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Sheku Kanneh-Mason Brings His Elgar to the Toronto Symphony

The celebrated cellist delivers some KANNEH-MAGIC


JAN 21, 2023 | COMMUNITY

Danforth Music Hall - Photo by Miles Forrester
Gary Kulesha and the TSO
Sheku Kanneh-Mason by Ollie Ali, Sheku Kanneh-Mason by Ella Mazur | for Issue 11 of smART Magazine

In a 100th anniversary celebration season full of guest stars and eclectic programming,  audiences were treated to an evening in Great Britain (with a splash of Canada) at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) this past weekend in Roy Thomson Hall. The program consisted of Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for String Orchestra, the world premiere of Canadian composer Gary Kulesha’s Symphony No. 4, and Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, performed by string star Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Nearly the entire program was British-centric: a British opener and a British concerto presented by a British conductor  (conductor emeritus Peter Oundjian) and a British soloist. The evening began with Vaughan-Williams’ beautiful Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a tragically underplayed work outside of its native England. The piece got the audience into the British sound world of sweeping melodies, open harmonies, and string writing of the most satisfying kind, and the orchestra delivered on all three.

The audience took a brief sojourn back to Canada with Toronto-based Gary Kulesha’s  Symphony No. 4, which offered an accessible introduction to Canadian contemporary music for those unfamiliar with the genre. There were no wacky chords or strange counterpoint in this symphony, though it did offer little tastes of dissonances between unusual instrument pairings to remind the listener that it is a new work that seeks to explore uncharted territory.

After the intermission, we came to the event everyone had been waiting for: the  performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor by Sheku Kanneh-Mason. You could tell this was the performance everyone in the hall had come to see by both audience attendance that packed the seats and the enthusiastic reception given to Kanneh-Mason before he had even played a note. When he walked onstage, you could feel his warm personality, accompanied by an open smile, that made the audience comfortable and ready to enjoy what he had to offer with this performance. To have a young artist of his notoriety play with the TSO is a feather in the group’s cap. Including him in the season line-up brings concert goers both new and old to their table, and whether those audience members came because of concerto choice, or for his playing, they were not disappointed.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the TSO

As a cellist who has performed this concerto with an orchestra, I welcome the chance to hear another interpretation of a work, especially by someone who is from the country where the piece originates. However, any soloist who chooses to play this piece needs to contend not only with learning the notes and discovering their own feelings towards the music, but also the lore that comes with it. Legendary British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who popularized the piece in the 1960’s and ’70’s, has become so intertwined with this work in so many ways: her dramatic  interpretation of the piece, a British cellist whose performances revived the British concerto enough to put it back into the core cello repertoire, and the tragic theme of the work’s first movement being assigned as a musical illustration of her early death from multiple sclerosis that robbed her of her ability to play at the young age of 28. The concerto is imbued with a certain sense of gravitas because of its association with du Pré, and many cannot help but compare any performance of it to hers. This adds a sense of duty to the work that each cellist who plays it needs to reckon with, and Kanneh-Mason’s performance balanced this responsibility with his own unique interpretation.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the TSO