Three years ago, at age 17, he became the first black player to win the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. A wave of positive publicity followed, and months later he signed a major recording deal with the multinational Decca company.
But the real game-breaker came last year, when Kanneh-Mason played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Videos of his performance of pieces by Schubert, Fauré and Paradis went viral on YouTube, and the broader world became aware of a uniquely gifted talent.
Schubert Club director Barry Kempton had spotted Kanneh-Mason well before then, however, and booked him for a pair of recitals Thursday and Friday.
“Sheku plays with a musical understanding and maturity which belies his age,” Kempton said. “The music just seems to flow naturally out of him.”
Music by Beethoven, Samuel Barber, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski features in Kanneh-Mason’s Ordway program, where he’ll be accompanied by his piano-playing sister Isata, one of seven musically gifted siblings.
Sheku spoke to us recently about fame, soccer and vying for rehearsal space at the family home in Nottingham, England.
Q: Winning the BBC contest was a big deal. Has it opened more doors than you expected?
A: I didn’t really know what I expected. I entered the BBC Young Musician with the aim of winning, as you do, but not expecting to! But the immediate aftereffect was the opportunity to be heard by so many different people.
Q: Your career so far has developed extremely rapidly. Has it been easy to cope with being a bit of a celebrity?
A: It has been easy because I really don’t think so much about that side of things. I still think about how and what I am playing, and how I am as a musician.
Q: Videos of your playing have gone viral on the internet. Do you see technology and the online world playing an ever-bigger part in classical music?
A: I think inevitably more and more people are seeing things on online platforms. I sometimes think it’s a little less easy with classical music because it requires a lot of attention, focus and time, and much of the online world is dependent on instant fixes. But in terms of engaging someone in the first place, then of course online is hugely helpful.
Q: What do you do away from music, when you need to relax?
A: Sleep, play football, go for walks in the park, see friends.
Q: You’ve just recorded Elgar’s Cello Concerto at the same age and with the same orchestra as the great Jacqueline du Pré did. Are you ready for the inevitable comparisons?
A: People can compare if they want to, but I would never compare myself to her. But she was definitely an inspiration.
Q: The pianist at your Schubert Club recital will be your sister Isata. Are there special advantages playing with family members, or is it harder?
A: We play together very often, since I was about probably 8 years old, and over the years we have played lots of sonatas. It’s great to be able to work together in such detail with someone you know very well.
Q: All six of your siblings are gifted classical musicians. Is it difficult finding space at home to rehearse in?
A: Well, you have to get used to noise of someone practicing in the room next to you, but it’s actually really inspiring hearing everyone!
Q: You’re including American composer Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata in your St. Paul program. Is that a piece you learned specifically for this U.S. tour?
A: It’s a piece that I have been learning recently and yes, I thought it would be nice to bring a piece from an American composer on tour. But I have always enjoyed listening to it and wanted to play it, so this is a good opportunity to do so.
Q: Your first album, “Inspiration,” put music by Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley alongside Shostakovich. Do you think classical musicians are less hung up about categories than they used to be?
A: I think the key is to make sure that whatever genre of music you are playing, it’s performed at the highest level. I would only do a Bob Marley song if I thought it was a valid contribution. Musicians such as Jascha Heifetz were recording popular songs of the day back in 1946.
Q: You’ve been vocal about the need for more diversity in classical music. Do you think it’s happening quickly enough?
A: It’s inevitably not going to be a quick fix because for real change to happen, it has to start right at the bottom of the education system. But there does at least appear to be some attention around this subject at present.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.
Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu. and 10:30 a.m. Fri.
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $28-$75, 651-292-3268 or schubert.org.