The Kanneh-Mason Family – Classic Melbourne

Sheku Kanneh-Mason might have become an international household name after playing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but his siblings are also earning reputations as gifted musicians in their own right. Their performance at the final concert of their first Australian tour – in fact, their first international tour as a family – further enhanced this reputation.

Looking at their choice of program, it is clear that the Kanneh-Masons are serious musicians, passionate about classical music. The first half of the program was performed by the stars of the family: Sheku and his brilliant pianist sister, Isata. The second half was much more a whole family affair and included popular repertoire.

One of the refreshing features of this afternoon concert was the diversity of audience members. Attracting new audiences is vital to the future of classical music, and the Kanneh-Masons are doing just that. It might have been difficult for some of the very young members of the audience to sit through the opening item on the program: Frank Bridge’s Sonata for Cello and Piano – an unfamiliar two-movement work of more than twenty minutes duration, but most listeners would have been captivated by the work’s emotional intensity, so skilfully conveyed by Sheku and Isata. Even without program notes to guide the way, Bridge’s despair over the futility of war (the work was composed between 1913 and 1917) was clearly reflected in the playing. The surging lyricism too, so persuasively established by the cello from the outset, was part of a roller-coaster ride as tension ebbed and flowed. An equal conversational partner in this musical richness, Isata’s playing ranged from robust fullness to crystalline delicacy, and was exceptionally fluid.

Following a short and perky Prelude for solo piano by George Gershwin, which acted as a change of mood and an opportunity for Isata to display her command of a quite different style of music, she was joined by her brother for Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words for cello and piano. Another appealingly melodious work, the gently rocking Sicilienne, by Maria Theresia von Paradis, preceded the final item before interval, Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano.

In his short chat before the Mendelssohn, Sheku explained that this sonata is in four movements and asked for applause to be withheld until the end of the work. Given the high quality of the performance and the enthusiasm of the audience, it was a request many were unable to comply with, and one that remains a moot point for today’s concert going audiences anyway – unfortunately. Composed in 1934, before Soviet authorities began their crackdown on his purportedly “decadent” music, this sonata is another 20-minute-plus substantial work. Incorporating contrasting emotions and colours, it is an ideal showcase for the technical skill and musicality of both cellist and pianist. Sheku’s mellow, velvety tone and capacity for emotional intensity was evident in the broad theme of the opening Allegro non troppo accompanied by Isata’s flowing piano arpeggios. The second movement Allegro, with its dancing brightness featured some sparkling pianism with driving forward momentum from giddy ostinato passages. The melancholy, elegiac Largo began quietly with a most beautiful solo cello line, soon joined by a low piano pulse, with passages of urgency leading to an aura of despair. The final Allegro brimmed with virtuosic energy.

Led by Braimah, the second half of the concert began with the full complement of the Kanneh-Mason family playing an arrangement of Eric Whitacre’s Seal Lullaby. We now had two pianos onstage, to underpin the warm, soothing voices of Braimah’s violin and Sheku’s cello. As the family left the stage Sheku casually took Konya’s violin as he passed, before she composed herself to play the popular Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90, No. 2. It was Jeneba who featured as pianist in the following Violin Sonata by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor alongside a sweet-toned Braimah, and in the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 with Aminata on violin and Mariatu on cello. Jeneba’s expressive playing in the latter was only surpassed by the response to her stylish playing of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which was a huge hit with the audience. It seemed only appropriate that this acclaim be followed by Braimah entering with her cello, announcing that today was her 20th birthday and inviting us sing the traditional birthday song. Pitched low enough to accommodate the treacherous high note, the audience was happy to join in, and was rewarded with the most gorgeous big smile from Jeneba.

Braimah continued to impress with his virtuosic skills in the Kanneh-Mason arrangement of Fiddler on the Roof. Isata too was notable for the clarity and dynamism of her playing and for her alert attention to the cohesion of the ensemble. After some final words of appreciation from Sheku, another Kanneh-Mason arrangement – of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song – brought the concert to an uplifting close.

This was no over-hyped gimmicky event, reliant on the prestige generated by royal patronage, but rather a concert featuring exceptional musical performance, one that warranted the standing ovation it received. It was also a rare and inspiring example of a family’s harmonious achievement.

Photo supplied.

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Heather Leviston reviewed “The Kanneh-Mason Family” concert, given at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on August 20, 2022.




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