A Grand Finale: Concerts culminate a joyous 2021 Music Fest season
As Sheku Kanneh-Mason headlines Aspen Music Fest, his mom releases a memoir
The young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason shot to global fame on May 2018 when he performed — for a viewing audience of some 2 billion — at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
A sensation in the music world, the 22-year-old Brit will make his Aspen debut on Friday evening, performing Dvořák’s Celleo Concerto with the Aspen Chamber Symphony in one of the most anticipated classical events of the Aspen Music Festival season.
FRIDAY, AUG. 20
9 a.m.: Aspen Chamber Symphony Dress Rehearsal ($20), Benedict Music Tent
4:30 p.m.: Overtures: Pre-concert talk (Free), Harris Concert Hall
5:30 p.m.: Aspen Chamber Symphony ($82), Benedict
SATURDAY, AUG. 21
10 a.m.: Opera Theater Master Class ($40), Wheeler Opera House
2 p.m.: Chamber Music ($45), Harris
7 p.m.: Handel’s ‘Rodelinda’ ($85), Harris
SUNDAY, AUG. 22
9 a.m.: Aspen Festival Orchestra Press Rehearsal ($20), Benedict
3 p.m.: Prelude: Pre-concert talk (free), Harris
4 p.m.: Aspen Festival Orchestra with Augustin Hadelich ($85), Benedict
As Kanneh-Mason tours the U.S. this summer, his mother — Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason — is publishing a memoir detailing their extraordinary musical family, which has includes Sheku’s six successful musician siblings.
What: Sheku Kanneh-Mason with the Aspen Chamber Symphony
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Friday, Aug. 20, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $82
More info: Kanneh-Mason will perform Dvořák’s Celleo Concerto in B minor with the orchestra
“House of Music: Rasing the Kanneh-Masons” was published last year in Britain and is coming out this month in the United States as Sheku takes high-profile American stages at the Hollywood Bowl and in Aspen.
The book details the formidable task of balancing seven kids’ schedules of lessons and practices along with their broader educations and activities, while also depicting the parental sacrifice Kadiatu — who dropped a university lecturing gig — and husband, Stuart, made for the kids and for music. It doesn’t shy away from the prejudices and biases the Kanneh-Mason kids, who are Black, faced in the classical music and music education in the U.K.
It’s a portrait of determination, of the nerve-rattling experiences of watching kids reach increasingly rarefied air of the elite music world and increasingly larger stages.
“In the early years, the children had to work extra hard in order to prove that they were good enough to be heard,” she writes. “Now they had to work doubly hard to meet both the rising expectation and the consequent skepticism that came from being hailed in this way.”
As for that royal wedding, Kadiatu recounts how it began with a vague e-mail in late 2018 from Kensington Palace about a “confidential engagement.” Sheku had met and performed for Prince Harry previously at a private concert, but didn’t presume he’d be invited to the royal wedding until he received a personal phone call from Meghan Markle.
“Want to play at my wedding?” she asked. “I’ve been a fan of yours for ages and I didn’t know you were British!”
Kadiatu recounts how, after signing non-disclosure agreements, they were not allowed to tell anyone that Sheku would be peforming at the ceremony for several months.
“I walked around with this private knowledge for so long that it seemed as though I occupied a different timeline from the rest of the world,” Kadiatu writes. “We didn’t tell family members or any friends, keeping completely silent until the news was announced less than a month before the wedding.”
The family had already been celebrating the news of Prince Harry’s engagement to an African-American woman and were already fans of Markle.
“This was utterly extraordinary and celebratory news,” Kadiatu writes. “For us, having Black representation right there in the heart of the monarchy was something we had thought impossible gowing up in the U.K.”
‘House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons’
296 pages, paperback; $16.95
Oneworld Publications, August 2021
Sheku also had to cancel his U.S. debut, which had been set for the same day as the wedding, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
As they prepared for the big day, the couple invited Sheku to choose music himself and play it for them privately in St. George’s Chapel. He’d chosen “Sicilienne” by Maria Von Paradis, “Apres un Reve” by Faure and “Ave Maria” by Schubert.
The couple walked around the church and listened as he played.
“When Sheku finished playing there was a hush and the couple walked towards him, taking his hand again,” Kadiatu writes. “’That was beautiful,’ Meghan said, ‘and that’s what we’d love for our wedding.”
Despite the honor and his immense talents, though, he remained a teenager dependent on his mom for some basics. The morning of the wedding, she recounts, he called her to report that he’d overcharged his bank account and was unable to buy breakfast, asking mom to come to the rescue and transfer funds.
Kadiatu and the family watch his moving performance on television from their home in Nottingham. As soon as he’s done, mom has to hustle to and then get Sheku’s sisert, Isata, off to a concerto rehearsal of her own.
After the wedding, Sheku’s 2018 debut album “Inspiration” went to No. 1 on the classical charts and rose as high as no. 11 on Britain’s main charts, minting him as the rare classical performer who crosses over into mainstream popularity.
Sheku is the third oldest of the Kanneh-Mason children and, so far, the most famous among them, having been named a 2016 BBC Young Musician — the first Black musician do to so — and, of course, playing the royal wedding.
All seven of them were featured on the reality show “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2015, which was followed by a 2016 BBC documentary film “Young, Gifted and Classical.” As the stages have gotten bigger and the lights of fame brighter, Kadiatu writes, she still often worries after her children as she might have at their first performances. Of sitting down at a high-profile concert Sheku gave at 17, she writes, “I was exhausted, as though I had trekked through a dense forest in the dark, alert to every threatening sound.”
Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s much-anticipated concert is the first in three big-ticket events for the Aspen Music Festival’s closing weekend running Friday to Sunday. Kaneh-Mason’s Friday evening performance is followed by Saturday night’s production of Handel’s opera “Rodelinda” at Harris Concert Hall and by Sunday’s season-closing Aspen Festival Orchestra concert featuring Augustin Hadelich as soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the symphony performing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony under conductor Robert Spano.
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