Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor was first performed in 1919, the composer conducting. However, the first performance by The Cleveland Orchestra didn’t take place until 1967, with Jacqueline du Pré as a 22-year-old soloist. A series of artists – both established and emerging – have followed her in the intervening 54 years. The 22-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason made his own impressive debut on 4th November, with Jakub Hrůša as guest conductor. Kanneh-Mason, who catapulted to international fame in 2018 as a result of his solo appearance at Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle, played with a soft-grained, refined tone, and abundant technical facility, despite a few slight intonation smudges along the way. His playing often merged with, but was never overpowered by, the orchestral accompaniment. The third movement especially had lovely pianissimo passages, while the fourth movement’s sudden mood changes showed Kanneh-Mason’s more playful side. Hrůša and TCO were sensitive accompanists.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

As an encore, Kanneh-Mason played his own wistful arrangement of the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble’s Mazltov Far Di Mekhutonim, which showed off the performer’s talent for whistling, self-accompanied on cello. It was haunting. Kanneh-Mason is supremely talented, with the promise of a very successful career, and he had a rapturous reception here in Cleveland. But, at risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I remain anxious to hear him play this same concerto again in five or ten years. His current interpretation is technically proficient, but I felt that he has not yet completely made the music “his own” – deciding which phrases and even individual notes are more important than others. As with all serious artists, he will undoubtedly grow with experience.

Hrůša opened the concert with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s unjustly neglected Ballade in A minor. Its highly dramatic opening section is developed from a short chromatic motif that turns in and out on itself. A more placid central section is romantically lush, with especially beautiful melodies in the violas, and alternating passages in major and minor tonalities. The opening music returns for a dramatic close. Famous patrons, such as Elgar, Charles Grove (of music encyclopedia fame) and August Jaeger (head of the Novello music publishing empire), all championed Coleridge-Taylor’s music, but it fell into relative obscurity after his untimely early death, aged 37, in 1912. Lately, new research and interest in Black music have revived the composer’s reputation. The Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of the Ballade made a strong case for more frequent performances.

Jakub Hrůša conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Although Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no. 6 in D major may not have the popular acclaim of his Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, Hrůša and The Cleveland Orchestra made listeners wonder why that is the case. This was a thrilling, robust performance, full of surprises, contrasting serenity with rambunctiousness. Orchestral soloists, especially horn, flute, piccolo and oboe, had lyrical beauty. The off-kilter rhythms of the third movement reflected the bounty of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. The fourth movement’s amazingly precise stream of fast 16th notes combined with brass fanfares to bring the symphony to a blazing conclusion. 

****1