An anticipated debut from cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Few people had heard of Sheku Kanneh-Mason before 2016, when the teenaged British cellist burst onto the worldwide classical scene. He won the BBC Young Musician Award that year, gained representation by an international artist management firm and signed a recording contract with the top-level Decca Classics label.

“It was a very significant point in my life and the start of my professional life and career,” he said. “I’m glad that happened at that time, and that I was in a position to take advantage of the opportunity.”

The 24-year-old cellist’s life has been a whirlwind in the eight years since, as he has gone on to perform in major venues worldwide. The latest big step in his career will come Feb. 15, 17 and 18, when Kanneh-Mason makes his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut with guest conductor Paavo Järvi.

“That’s very exciting to be with such a well-known and amazing orchestra,” he said. “I’ve heard them a lot on recordings. It’s always exciting going to a place for the first time and playing in a new hall with a new group.”

His choice of repertoire is not surprising — Edward Elgar’s beloved Cello Concerto, a work that he has played more than any other and one closely associated with his native country. “It’s really nice, actually, to come to a debut with something that is familiar and feels like home,” he said. “I think it’s an incredible piece of music, so I’m looking forward to playing this in Chicago.”

Kanneh-Mason was and is a big fan of renowned 20th-century British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who is closely associated with the Elgar concerto, and he recalls watching videos of her performances as a child. “It was very inspiring that way,” he said. “She has a powerful ability to communicate so much in her cello playing.” He paid particular attention to her recording of that cello work. “It was something that immediately gripped me,” he said.

Other musicians who have influenced him include reggae superstar, Bob Marley, a poster of whom hangs in his apartment. He also listens to jazz, hip-hop from the 1990s and early 2000s and Brazilian music. He lives with a Brazilian artist and fell in love with the South American city during his first trip there in April. “There is so much music and you can’t listen to all of it, so I just try to make the most of what I can,” Kanneh-Mason said. “Musicians from another genre can directly influence what you are doing. It’s just inspiring or it expands your imagination.”  

As far back as Johann Christoph and Johann Sebastian Bach and no doubt beyond, classical music has boasted pairs of talented siblings. In our time, examples include Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, Katia and Marielle Labèque, Gil and Orli Shaham and Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff. Now, it’s time to add Kanneh-Mason and his sister, Isata, a pianist, to the list. The two have performed together often since they were children, and they released a Decca album in 2021 titled Song. “It’s really nice to tour with Isata,” he said. “We get on very well.”

While they are the two most prominent members of the Kanneh-Mason family, all six of the cellist’s siblings play violin, piano or cello, and they are featured on an October 2020 album called Carnival. Among the other siblings, Braimah is an up-and-coming violinist who has soloed with the London Philharmonic and Bournemouth Symphony. 

“Both my parents — they are not musicians — but they love music, and they were very keen on us having instrument lessons,” Kanneh-Mason said. “So, I started the cello when I was six years old and really enjoyed it from the start. Music is something you can share with lots of other people, and I loved the performing aspect, playing with other people.”

One of Kanneh-Mason’s early experiences was performing as founding member of the Chineke! Orchestra, which is composed of Black and ethnically diverse musicians. He played in a fundraising chamber music program with Braimah in the lead-up to the group’s founding in 2015 and took part in its first concert. The cellist has since returned as a soloist.

“At that time, I was about 16 years old, so it was my first experience playing in a professional orchestra,” he said, “To be in an orchestra full of Black musicians with stories that I could talk to them about and be inspired was a really good, powerful experience. As a young musician, it was wonderful to have musicians to look up to and play with.” 

As gifted as Kanneh-Mason’s siblings are, no one else in the family has gained the kind of success he has garnered. “It’s definitely been incredibly exciting, and I’ve learned so much from all the experiences I’ve had these past eight years,” he said.

But in the midst of his travels to new orchestras, new halls and new cities, the cellist is grateful that has been able to maintain some islands of stability, including his longtime teacher at the Royal Academy, Hannah Roberts; a tight-knit group of friends, and his continuing residency in London.

Despite the demands of his now high-flying career — about 80 concerts a year — and the speed with which fame has grabbed him, Kanneh-Mason comes across as laid-back and at ease. “I think it’s because I really, really enjoy a lot of the projects I’m able to do,” he said. “I’ve always been quite careful picking projects and opportunities that I feel that I believe in and I think that I’m going to enjoy and learn from. Also, I pick repertoire that I really care about and want to play.”