Sheku Kanneh-Mason played his way to victory in Sunday’s BBC Young Musician 2016 final with a sublime performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto that chair of the jury Dobrinka Tabakova described as ‘electric’. We caught up with him and talked Shostakovich, performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and what it feels like to win BBC Young Musician.
Your repertoire choice was very bold. You’ve talked a lot about your affinity with Shostakovich, but what it is about him that you love?
He’s my favourite composer because all of his music is very personal and although not many people have experienced the kind of life that he experienced, his music in a way speaks to everyone and shows the whole range of emotions. In part it’s really exciting, for the audience and the player.
What would you say to people who think he’s quite a difficult composer to listen to?
A lot of his music is very dark and that’s because of the life he was living. I think the Cello Concerto, although it is dark in parts, is one of the more accessible pieces of his work.
Conductor Mark Wigglesworth has previously recorded all of Shostakovich’s symphonies. What was it like to work with him on this concerto?
It was really amazing, he told me some really interesting things to think about as I’m playing. He’s a conductor who really listens and he got the orchestra to make some amazing sounds, so it was an amazing experience.
You also worked with previous BBC Young Musicians violinist Nicola Benedetti (2004) and fellow cellist Guy Johnston (2000). What advice did they give you?
Working with Nicola Benedetti was really great because although she’s a violinist, not a cellist, her experience of the composition and of playing in places like the Barbican made her really interesting and a useful person to talk to. Guy Johnston I first met when I was about eight or nine, and he’s been one of my heroes and inspirations ever since because he played the Shostakovich Concerto in the 2000 finals and won with it. It was really great to work with him and hear what he had to say.
What did he say to you about the challenge of performing that concerto?
As well as being mentally draining, it’s physically draining, so having the stamina to keep the intensity throughout the whole piece is really important.
What is special about how Shostakovich writes for the cello?
He was writing this piece for the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who he was close friends with, and obviously Rostropovich was an amazing cellist so a lot of the music is very difficult to play. But I think it’s one of those pieces that as a result of all of the technical difficulties is really fun to play and really exciting to play. The cadenza section, which is completely unaccompanied, stretches the instrument to its limit. There is a lot of double-stopping and because it’s so exposed it’s really difficult to pull off.
The competition has been quite a long process. When was your first audition for it?
The whole process started all the way back in September, when there were two audition rounds before the televised category finals. I think I’ve improved massively throughout the process, particularly from playing in categorised finals.
How did you feel when you were about to go onto the Barbican stage after all that preparation?
I was just really excited. My dress rehearsal had gone really well, so I was feeling confident. And when I came out and saw a lot of my friends in the crowd – people from my school, my teacher, my family – it helped me to relax and give a good performance.
When you sat down, you took quite a long time just gathering yourself before you started. Do you always do that when you’re performing?
Yes. It’s really important to settle yourself before playing, especially playing such a long, intense work. I tend to sit and think over the whole piece and think about what I’m trying to say before I start.
What was it like performing with the symphony orchestra behind you?
It was really good because up until the first rehearsal I’d done a lot of run-throughs with piano, and doing a run-through with an orchestra gave a really different feel, having that whole body of sound behind you. It was really exciting hearing all of the different colours that you can respond to when playing with an orchestra. It’s really important to listen very carefully and communicate with the orchestra through the conductor. The horn, which had a lot of duets with the cello, did an amazing job, I thought. One of the best players I’ve heard.
You snapped a string during your very first performance in the competition (above). How do you deal with that as a performer?
It’s not an uncommon thing – it’s something that can happen and that one has to learn to deal with. You try to stay calm and relax. In the 2000 competition, when Guy Johnston was playing the same concerto in the final he snapped a string, so it’s quite funny in a way that I played the same piece.
Once you had finished playing, you had an instant standing ovation. Were you aware that that was happening?
Yeah, it was a really great feeling and the audience were really warm.
The Kanneh-Mason family competed in Britain’s Got Talent last year.
I know your family is very musical and that your sister has actually competed in the competition before. What did it mean to have their support during the competition?
She was in the piano category of the 2014 competition. It was very important to my experience of the competition because she accompanied me in the strings category semi-final. We don’t have to discuss certain things in a rehearsal, they just seem to happen, and to perform with someone who had previous experience of the competition really gave me confidence.
Will you be encouraging your younger siblings to take part in the competition?
They will definitely take part in the next few competitions- we’ll just have to wait and see how they do!
And what about your fellow finalists, do you have anything you want to say to them?
I watched their performances on iPlayer. They were amazing – they are really great musicians, and what’s really nice about them is that offstage they’re really nice to speak to, so that made the whole competition really friendly and relaxing.