his principal cellist, Pulkert twigged straightaway that this was Haydn's long lost concerto, lain for centuries undiscovered under piles of papers. Its premier in May 1962. Sheku Kanneh-Mason has taken this miraculously resurrected piece as a token of his virtuosity. He has played it several times to rapturous audiences and music critics alike. 'You aren’t ever going to hear this Haydn Conerto more engagingly performed,' announced The Arts Desk. 

It is so rare to find a popular performer acclaimed as an impressively serious artist especially one so young.  And Sheko Kanneh-Mason was a child prodigy, as are all his sisters and brothers. At six years old he attracted attention in the musical world in his home-town of Nottingham and began to perform and play there. There are dangers in such an early start.

David Waterman founder and cellist of the famous Endellion String Quartet is nervous of prodigies. His own aunt initiated the now world-renowned Leeds Piano Competition, so the family have seen some musical fireworks over the years. David feels that to be recognized as exceptional at an early age has its problems. He saw at first hand that it can lead to disappointment in later life, if the early promise of fame only leads to an average talent in mature life.

'I am wary of the phenomenon  having seen this happen, it often means a life of ‘what ifs’ and the young players feel failures, if their early promise doesn't develop. Simply being a member of a good orchestra, something many  artists would consider success, is hard to come to terms with.'

This is not going to happen to Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He already is world-renowned and well-tried on the concert stages of so many glittering music capitals. 

And  he has a mission to bring classical music to a wider audience. That he can balance TV stardom and the admiration of serious older music aficionados is an achievement unmatched in modern times. This young player has plenty of time to revolutionize the world of classical music and open it to everyone.

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