REVIEW: Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s debut concert with Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Sheku Kanneh-Mason - credit Lars Borges
Sheku Kanneh-Mason - credit Lars Borges

Assembly Hall, Worthing

Conductor John Gibbons, cello soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016. Smetana, Overture to ‘The Bartered Bride’; Elgar, Cello Concerto; Brahms, Symphony No 2.

A black boy, scarcely into his teens, edged over to the Worthing Symphony Society’s display table to look and discover the concert brochures, CDs and other items about WSO. He was there on his £1 ticket for Under-19s, brought to the concert by his cello teacher, he told me, among a group of her pupils. And, among several other black and minority ethic adults, he was weaving unobtrusively through the massing throng of a sell-out audience gathering in the foyer.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s own teacher at the Junior Royal Academy, Londoner Ben Davis, was also at the concert. He was guesting on the first desk of the WSO cello section alongside acting leader Miriam Lowbury and eager to watch at first hand his now 18-year-old protégé handling one of the repertoire’s great concertos.

In turn, after the interval, Sheku watched the WSO and Davis from the stalls in the Brahms Symphony and experienced the pre-music explanation and listening tips conductor Gibbons gives the audience. Some present were sampling their first WSO concert, impelled there by Sheku’s debut appearance.

At the concert, too, was Elizabeth Newington. A Worthing cello teacher, a player with Worthing Philharmonic and like Sheku hailing from Nottingham, she was taught by Davis at Royal Holloway University London. She went to school in Southwell with Sheku’s first teacher. So Sheku, Davis and Newington, amazed at their ‘small world’, met up after the concert, to be photographed by John Gibbons.

At morning rehearsal, as part of the new WSO scheme for young people to hear, watch and meet inspirational guest soloists and orchestra members in action, were three girls learning the cello. The youngest, eight, from Thomas a Becket Primary School, is a pupil of Newington, the other two are from Davison High School. Sheku met and talked with them all after rehearsing (he said) his favourite concerto, with them all sitting, listening.

A party of 32 girls and accompanying teachers from Davision High were at the afternoon concert and each received concert programme brochures autographed by Sheku and Gibbons.

What with cello making its maiden appearance in November at the Interview Concerts, it’s been a star period for the instrument in Worthing. And from this background information, I hope you are getting the sense of another special Worthing classical musical occasion occupying seven hours in the Assembly Hall.

Come concert time, it got even better than just special. If the youngsters were eager to witness Sheku’s Worthing debut, many adults were fervent in that wish. Violinist Nicola Benedetti is cheered onto stage by Worthing before she even plays a note in her annual appearances here. But Sheku, as the WSOs first black soloist and already a celebrity thanks to TV coverage of his BBC Young Musician victory and of his phenomenal yet ordinary family including seven siblings – was greeted almost like a long-lost son in a prolonged reception of shouts and applause.

The 900-plus audience, enthralled and magnetised by the fire, immediacy, consideration and tenderness in his playing, reacted uninhibitedly at its finish with such a vocal reciprocal, collective giving-back to the soloist that he gave them a WSO rarity – an encore.

Not Hallelujia, not No Woman No Cry. Instead, introduced with only his wide, charming smile, he played unannounced, unidentified, something of his own secret creation no one had heard before. That’s not being Decca’s new classical superstar. That’s being a genuine, giving young musician of his new generation – versatile, eclectic, open-minded, multi-cultured, un-straitjacketed by convention, creating a new excitement and, moreover and more precious, a sense of suspense, mystery and wonder.

He met his audience in person at the interval. He chatted, signed and sold copies of his first CD. He writes left-handed – like Benedetti. The queue stretched the length of the bar. And the interval wasn’t long enough. He had to finish the job after the concert ended.

He sold 135 CD copies. It’s called ‘Inspiration’. And we saw that is what he is already being.

He’s actually a quarter Welsh. I asked him what his name Sheku means. “It’s like sheik . . . or prince,” he replied. Classical music’s most ominous new young starlet has begun to sprinkle into the world his own magic purple rain.

Richard Amey

Next concerts (Under-19 tickets, £1)–

International Interview Concert (St Paul’s Worthing, Easter Sunday, April 1, 4pm): Kamila Bydlowska (violin) and Varvara Tarasova (piano) interviewed between playing a worldwide programme of exotic surprises including de Falla’s Andalucian Serenade (Spain), Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes (Argentina), Robert Schumann’s Sonata No 1 (Germany), Szymanovsky’s Nocturne & Tarantella (Poland) and Frolov’s Fantasy on Themes from Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess (Russia/USA). Tickets from St Paul’s cafe or seetickets.com

WSO RAF Centenary Concert (Assembly Hall, Sunday April 8, 2.45pm) with BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016 finalist Jess Gillam returning to play saxophonist Barbara Thompson’s Concerto. From the films: Themes from ‘Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines’ and ‘633 Squadron’ (both Ron Goodwin), the air battle sequence from ‘The Battle of Britain’ (William Walton), music from ‘They Flew Alone’ (William Alwyn), Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and The Dambusters March (Eric Coates). Box office: 01903 206206.