Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (26): ‘Silence is difficult in a family where everyone makes music.’

Like ‘Jackson of Classical Music’, six children from one family – number seven was too young – reached the semi-finals of the popular TV show seven years ago. Britain has talent† So far, two of them also experienced their definitive breakthrough in the classical world in the wake of this. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason became the first black winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award and performed at the wedding ceremony of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

also read this interview with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason

The eldest of the seven children, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (26), followed in his footsteps. Her debut album Romance (2019), with pieces by Clara Schumann, reached number one on the UK classic charts immediately after its release. Last year, she received two major awards. This season, she was chosen by the European Concert Hall Organization (ECHO) – where about twenty large halls work together – as one of their six Rising Stars. In that series, she will make her debut on Wednesday night in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

The program is a good reflection of how Kanneh-Mason presents herself as a pianist: looking from the famous classical (Mozart and Beethoven) and romantic (Chopin and Rachmaninov) repertoire – which she grew up with as a child – to more unknown and new work by often wrongfully neglected female musicians and black composers.


In Kleine Zaal she interprets the intense chaconne by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. In addition, the Jamaican-British Eleanor Alberga wrote the play for her cwicseolforor mercury. “I discovered her music,” says Kanneh-Mason, “via the Internet. Her energetic style draws me along, so when the question came to play a new work, I reached out to her. Our Zoom conversation brought cwicseolfor forward. The source of inspiration was a visit by Alberga to a laboratory, where she saw a drop of mercury in a bowl. She was fascinated by how wonderfully whimsical and beautiful this metal moved and changed shape. The music reflects what this spectacle of emotion evoked in her. ”

Isata Kanneh-Mason, like her two brothers and four sisters, received a solid education at a primary school in Nottingham, where music played an important role in the curriculum, a rarity in the rapidly declining British education system. Her mother Kadiatu Kanneh came to England when she was eight, teaching English at the University of Birmingham. Father Stuart Mason, son of immigrants from Antigua, works in the hotel industry. Both wanted to pass on their musical love to their children.

Kadiatu Kanneh wrote the book on how and why two years ago House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons† It won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Storytelling Award in November when the jury found, “a moving account of educating children and nurturing their creativity. It encompasses what is truly human in the interpretation of classical music.”

The children were all taught piano and were allowed to choose another instrument, usually the violin. With four pianos in the house – two of them in one room – it was rarely quiet. “Silence is complicated in a family where everyone is playing,” she says. “Every day I look for a quiet place to leave the world of sound behind me. I think that is important. Music also contains silences. I want to be able to create that. Because they are as essential as the nuts.”

Around his first public concert at the age of eight, Kanneh-Mason discovered that pianist can also be a profession. After that, she did not look back. “There were a lot of pieces, especially by Rachmaninov and Schubert, that evoked a physical sensation. Something deep that I still can’t grasp in thoughts or words. That’s why I wanted to play so I could feel them flow through my veins.”


Isata Kanneh-Mason grew up with the albums of Vladimir Ashkenazy and Martha Argerich. “Their energy captured my imagination. Argerich also conquered as a young woman a place in what was a male stronghold in her time. In my eyes, she embodies the passion for music, every beat is living matter. I like to make music on life and death.”

Although Kanneh-Mason is also familiar with the shadow side that Argerich so often falls victim to. “Stage fear can overwhelm you. Many musicians struggle with it. Me too. It does not get worn with age. You can not remove the fear, so I learned to accept it. The adrenaline can also help to dig deeper, to enhance excitement or expressiveness. I do not do rituals in advance. The more you have, the more inconvenient if you forget or can not perform one. ”

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