Sibling Duo From the UK to Make Virtual Princeton Debut
A FAMILY THAT PLAYS TOGETHER: Pianist Isata and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, members of a famous musical family from the UK, will perform as part of Princeton University Concerts’ online season. A virtual visit with their parents and a “watch party” complete with afternoon tea are also planned.
By Anne Levin
Even before the extraordinarily musical siblings of the Kanneh-Mason family gained international notoriety when cellist Sheku, the third oldest, performed at the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, they were on the radar of Princeton University Concerts (PUC) Artistic and Executive Director Marna Seltzer. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that she was able to schedule them for the long-running music series.
Sheku and his older sister Isata, a pianist, will appear on Sunday, November 29 at 3 p.m. in a live stream from the family’s home in Nottingham, England. The siblings will play works by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Saint-Saens, and will answer questions following the performance. Ten days before the concert, on Thursday, November 19 at 12 p.m., Helga Davis of WNYC radio will interview Kadiatu and Stuart Kanneh-Mason, parents of the seven classically trained siblings who range in age from 10 to 24. Talking points may include their back story and the issue of race in classical music.
An important part of the plan is Sheku and Isata’s Zoom visit with members of the Trenton High School Orchestra, sponsored by PUC’s Neighborhood Project connecting artists on the series with students in Trenton’s public schools. The duo will spend an hour interacting with the students and answering their questions.
“I know it sounds strange, but you could maybe put all of this under the heading of ‘COVID gifts,’ because they were not originally scheduled to be on our season,” said Seltzer. “I have wanted to put them on the season for a long time, and have talked to their manager on and off for four or five cycles. We literally had walked up to the line with their managers for this season, but we just couldn’t make the dates work. Then COVID happened, and we realized that we could add them virtually.”
Exploring performers’ personal stories is something PUC isn’t always able to arrange. “Mostly when we present concerts, the artists show up, play, and leave,” said Seltzer. “This time, we have this opportunity to think about them as performers, up close. It’s very special. This is the first virtual concert where we’ve started to think about it as not just a concert, but a virtual residency.”
Sheku has been in demand since he won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition. Last January, he released his second album, Elgar, recorded at Abbey Road Studios with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. The album reached No. 8 on the UK Official Album Chart, making him the youngest classical instrumentalist and first cellist in history to reach the UK Top 10. Sister Isata is a chart-topper, too. Her debut album, Romance, entered the UK classical charts at No. 1 when it was released in July 2019. She has a busy concert career, performing as a solo artist, chamber musician, and in duos with Sheku and other members of the family. Both artists have performed nationally and internationally.
“They’re just groundbreaking in every way,” said Seltzer. “We don’t have very many superstars in the classical music field. But at least in Europe, they’re stars. They just released, as a family, a recording of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. It’s pretty stunning.”
The November 29 event can be viewed as a “watch party,” which encourages patrons to view the concert at the same time. Local restaurants and catering companies offer food. The performers’ Britishness has inspired PUC to partner with The Simple Stove, a local catering firm, to provide an afternoon tea service. The concert stream will remain available for on-demand viewing until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, December 8. Participating is free, but registering in advance is encouraged. Visit princetonuniversityconcerts.org.
While the pandemic has allowed PUC to get the Kanneh-Masons on the series, the organization, which normally presents events in the University’s Richardson Auditorium, has been struggling. After holding an outdoor event in August, PUC was hoping to do more in September and October. But the campus has been largely shut down.
“We are doing the best we can,” said Seltzer. “We have a big decision in front of us about what kind of programming we’ll deliver starting in January. We framed fall as anything we did was a gift to the community. We haven’t charged for anything. But having literally no income is just not sustainable. We’re trying to think about it, and we’re so dependent on what the University does in terms of access. They’ve been incredibly supportive in recognizing the value of what we do. But nothing is open.”
An ongoing project, a digital residency with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, will continue through the season. Plans for more programming are underway. “It’s too early to talk about them,” said Seltzer. “But we’ll continue to do watch parties. And we’re really, really hoping to develop something in person, either outdoors or whatever. Stay tuned.”