United States Various: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Cleveland Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor). The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, Ohio, 4.11.2021. (MSJ)
Coleridge-Taylor – Ballade in A minor, Op.33
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Dvořák – Symphony No.6 in D major, Op.60
Why do we do it? The whole classical music concert thing, I mean.
It is one of humanity’s more peculiar rituals. A group of people have studied and re-studied a concentrated corps of music for literally tens of thousands of hours each. They gather to attempt to play pieces as good as or better than they have ever been played before, even though thousands of other people worldwide attempt the same thing. They gather in an ornate building to present their efforts to a crowd of people ranging from other musicians to intellectual experts to casual fans to newcomers wondering what the whole thing is about.
Bad nights happen occasionally, but not all that often. More frequent are nights where the greatness of the music is evident even if the particular performance in front of us doesn’t necessarily unlock all of its secrets. In a place where you listen to one of the world’s finest orchestras, it is not uncommon to hear performances that actually do unlock the jaw-dropping potential of great music, at least momentarily. But still, it seems an outsized effort for that moment of insight.
Once in a while you encounter something in a concert that touches a nerve in you and makes you realize this ritual is one that on rare occasions can make you glad you are alive and breathing to witness it. On those nights, you feel like the very fabric of the universe peels back to let you see the shining energy under the surface.
The Cleveland Orchestra just had a night like that. It wasn’t because of one artist, though a major world phenomenon was making his debut. It wasn’t because of two artists, the soloist being joined by an engaging young lion of the baton staking out his claim to mastery. It wasn’t even because of one hundred-plus artists, dropping into the moment and unleashing the potential energy of music as only the Cleveland Orchestra can. It was because all of those artists were in the same room with over a thousand souls tuning in to what they were doing, which gave their effort an adrenaline rush that broke through to an elevated level, one where it felt like every person listening was also part of the performances.
Each part of that equation is essential. The headlining part was the stellar debut of Sheku Kanneh-Mason with the Cleveland Orchestra in Elgar’s brooding but glorious Cello Concerto. I am not fond of the convention of referring to great musicians by their first names, but there is a reason for it in Sheku’s case, as he comes from a family of talented siblings who are also beginning to make their mark in music. He won the BBC Young Musician competition at the age of seventeen, played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle in 2018, and was beginning to extensively concertize – while still a student – until the pandemic forced a hiatus. Sheku is now resuming his concert calendar.
Having a reputation as a wunderkind often brings with it a backlash. As the prodigy ages and, in some cases, has difficulty making the transition from the ease of youthful brilliance into the effort of adulthood’s painful growth, the excellence can suddenly seem exaggerated, overexposed and underdeveloped. I couldn’t help but wonder if the highly promoted Sheku would prove to be a bubble about to burst. Judging by his performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the answer is a resounding ‘No’.
Any cellist who wants to be measured against the greats has three peaks to climb: Bach’s solo suites, Dvořák’s concerto and Elgar’s. In terms of sheer mass of notes, Elgar’s is the smallest mountain. Yet, in many ways, it is the most treacherous climb of them all. Unlike the clear human dramas of the Dvořák or the intellectual blooming of the Bach, the Elgar is a study in shaded grays, half-light phantoms and stoic despair.
It starts with a stunningly dark opening statement where the soloist draws up his or her battle line. The recording which made the piece a mainstream necessity was the passionate attack of Jacqueline du Pré with Sir John Barbirolli in 1965. Du Pré tears into the opening, guns a-blazing. When the gesture returns near the end of the concerto, it brings the work full circle, returning to where it started.
But others, such as Julian Lloyd-Webber and, more recently, Alisa Weilerstein, have demonstrated the value of understating the opening, saving the wild edge for the devastating return. Sheku clearly showed his aim with the opening paragraph, making it highly expressive in the tradition of du Pré, yet holding enough in reserve to justify the journey to come. The cellist made the broad first movement open-hearted yet very alive to the shift of Elgar’s subdued colors, especially at transition points. Conductor Jakub Hrůša was with Sheku every step of the way, projecting, shaping and sorting, without ever attempting to overdo the orchestral part. It became evident quickly that Sheku was completely taken over by the music. Even one moment when a wide swing of his right arm caused his bow to clip one of the stage microphones, the young musician was able to quickly get past the distraction and again drop deep into the music.
The mischievous, anxious scherzo was exuberant and athletic, the orchestra keeping up nimbly. The simple yet profound slow movement took the music further inward, Sheku daring to drop down to almost breathless whispers of sound without ever making it seem like an affectation. Instead, it was personal and real. The stiff-upper-lip striving of the finale fought the good fight, but turned with inexorable gravity toward the stern return of the concerto’s opening paragraph. This time, it was more desperate, more intense, casting a tragic shadow in its wake. The cellist was utterly inside this music, playing it like his very life depended on it. And for a true artist, it does. Sheku Kanneh-Mason is not just a startlingly talented young man. He is that rarer phenomenon, an old soul in touch with timeless depths before his skin has shown the slightest wrinkle.
It was an astonishingly powerful debut, and one could sense the audience’s awareness of the occasion, bringing the cellist back for repeated curtain calls until he played an encore. Playing anything at all after the Elgar is a tricky proposition, as so many works could come across as trivial or irritating in the wake of such catharsis. But Sheku had the perfect choice: it was the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble’s ‘Mazltov Far Di Mekhutonim’, arranged by Sheku himself. He started with the catchy yet restlessly melancholy tune bowed on the cello, but then he switched to strumming the instrument before launching into the melody by whistling it as he kept strumming, the whistling just as polished and poised as his playing. It was a magical and enchanting way to end a performance that will be remembered here for years to come.
Such a debut would have been enough to make it an outstanding concert. But a double delight was delivered by guest conductor Jakub Hrůša, who has been making a strong impression in his visits to Cleveland, more often than not combining living-in-the-moment inspiration with echoes of the grand old rhetorical manner not much heard these days. I was prepared to be a grumpy critic about the third appearance of the Dvořák Sixth in a Cleveland Orchestra program of the last ten years (Franz Welser-Möst in 2013 and Jahja Ling at Blossom in 2014). While the work has rightly been rising in profile in recent years and holding its own against the omnipresent trio of Dvořák’s final three symphonies, I would argue that it is still not quite in the same league. After Hrůša’s unapologetic performance, I am not so sure anymore that it is any less of a work than the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth.
Conducting without a score, Hrůša demonstrated that he knew the work intimately, sculpting details that brought the work into crisp focus and, in particular, showing off the orchestra’s woodwinds. The slow movement, for instance, was restrained in Welser-Möst’s hands. Ling let the loud passages speak for themselves (or fend for themselves, as it were). Hrůša dared to make them the focal point of the whole movement, and even the symphony itself. The utter confidence of Hrůša’s movement through transitions, finding the gravity of the music, brought it to life quite unlike any other performance I have heard, live or recorded. To earn a standing ovation from an audience that had already stood twice for the soloist was no mean feat, but it happened, the house fairly buzzing with excitement at the sheer vitality blended with old-school mastery of this performance.
Hrůša also threw himself into the evening opener, a rare performance of the Ballade in A minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the British composer of the late 1800s/early 1900s who overcame racism to become one of the most promising youths in music; he even became known as ‘the black Mahler’ at the height of his early fame. Alas, poor health took its toll, and he died at age 37, his potential never to be fully tapped.
The Ballade was a commission that was given to Coleridge-Taylor on the recommendation of Sir Edward Elgar (a nifty bit of programming, that). In its ten minutes, a twice-repeated lyrical theme group is surrounded by stormy, windswept music. Rather than Mahler, the impression that the music gives is more suggestive of the influence of Tchaikovsky, tempered with a taste for more folksy, pentatonic melody in the lyrical parts. While the work was too conservative to break any new ground, it demonstrated Coleridge-Taylor’s sure grasp, and Hrůša’s direction steered the orchestra confidently through the delightful score.
In sum, it was a remarkable concert that gave the answer to why we do this: live music connects us with the energy from which the entire universe is built. When that energy is flowing potently from inspired soloist to confident conductor to brilliant musicians to receptive audience, it is a gift to witness it.
Mark Sebastian Jordan