Isata Kanneh-Mason interview: It’s not about talent, it’s about support and opportunity

·6-min read
Isata Kanneh-Mason
Isata Kanneh-Mason

Isata Kanneh-Mason admires the flora that fills the glassy terrace in which we’re sitting together. “I love the green spaces in the city. I am someone who craves being around trees,” says the pianist. As meeting places go, The Nest at Langham Place’s Treehouse Hotel couldn’t be more fitting. The panoramic views beyond our leafy enclave reveal key locations in Kanneh-Mason’s musical life: the Royal Academy of Music, where she recently completed her postgraduate studies; the Barbican, where she’s just performed with her cellist brother Sheku, and the Royal Festival Hall, where she once heard her heroine, pianist Martha Argerich.

Kanneh-Mason is one seventh of the Kanneh-Mason siblings, classical music’s very own Von Trapp family. Aged between 25 and 11 – Isata is the eldest – the Kanneh-Masons have impressed audiences with their musicality and camaraderie. In 2015, six of the brothers and sisters participated in Britain’s Got Talent, making it to the semi-finals of the hit ITV show. The following year, Sheku became the first black musician to win BBC Young Musician of the Year since its launch in 1978. Then, in 2018, Sheku was back on screens and capturing hearts when he played at Meghan and Harry’s wedding. Meanwhile, Isata was busy working on projects of her own – her debut album Romance topped the UK’s classical charts in 2019.

Playing with her brother, Sheku, at the Barbican (Tom Howard/Barbican)
Playing with her brother, Sheku, at the Barbican (Tom Howard/Barbican)

Not all musical families live harmoniously. The Gallagher brothers’ fallouts are infamous, while other siblings, such as Julian and Andrew Lloyd Webber, don’t tend to play together in public. The Kanneh-Masons, however, seem to derive joy from collaboration and share each other’s successes. At the glitzy launch of Sheku’s Elgar cello concerto recording (with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra), it was touching to see Isata and Braimah – a violinist who is in between Isata and Sheku in age – supporting their brother, with members of the extended Kanneh-Mason family also in attendance.

“Playing music together has always been part of our lives,” says Kanneh-Mason. “Having said that, we’re good at separating the two worlds: playing board games as siblings or performing on stage as colleagues. We all have loads in common through our love of music. We play together in different combinations – Braimah, Sheku and I have a trio. Sometimes Braimah and Sheku play with Konya [their pianist sister].” And how did they decide who would learn which instrument? “We all started with the piano and then took on another instrument as a second study,” Kanneh-Mason explains. “Braimah, Sheku and I all studied the violin, which Braimah immediately loved. I decided to focus on the piano and Sheku, who hated the violin, asked to switch to cello.”

Although she is now based in London - she lives in a house share with other classical musicians, though she doesn’t say who - Kanneh-Mason and was brought up in Nottingham. Her parents, Stuart Mason and Kadiatu Kanneh are both musical, although they pursued other professions. Born in Sierra Leone but moving to Wales as a child, Kadiatu lectured in English at the University of Birmingham, while Stuart, whose parents moved to the UK from Antigua, was born in London and works for a travel company. Last year, Kadiatu published a memoir House of Music – Raising the Kanneh-Masons, in which she emphasises the importance of access to music education.

A child prodigy is unusual, but seven extraordinarily musical children in one family is remarkable. Parents eagerly leaf through House of Music, looking for the big reveal. The reality is far more complex. Experience tells me to avoid the word ‘prodigy’ at all costs when interviewing young musicians. But my alternative description, ‘talented’, also causes Kanneh-Mason to flinch. “We are all wary of the word ‘talented’,” she says – by which she means her family. “Talent comes from an interest and inspiration, which is easy to have when you’re surrounded by classical music and have the opportunities to play. We were lucky that our parents were music lovers and encouraged us to practice. We all went to state schools that had brilliant music departments and headteachers who supported music. If other children had the same opportunities then I’m sure they would be the same.”

Well, possibly. Sadly, music education has been in decline for the past few years, a situation that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A recent report from the Incorporated Society of Musicians found that almost 10 per cent of primary and secondary schools are not teaching class music at all, even though it is a curriculum requirement. A further 68 per cent of primary school and 39 per cent of secondary school teachers stated that music provision is being further reduced. In June, Kevan Collins resigned as education recovery commissioner, criticising the government’s lack of commitment to encourage children to ‘re-engage with sport, music and the rich range of activities that define a great education’.

 (hand out)
(hand out)

No matter what she says, Kanneh-Mason is very talented indeed, as can be heard in her second album – a diverse collection of American pieces for solo piano centred around Barber’s twenty-minute sonata. The programme includes the meditative Still Waters by Amy Beach, as well as a virtuosic arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime, from which the recording takes its name. “I wanted to represent different parts of American music – the traditional classical composers like Barber and Copland, but also the spiritual-inspired work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,” explains Kanneh-Mason. Like Kanneh-Mason, English composer Coleridge-Taylor also had connections with Sierra Leone (his father was an African doctor who met his mother while she was visiting from London). Summertime includes a premiere recording of Coleridge-Taylor’s lyrical Impromptu No 2 in B minor. “When I went to find a recording of it I realised there wasn’t one,” Kanneh-Mason says. “It’s unusual to make the first recording of a classical piece, especially an older one – it’s an honour.”

For decades, classical music has been accused of being too pale, male and stale. Kanneh-Mason is passionate about bringing balance to her programmes: “I like to have a wide representation of different styles by different composers,” she says. “There is so much great music by female composers and black composers, for example – it’s about choosing good music from all walks of life.”

The Kanneh-Masons are also adding their own twist to beloved favourites. The family has recorded their first-ever joint album, featuring Saint-Saëns’ gorgeous Carnival of the Animals with new poems by Michael Morpurgo, narrated by the writer himself alongside Olivia Colman. The Kanneh-Masons will perform the work at the Proms this summer. “I played at the Royal Albert Hall last year with Sheku but there was no audience – just a camera crew,” remembers Kanneh-Mason. Proms organisers are expecting a big turn-out this year from live music-starved audiences – the concert will be performed twice to allow better access, with both performances taking place on August 29. “I’m really looking forward to it,” grins Kanneh-Mason, who gets a starring role in ‘Kangaroo’ – alongside Sheku’s Swan. As she prepares to bounce back on stage, its clear this pianist is raring to get going.

Summertime is out on Decca on July 9

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