Music Review: SHEKU PLAYS HAYDN (Sheku Kanneh-Mason & Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra)

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by Tony Frankel on January 18, 2023

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


I hear an old soul in his playing. English cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, aka Sheku, is a decent, heartfelt, unpretentious performer, and his music follows suit. He evokes some kind of sacred spirit in his cello playing, which is dreamy and soothing while being exhilarating. He does Casals, Du Pre & Rostropovich proud, indeed. But in the five times I’ve seen him live, I’ve yet to see his playing showy; nor have I seen him attack or grind into the cello, as can his amazing contemporaries Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, and Sol Gabetta.

No, this tender but passionate cellist is — and I get it’s a trope — making love to his instrument. It’s a spiritual, gracious, sharing love that is so damn admirable. And transfixing. His truly amazing colors were on full display with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra last weekend, when he offered Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major in a completely different way than he did last October at Disney Hall with Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Yes, he still looks to the heavens with both awe and a grateful smile as if for divine inspiration, but instead of a hushed slow movement with Mirga, his gorgeous tones were quite moving under the baton of guest conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados.

Kanneh-Mason was initially slated to appear with LACO in 2018 but he was invited to perform the same weekend at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and it’s a major no-no to turn down royalty, or soon-to-be ex-royalty. With nearly two billion television viewers, he was thrust into stardom, yet he showed in his encore a retained sweetness that was endearing, enchanting and all-enveloping. Accompanying himself, he whistled the melody to “Mazel Tov Far Di Mekhutonim”, a normally bouncy tune (“Congratulations to the Bride and Groom”) that was presented on the Alex Theatre stage with nostalgia and yearning. His arrangement, based on the version by the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, had the house completely rapt. I must say, it was one of the best encores I have ever heard.

Gonzalez-Granados stepped in for LACO Music Director Jaime Martín, who tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to travel to Los Angeles. Gonzalez-Granados also led Guadeloupean Creole French composer Joseph Bologne‘s Symphony No. 1 in G Major, which opened the second half. No one can say that the three-movement symphony is profound (but you can say that about many symphonies during Mozart’s time), yet the first successful black composer — aka Chevalier de Saint-Georges — was highly educated. So it is simple but not banal. And it certainly sounded fresh in the conductor’s straightforward rendition, exuding the perfumed charm of late 18th-century France. Gorgeous but by the book.

Two works by Felix Mendelssohn bookended the program. His Hebrides Overture at the top replaced the previously announced Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C Major, Op. 26, which will be seen later in the season. This beautiful expression of the wonder of one of nature’s masterpieces — Fingal’s Cave in Scotland — was unsurprisingly played with the highest quality from LACO’s players. You really can’t miss with those gorgeous melodies, but I didn’t see anything about the conducting that grabbed me. That all changed with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major (Italian). With all the rainy weather we have in the past few weeks, it was the perfect time for a distinctly Italian sojourn to cap the concert. With energy and depth, Gonzalez-Granados made the work exhilarating but unhurried. The articulation was amazingly precise and clean, allowing us to hear each and every note.

photos of the Jan 14 Royce Hall performance by Brian Feinzimer

Sheku Plays Haydn
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Lina Gonzalez-Granados, conductor
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello
reviewed January 15, 2023, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale
for more info, visit LACO

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