Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Carlos Kalmar. (photo: Jeff Roffman)

Review: Sheku Kanneh-Mason gets lyrical in Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Mark Gresham | 26 APR 2019

On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a program of music by Sullivan, Elgar and Schumann, led by guest conductor Carlos Kalmar and featuring cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason as guest soloist. The concert was long sold out, as are the subsequent performance tonight and Saturday night at Atlanta Symphony Hall. That’s a good thing not only for the advance ticket sales themselves, but also because the orchestra’s computer systems are down – including website, e-mail, telephones and even the ticket scanning system – as is the case for the entire Woodruff Arts Center as of this writing, and have been down for about a week.

In a statement posted on a temporary home page at www.woodruffcenter.org, as viewed on Friday, April 26, the Woodruff Arts Center has written the following about the incident:

The Woodruff Arts Center, including the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art, recently experienced a network security incident from an unauthorized third-party that resulted in a significant IT outage and is affecting many operations and systems. Upon learning of the incident, we immediately took steps to secure our systems and began working to implement enhanced security measures. Our team also began an investigation and an outside forensics firm was engaged to assist us. We have notified law enforcement. Please note that we have no evidence that any personal or financial information has been accessed, and our review of this matter remains ongoing.

The Alliance Theatre, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art all continue to remain open for performances and visits as usual.

Tickets for select performances are available for purchase at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office and High Museum of Art at 1280 Peachtree Street and through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com).

EarRelevant will update the story for readers here as new information becomes available.

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Nevertheless, the computer system shutdown failed to stop Thursday’s show, which went on undaunted as it would have in the pre-digital age.

The program opened with Overture di ballo by English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Though most famous for of his panoply of light operettas with librettist W.S. Gilbert, Sullivan longed to be better recognized for his music outside of that partnership. The Overture di ballo (Dance Overture) is one of the best known of his non-G&S orchestral works, exhibiting its close kinship via similarly sparkling orchestration and style.

l-r: cellist Sheku Kenneh-Mason and conductor Carlos Kalmar. (photo: Jeff Roffman)

l-r: cellist Sheku Kenneh-Mason and conductor Carlos Kalmar. (photo: Jeff Roffman)

The big audience draw, which prompted the sell-outs of the week’s concerts, came next: cellist Sheku Kenneh-Mason, who became an overnight sensation when he performed for the wedding of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle at St. George’s Chapel last May. The 20-year-old cellist had already amassed a good handful of music awards and credentials before that, but it was the royal wedding that sent him headlong into the spotlight of popular culture.

Thus the task falls to reviewing journalist to weigh the merits of Kenneh-Mason’s performance musical results, as if he were an anonymous entity, rather than a personality amplified by intensive media attention.

The simple fact is, Kenneh-Mason did not disappoint though his approach may have been unexpected by those who are accustomed to the bold, aggressive rendering by the late, eminent cellist Jacqueline du Pré. When du Pré was herself 20 years old, over 50 years ago, not only did she put Elgar’s concerto solidly into the public consciousness but established the modern bellwether for its performance.

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In contrast, Kenneh-Mason brought to the work an astonishingly refreshing lyricism and transparency, complemented well by Kalmer and the ASO. Where du Pré dug into the multi-stops in the opening bars of the cello part and sharplys plucked cascades of pizzicati later, Kenneh-Mason gave such passages an unassuming grace that was neither timid nor tepid. His vocal tone, from the depths of the instrument lowest registers to the heights of its upper end, there was a singing quality underlying the entire, coupled with sensitive attention to phrasing, shaping line – quite a different approach from du Pré’s sinewy assertiveness.

Kenneh-Mason further demonstrated his lyricism and careful attention to phrase-shaping in his encore, Erev Shel Shoshanim (“Evening of Roses”), a beautiful Hebrew love song whose melody is often used as wedding music, by Israeli composer and songwriter Yosef Hadar.

For the conspicuous number of the audience who left after intermission – having seen what they’d come to see – they missed out on an excellent performance of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, which was the meatier part of the program. Kalmar, who has been music director of the Oregon Symphony for 16 years, led the ASO in a performance that brought both profundity and optimism to bear on Schumann’s music, which made for a truly satisfying conclusion to the concert. ■

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