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

24 July 2020, 17:16

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason has extolled the virtues of playing at home in isolation, and sharing music online, in a recent panel hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society
Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason has extolled the virtues of playing at home in isolation, and sharing music online, in a recent panel hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society. Picture: Ryedale Festival / Facebook

By Rosie Pentreath

When COVID-19 brought a deluge of cancelled concerts and disappointing news, one of our country’s finest young pianists says she turned to the online world to share, connect and find hope.

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason has extolled the virtues of an increased presence of classical music concerts online, celebrating the fact “we’re now able to connect with people all over the world.”

Speaking in an online panel (watch below) – also featuring Self-Isolation Choir conductor Ben England, Blackpool Symphony Orchestra’s director Helen Harrison and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) violinist Catherine Arlidge – hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society, the pianist joined musicians speaking candidly about life in lockdown and how coronavirus has impacted classical music.

“I think that as soon as we got back home and this lockdown period started, at first we were flooded – as many musicians were – with many cancelled concerts and disappointing news, so of course we were all quite down,” Kanneh-Mason said.

“After that initial period, we thought ‘there has to be some way forward. We can’t just sit here for several months watching concerts get cancelled’. Several musicians were already doing quite a lot online and posting things on Instagram and Facebook and that’s when we came up with the idea of doing these weekly Lives.”

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

The RPS Conversation - Music on the home front (part 1)

With viewing figures up to the hundreds of thousands, the Kanneh-Mason family Lives have proved incredible popular. The family also featured on a TV documentary about musical life in lockdown.

“We thought it would be a great way to keep sharing music with people even though we weren’t performing [in concert halls].”

For Kanneh-Mason, it was also about having the weekly pressure of performing as a motivation to keep working. “I think as musicians we need to perform and have structure in order for our pieces to be ready,” the pianist says.

“Online has become the way forward for many musicians at this time. Of course it can never compare to the real thing, but it’s definitely added a lot to many people and to us as well.”

She adds: “What’s incredible is that we’re now able to connect with people all over the world, and also the sheer number of people we’re able to connect with… is thousands and thousands of people. What concert hall can fit hundreds of thousands of people inside?”

The other musicians on the panel confirmed the opportunities presented by making music online – watch full conversation above.

Read more: ‘We shouldn’t be ashamed of charging money for our concerts’ – Pappano on how classical music can survive COVID-19 >

Isata Kanneh-Mason | Clara Schumann‘s Scherzo No.2 in C Minor | Classic FM Session

Conductor Helen Harrison took to online performances early in lockdown. Her orchestra Blackpool Symphony recorded a beautiful rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ dedicated to the NHS and its incredible workers – something she describes as feeling “very poignant”.

And Harrison wasn’t the only member of the panel who had the instinct to bring people together – apart – to perform online from the beginning of lockdown.

“I hate to use the word, but it has been quite a journey,” choral director Ben England says. “I was due to go to a choir rehearsal and I had the phone call saying ‘nope we’re shutting down’ and I sat in my front room with the curtains drawn in the dark thinking ‘well that’s that then, it’s all gone’... I had a real moment.

“I visualised very clearly one of my choristers who had the week before come up to me at the end of the rehearsal and grabbed my arm and said to me her husband had just died, I think two weeks before. She said ‘I didn’t want to come back to choir but I thought I should and I'm so glad I did because this is my lifeline.’ That’s the last thing she said to me before lockdown, and I sat down and thought, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to help this lady?’’

“I got my phone out and I recorded a video, and thought I’d teach a song the way I would normally teach a choir.” Soon, The Self-Isolation Choir was born, and it had found its director.

The Self-Isolation Choir presents: Messiah at Home

Catherine Arlidge, who plays violin for Classic FM’s Orchestra in the Midlands, the CBSO, has been running NCO Webinars featuring brilliant musicians.

“The beauty is in lockdown everybody is free,” Arlidge says. “So I could just email anybody that I could find the email address of anywhere and say ‘could you give me 45 minutes of your time?’.

“We’ve had Mirga [Gražinytė-Tyla, music director of CBSO], we’ve had Jess Gillam, we were in Isata’s with her siblings Sheku, Aminata and Mariatu, and we’ve had Olympic athletes, we had a politician Thangam Debbonaire, we’ve had players from the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Opera House: basically anybody that I was cheeky enough to ask, and nearly all of them said yes!”

This was the third RPS Conversation the Royal Philharmonic Society has hosted, and it wonderfully addresses the extraordinary outburst of music-making at home since lockdown began – watch the whole fascinating conversation above, and click here to find out more.