The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: This Saturday’s CAN’T MISS, MUST-HEAR Bach Around the Clock 5 is new and improved with something for everyone who loves the music of Johann Sebastian

March 9, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

How do you like your Bach?

No matter how you answer, it is just about certain that you will find it at this Saturday’s marathon Bach Around the Clock 5, which is even more impressive this year than last year, which was plenty successful.

BATC 5 is a community birthday celebration of the life and music of Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach (below) – for many, The Big Bang of classical music — who turns 333 this month.

BATC 5 will take place this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) at 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

NOTE: If you can’t make it in person, the entire event will be streamed live, as it was last year, from the church via a link on the BATC web page.

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/live-stream/

But also – new this year – you can listen via streaming from the web site of Early Music America, which also awarded the event one of only five $500 grants in the entire U.S.

https://www.earlymusicamerica.org

For all 12 hours, BATC 5 is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Those who attend are also encouraged to be informal in dress and behavior – to come in and listen, then leave and came back again – in short, to wander in and out as they want to or need to.

To The Ear, the event has been improved in just about every way you can think of.

Do you like to hear professional performers? Amateurs? Students? You will find lots of all of them. (Below are the Sonora Suzuki Strings of Madison.)

Do you like your Bach on period instruments, such as the harpsichord and the recorder, using historically informed performance practices? BATC 5 has that.

Do you like your Bach on modern instruments like the piano? BATC has that too. (Below is Tim Adrianson of Madison who will play the Partita No. 5 in G Major this year.)

Do you like more familiar works? There will be the Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor, the Concerto for Two Violins and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. (Last year saw Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 and 5, and BATC director Marika Fischer Hoyt says her plans call for the one-day festival to work its way through all six Brandenburgs before repeating any.) You can hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Do you like less familiar works to expand your horizon? There will be lots of those too.

Do you prefer Bach’s vocal and choral writing? BATC has lots of it, including the famous Cantata No. 140 (“Wachet auf”) performed by UW baritone Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) and his students from the UW’s Mead Witter School of Music, plus two solo cantatas. The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will also sing.

Do you prefer Bach’s instrumental music? BATC has that in abundance, from solo pieces like a Cello Suite to chamber music such as an Organ Trio Sonata and larger ensembles.

Do you like the original versions? No problem. BATC has them.

Do you like novel or modern arrangements and transcriptions of Bach’s universal music? BATC has them too.

Concerned about how long the event is?

You might want to bring along a cushion to soften a long sit on hard pews.

Plus, there is more food and more refreshments this year, thanks to donations from Classen’s Bakery, HyVee, Trader Joe’s and the Willy Street Co-op.

There are more performers, up from 80 last year to about 200. And they include a pianist who is the official Guest Artist Lawrence Quinnett (below) and is coming all the way from North Carolina, where he teaches at a college, to perform two half-hour segments of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.

Here is a link to Quinnett’s own web site:

http://www.lawrencequinnett.com

But familiar faces and voices from the UW-Madison and other groups in the Madison area will also be returning to perform.

Also new this year is a back-up group for concertos and accompaniment.

Some features have been carried over, including mini-interviews with performers conducted by hosts, including Stephanie Elkins (below top) of Wisconsin Public Radio and Marika Fischer Hoyt herself (below bottom, with flutist Casey Oelkers, on the left, who works for the Madison Symphony Orchestra)


But The Ear is also impressed by how little repetition in repertoire there is from last year. So far, each year feels pretty much new and different, and the newly designated non-profit organization, with its newly formed board of directors, is working hard to keep it that way.

What more is there to say?

Only that you and all lovers of classical music should be there are some point – or even more than one.

Here is a link to the BATC general web site, with lots of information including how to support this community event — which, for the sake of full disclosure, The Ear does:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com

And here is a link to the full schedule that you can print out and use as a guide. It also has last year’s schedule for performers and pieces that you can use for purposes of comparison:

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/concert-schedule/

Let the music begin!

See you there!


Posted in Classical music
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