Review: The Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason Makes an Entrance

A young star made his New York Philharmonic debut in an evening of bold, charismatic musical storytelling.

It takes a long time for the soloist to enter in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto: three and a half minutes of orchestral music with the force and sweep of a symphony. But when that entrance finally comes, it’s marked in the score as “risoluto” — resolute, bold, declarative.

And it could hardly have been more so than it was at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday, when the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. Having sat patiently at his instrument during the introduction, Kanneh-Mason, 22, became suddenly animated, matching the ensemble’s grandeur with his own: fiery vibrato, dramatic phrasing, richly voiced yet crisp forzando chords.

This wasn’t the Kanneh-Mason whom nearly two billion people saw perform at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. Then, he was more restrained — with the occasional expressive, searching look in his eyes, but generally measured as he played three short pieces. One of them, Fauré’s “Après un Rêve,” has racked up millions of streams on Spotify.

The streaming numbers for his latest album — “Muse,” with the excellent pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, his sister — are much smaller so far. But that recording is far more revealing than the wedding performance of his sound and style, proving his gift as a compelling musical storyteller in sonatas by Barber and Rachmaninoff, whether charting thorny passages or soaring to emotional heights.

That was recognizably the musician who played the Dvorak concerto on Thursday: a charismatic protagonist and a generous collaborator in chamber-like passages. But Kanneh-Mason could also be a bit of a ham, his extremities of expression sometimes tipping into an unwieldiness that, as he maintained the overall shape of a phrase, sacrificed intonation along the way. These passing errors, though, were less memorable than the grace of his bow gliding over harmonics, or the control and tension with which he was able to build long crescendos.

After the standing ovation that followed, he announced that his encore would be a premiere: “3-Minute Cello Concerto,” by the 11-year-old Larissa Lakner, part of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program. Delivered with the same sincerity afforded Dvorak, this work was a dialogue between soloist and orchestra, in varied episodes of Mozartean tidiness and melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a “Harry Potter” soundtrack; Kanneh-Mason had his share of pyrotechnics in agile fingering, double stops, octaves and passionate legato. It has been heartening to see ever-greater attention given to the children in this initiative, whose work has been featured in widely attended outdoor concerts, pandemic Bandwagon performances and, here, a high-profile subscription program.

Chris Lee

The conductor was Simone Young, who stepped in two years ago after a long absence to lead the orchestra because its music director, Jaap van Zweden, burned himself with an ice pack, and is thankfully becoming a more regular presence at the podium here. Preceding the Dvorak was a brief opening in the form of the “Fuga (Ricercata)” from Bach’s “Musical Offering,” arranged by Webern in a modernist showcase of 18th-century complexity; after intermission came Brahms’s First Symphony.

With an ear for easily overlooked details and dramatic instincts that gave the whole evening a sense of drive and accumulation, Young subtly threaded elements of the Bach through the pieces that followed. By slightly emphasizing the section cellos in the opening of the Dvorak, she lent their part the brightly articulated counterpoint of individual voices in the “Fuga”; later, in the first movement of the Brahms, Webern’s arrangement was echoed as a leading line was passed from oboe to flute and cello.

Young led the orchestra with decisive urgency and refreshingly little over-the-top physical extroversion. (She had that combination of qualities in common with another star of the evening, Sheryl Staples, the principal associate concertmaster, who was heavily featured as a soloist in the Dvorak and Brahms.) Most impressive was the reserve Young employed in the opening movements of those two works. Substantial, and with spectacular endings, each could almost be a stand-alone piece.

But Young withheld somewhat in both, preferring a slow burn that built toward truly stirring finales — the galloping Brahms blossoming into a radiant chorale and popping chords that sent the audience, once again, standing to greet the music with enthusiastic applause.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats Friday and Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan;

Source: Music -


‘Be Nice to Tourists’: New York’s Arts Scene Needs International Visitors

Inside Joe Swash's life – bankruptcy, split with EastEnders co-star and illness