Review: Sheku Kanneh-Mason brings tender Elgar cello concerto to ASO

Sheku Kanneh-Mason and guest conductor Carlos Kalmar perform Elgar’s cello concerto Thursday, April 25, 2019 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

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Sheku Kanneh-Mason and guest conductor Carlos Kalmar perform Elgar’s cello concerto Thursday, April 25, 2019 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

One hundred years ago this summer, Edward Elgar completed a concerto that became one of the linchpins of classical cello repertoire. The piece was thrust into popular consciousness more than four decades later by the dynamic cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who was only 20 years old when she made what many consider to be the seminal recording of Elgar’s composition.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason turned 20 earlier this month. The rock-star cellist was similarly thrust into pop culture after his performance at the 2018 royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and much of the sold-out crowd Thursday at Symphony Hall looked to be there to witness the cello star for themselves (a noticeable amount of the audience emptied out after Kanneh-Mason’s performance).

In this undated phote supplied by Kensington Palace, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed Saturday, May 19, 2018, at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, poses for a photograph.

Credit: Lars Borges/Kensington Palace via Getty Images

Credit: Lars Borges/Kensington Palace via Getty Images

Unlike du Pré’s classic Elgar recording – a ferocious, at times angry, performance — Kanneh-Mason chose a tender, compassionate approach Thursday that fully embraced the sorrow in the music. At the beginning of the piece, guest conductor Carlos Kalmar kept the pulse of the main theme – which sounds like a cheerful, skipping tune decelerated to such excess that it becomes a mournful dirge – at a slightly slower pace to underline the composition’s introspective quality.

Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar is an impassioned reading, but it was nevertheless surprising to hear the customarily harsh attacks in the piece with a gentler touch. The sinewy, somewhat starling, opening of the piece – a full-out assault on the cello strings while the orchestra plays quietly in the background – was more rounded and even-keeled in Kanneh-Mason’s interpretation. His performance was so compelling due partly to his exquisite technique and intonation. Deep and resonant on the low end of the cello’s range, Kanneh-Mason’s high notes simply glowed — especially after intricate, quick jogs to the top of the instrument.

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Every guest conductor that takes the Symphony Hall stage brings his or her own personality to the evening’s program, and it’s rewarding to see how these conductors impact the musicians. The opening piece of the evening, the quick and effervescent “Overture di Ballo” by Arthur Sullivan, showed Kalmar to be a joyful and dynamic conductor – he bounced while conducting with big, swooping movements, marking the beat with his entire body; he smiled at the orchestra, encouraging the musicians. In response, the ASO gave the triumphant opener a sunny buoyancy rendered through tight, focused playing.

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After intermission, the orchestra and Kalmar created a magnificent version of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. Schumann’s work opens with a difficult melody for the horns, backed by plaintive strings, turning into a quiet, introspective composition that alternates sorrow with animated fury. After a frenzied, hectic second movement, played with agility by shimmering strings, the music turned on a dime, becoming achingly sorrowful and introspective. The ASO handled this quick change well, settling immediately into these emotional peaks and valleys.

Kalmar has led the Oregon Symphony in Portland for the past 16 seasons, and it's a joy to hear him make the trip East to lead the ASO for the second time. While the engaging and skillful Kanneh-Mason got the crowd in its seats (the ASO added a Friday night concert after the first two offerings quickly sold out, and that performance has since sold out as well), Kalmar gave an added depth and splendor to the evening.

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