A rising star with her feet on the ground

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By: Ketil Mosnes
May 11, 2022

Isata Kanneh-Mason kept herself busy despite the lockdown.

While studying with Joanna MacGregor and Carole Presland at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Isata Kanneh-Mason embarked on a successful and increasingly busy career as a solo artist, with concerto appearances, solo recitals and chamber concerts throughout the UK and abroad. She has also been a TV hostess, performed with Sir Elton John, and has won a two-digit number of prizes.

When the pianist’s debut album, Romance, was released in July 2019, it went straight to the number one spot on the UK Classical Charts. Gramophone named the album one of the most charming and engaging debuts, while Classic FM praised Kanneh-Mason as a player of considerable talent. Her debut album’s repertoire consists in its entirety of works by the composer Clara Schumann, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the German’s birth. The debut album was followed in 2021 by Summertime, a journey through the varied piano repertoire of 20th century America.

“People can't be interested in something they aren't exposed to (…) Every time I introduce classical music to young people they always have a positive and natural reaction to it”

- Isata Kanneh-Mason

Isata Kanneh-Mason is the oldest of seven siblings; all of them emerging talents on the classical scene in their home country, England. Occasionally she performs with her siblings, including regular duo recitals with her cellist brother, the equally famous Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Although having experienced tremendous success, Isata appears to have a down to earth-approach to her status as a rising star in the classical world, and earlier she has expressed that she doesn’t consider what she is doing as ‘elitist’, and neither should anyone else.

Isata's performance in Bergen was programmed for both the 2020 and 2021 editions, but were postponed due to the pandemic, and will give her Norwegian debut this year.

– Obviously, many cultural events have been cancelled the recent year. What have you done in order to keep yourself busy during the times when you were originally meant to be touring?

– I was of course very sad to have many concerts cancelled, however I still ended up being quite busy. I did lots of online concerts, some socially distanced concerts, and also some recordings, one of which was recently released! I also played lots of chamber music with my family, as well as with other musicians when the restrictions allowed it.

– Career-wise, you have been on quite an amazing journey so far. Are there any specific highlights or special events during your career that you want to tell us about?

– I have enjoyed all the concerts and moments of my career so far for different reasons, but my highlights are always when I play chamber music. Some particular favourites are my two concerts at the Wigmore Hall; one with my brother Sheku and one with both my brothers and some friends, plus a recent chamber music concert at Kings Place, also with my brothers and friends.

– You started playing piano at the age of six, right? At what age did you realise that you had a special talent, and that this was something you wanted to do professionally?

– I started playing the piano when I was six years old, and when I was about eight or nine, I decided that I wanted to be a professional musician. I don’t think I was really aware of the word ‘talent’, I just knew that I loved music and was prepared to work hard!

– If you had to play another instrument for a year, which one would it be? And why?

– It would be the cello. For me it has the most beautiful sound of all the instruments!

– On your debut album, you pay tribute to Clara Schumann. Maybe you can say a few words about why you picked her?

– My debut album is all Clara Schumann because I heard some of her music and really loved it. It didn’t work to pair her with another composer as there was so much of her music to discover, and it needed to fill a whole album!

– Do you think that the exposure you, your siblings, and other young talented musicians are receiving nowadays will help attract a younger audience towards the classical scene?

– I hope that young people see some of the things that myself and my family are doing, and feel inspired to take up an instrument. At our concerts we sometimes get young people or even children coming up to us saying that it’s their first classical concert, or that they started playing an instrument because of one of us. These moments are always wonderful!

The interview with Isata Kanneh-Mason was done in the spring of 2021.

Isata Kanneh-Mason/facts:
  • Isata Kanneh-Mason will give two recitals in Grieg's villa during the 2022 Bergen International Festival.

  • Siblings: Braimah (violin), Sheku (cello), Konya (piano and violin), Jeneba (cello and piano), Aminata (piano and violin), Mariatu (cello and piano).

  • A selection of places she has performed: Edinburgh Festival, Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Teatro della Pergol, Carnegie Hall, Barbican Centre's Sound Unbound festival and Snape Proms, as well as on stages from Antigua and Cayman Islands to Perth, Australia.

  • TV host during the broadcast from the BBC Proms in 2019.

  • Young Artist in Residence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra during the 20/21-season.

  • A selection of accolades: The BBC Young Musician 2014 (finals), The Walter Todds Bursary for the most promising musician (winner), The Royal Academy Iris Dyer Piano Prize (four times winner), The Mrs Claude Beddington Prize 2016 for outstanding recital results at The Royal Academy (winner), The Royal Academy Christian Carpenter Recital Prize 2018 (winner), The Harold Craxton Chamber Music Prize 2018 (winner), Wilfred Parry (Brahms) Prize 2018 at The Royal Academy (winner), ABRSM Gold Awards (twice winner, at the age of 10 and 11). Elton John Scholarship for her Undergraduate studies at The Royal Academy, performing with Sir Elton John in Los Angeles in 2013. She also held the Elsa and Leonard Cross Scholarship at The Royal Academy of Music, Junior Department, studying piano with Patsy Toh.

Supported by Vestland county council

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