Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Katharina Wincor: Young Blazing Careers

by Hannah Edgar

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut this month (Apr. 26 & 27) celebrates a major milestone for both the esteemed British cellist and the Orchestra: Kanneh-Mason’s appointment as the 2024 MAC Music Innovator, an outreach initiative of the CSO’s Multicultural Awareness Council (MAC).

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Sheku Kanneh-Mason Credit: Ollie Ali

The year-long appointment is granted to Black leaders in classical music and encompasses not just public performances but educational projects. Kanneh-Mason will give local masterclasses in conjunction with his April CSO concerts, as well as a short solo performance and Q&A on Thursday, April 25.

For his spring CSO concerts, led by the Austrian conductor Katharina Wincor, Kanneh-Mason plays the concerto that won him the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition at age 17: Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Lately, Kanneh-Mason has been concertizing on Shostakovich’s second concerto for the instrument; with that new perspective guiding his performances in Cincinnati, he says “it’s nice to come back” to the First after all that time away. He still keeps the first two pages of the concerto, bearing his markings, framed on the wall of his London flat .

“Things have changed so much over the years. My hand has changed, so now if I have old fingerings [written in my part], I find them distracting. With bowing, too: maybe I took a few extra slurs back then, as I wasn’t able to sustain them in the way I can now,” Kanneh-Mason says. “It’s easier to work things out from scratch.”

For Kanneh-Mason, “over the years” means something far different than it does for his peers on the international stage. The cellist turns 25 in April—a veritable youngster in the more-salt-than-pepper classical
music biz.

Having already been in the solo spotlight for nearly a decade, Kanneh-Mason is wise beyond his years and ready to mentor still-younger musicians. Kanneh-Mason recently became a visiting professor at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music, and has increasingly tied other touring opportunities to educational activities.

“I love to teach. I suppose, even when I was younger, I would give lessons to my younger sisters, much more informally,” Kanneh-Mason says. (Kanneh-Mason is one of seven children, all of whom are pianists or string players who have passed through the prestigious Royal Academy of Music.) “I find I learn a lot from those experiences. You have to think not only about the repertoire that the student is playing, but how to explain aspects of their technique in the most helpful, supportive way.”

Cincinnati area students will certainly find a supportive teacher in Kanneh-Mason. Fiery onstage, in person he’s incredibly soft-spoken; in conversation, one instinctively leans in to better hear him. He tends to curl his head toward his shoulder when he’s deep in thought—like when he plays cello. Last fall, Kanneh-Mason visited Philadelphia public schools as part of an engagement with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society; after smilingly harmonizing their scales, he relayed feedback to students, always in his gossamer-gentle voice.

Although there might seem to be a gulf separating Kanneh-Mason from the rookie string players he tutored in Philadelphia, he’s quick to point out that he’s still a student himself. Even as a globetrotting soloist, he carves out time for lessons with Hannah Roberts, his “wonderfully inspiring” teacher from his Royal Academy days, whenever he’s home in London. 

“I come out of the lessons with lots of things to think about. She pushes me a lot in every aspect of playing,” Kanneh-Mason says.

He also constantly absorbs knowledge from other musicians while on the road. It’s not unusual for Kanneh-Mason to be the youngest person onstage when playing with major orchestras. These concerts in Cincinnati, in fact, are striking in that both soloist and conductor are under 30. (Wincor just turned 29.)

“When I’ve been performing in the profession, it’s usually with older musicians, because my career started relatively early. I’ve always loved trying to learn from people onstage and in rehearsal,” Kanneh-Mason says.

Wincor agrees with that sentiment. The conductor last worked with the CSO for the 2022 May Festival; since then, her career has continued to ascend. When she connected with Fanfare Magazine, she was preparing to conduct the BBC Symphony for the first time—the same orchestra Kanneh-Mason played alongside for the BBC Young Musician competition. Wincor’s CSO concerts mark her professional debuts on all the program’s repertoire, too—more significant firsts for a blazing career on the rise.

Katharina Wincor
Katharina Wincor

“Whenever I perform with an older soloist, I feel like I can learn something about tradition from them that I cannot get somewhere else. On the other hand, when [I work with] someone young, or someone who maybe hasn’t played a particular piece very often, we can try out this or that,” Wincor says.

“We’re both still searching for answers, and it’s fun to do that together.” 

Save the Date: Sheku Kanneh-Mason and sister/pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason with give a recital on Tuesday, December 10, 2024 at Memorial Hall as part of Chamber Music Cincinnati.