‘You know there are invisible people watching’ – pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason on streamed classical music

26 February 2021, 12:24

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason and cellist Sheku, talk all things lockdown, concert nerves and practice with Julian Lloyd Webber, ahead of his new show on Classic FM.
Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason and cellist Sheku, talk all things lockdown, concert nerves and practice with Julian Lloyd Webber, ahead of his new show on Classic FM. Picture: PA / RBC / Robin Clewley

By Rosie Pentreath

Star siblings, pianist Isata and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, talk all things lockdown, classical streaming and concert nerves with Julian Lloyd Webber, ahead of his new show on Classic FM.

Julian Lloyd Webber recently announced his new Classic FM show, Rising Stars, which champions young musicians under the age of 30 through their brilliant recordings.

“At this terrible time, when very few people can get in front of the public and do what they do best it could be really quite traumatic to young musicians,” Julian says. “The incredible years of their life are just going by and they can’t play to people.”

On the eve of the show starting, Julian sat down with two young musicians who will be featured in the new programme – brilliant pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, and her brother, the star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Old friends, they catch up about what the coronavirus pandemic means for young musicians, how they’ve all navigated lockdown, and what the secret is to the perfect rehearsal negotiation…

Read more: Julian Lloyd Webber celebrates 30 brilliant classical musicians under 30 >

Julian Lloyd Webber catches up with Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason

‘It’s traumatic. The incredible years of their lives are just going by and they can’t play to people’

Catching up with Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason about the past few months, Julian starts by pointing out that “one of the dangers for young musicians who aren’t as well known is that concert organisers, when things finally get back and started again, might play it safe and not rearrange them. Which is why this programme is so important at this time.”

Isata and Sheku agree. “When the first lockdown hit, we went through what many musicians went through and were very sad that concerts were cancelled,” Isata says.

“After a few weeks we realised we couldn’t stay in this suspended place doing nothing and that’s when we came up with the idea to still reach out to people and online seemed to be the only way to do that.”

The pianist adds: “Sheku and I were at home with the family in Nottingham and we started doing live performances on Facebook to reach out to virtual audiences all over the world.”

Instead of being seen by people who might have filled concert halls and even the largest auditoriums, the Kanneh-Mason family’s concerts reached millions of eyeballs as a result of them being streamed online.

Read more: The Kanneh-Mason family live-streamed a brilliant Beethoven concerto in lockdown >

Monti's Czárdás, played by The Kanneh-Masons

‘Practice is never wasted, but it’s still tough’

All star musicians, Julian and the Kanneh-Masons reflect on the potential extra practice opportunities staying at home, and having fewer concerts, could present for young musicians.

Both Isata and Sheku did find time to practise more music, but also point out that concerts sort of force us all to practise to concert-ready standard – so it’s a double-edged sword.

And then there’s the music practised for, that was never performed publicly, due to coronavirus.

“Practice is never wasted, but it’s still tough,” Isata says.

Read more: Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason: ‘Black boys in state schools are not expected to pick up an instrument’ >

Live Music Month: Isata Kanneh-Mason performs Clara Schumann‘s Scherzo No.2 in C Minor

What was it like playing in an empty but magnificent Royal Albert Hall?

“I’m definitely someone who misses the feeling of the audience being there. I miss the feeling of excitement, and the feeling of sharing something,” Sheku says of the empty seats staring at him during that experience.

“At the same time, there’s actually something really special comforting in knowing that lots of people around the world, wherever they are, are focused on this one performance at the same time.”

“That was an example of something good that came out of that time,” Isata reflects.

“It was a mixture – it was amazing to be playing at the Hall and playing those pieces. But it was definitely sad to not have an audience in the Hall and definitely strange.”

Read more: ‘We’re able to connect with people all over the world’: Isata Kanneh-Mason celebrates classical music going online >

Gary Barlow performs with Sheku Kanneh-Mason

They also talk about the fact that empty rooms or halls don’t necessarily dispel the performance nerves felt by many. “You know there are invisible people watching” Isata says.

The three discuss Sheku’s ongoing love of football; what they might disagree on musically during rehearsals – “we do sometimes disagree on things like tempo,” Isata says, “But I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement so bad that we can’t come to a mutual agreement” and “Disagreements challenge you to strengthen your own argument, so actually it’s a good thing!”, from Sheku – and what the brilliant pair of young musicians have on the horizon for 2021 (watch in full above).

So, what is coming up for Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason in 2021?

Both Isata and Sheku laugh. “We can’t say.”

Well, we personally can’t wait for all to be revealed in good time...

Julian Lloyd Webber’s Rising Stars starts at 9pm on Sunday 28 February on Classic FM – available across the UK on 100-102 FM, DAB digital radio and TV, at ClassicFM.com and on Global Player, the official Classic FM app.