Some solo artists give performances that seem to reflect a talent that the performer was born with. For his US concerto debut, British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason gave the impression that he had been playing the cello since he was in the womb. In a performance that shook the rafters of Benaroya Hall with its display of virtuosity, Kanneh-Mason gave a rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme that proved worthy of the royalty for whom he so famously performed.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason © Lars Borges
Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Lars Borges

Kanneh-Mason chose the Seattle Symphony Orchestra as well as one of his instrument’s most challenging works — often thought of as a litmus test for cello proficiency — for his stellar orchestral debut. His reputation precedes him: previously named the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year (2016), and having made his solo recording debut this past January, the young cellist attained superstar status with his splashy appearance as soloist for the royal wedding in May. He lived up to the hype with his virtuosic rendition of the Tchaikovsky, making his 17th-century Amati instrument sing and dance to Tchaikovsky’s irresistible melodies and captivating rhythms.

Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s musical god, and 18th century refinement (to which he so deftly paid homage in Act 2 of his opera, The Queen of Spades), is the name of the game in this Baroque-Romantic crossover piece, the composer’s version of a cello concerto. Kanneh-Mason delivered on all fronts, with an uncanny understanding of both the stylistic and technical challenges inherent in the work. He is clearly a born performer, demonstrating a physical naturalness for the stage and a keen stylistic awareness. His extreme youth and relative inexperience showed in slight lapses in intonation in the upper register and occasional lack of robustness in tone. Undoubtedly these minor details will correct themselves as he rides the wave of what surely will become a spectacular career.

German-born Ruth Reinhardt, a former SSO conducting fellow (2015-16) and fresh from her two-season stint as Assistant Conductor of the Dallas Symphony, showed herself as capable of leading an orchestra and interpretatively sensitive to the wide variety of styles that the program demanded of her. It seemed fitting that, in the year of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, Reinhardt opened with Schumann’s Manfred Overture, Op.115, the piece with which Bernstein made his spectacular New York Philharmonic debut in 1943. The work is difficult and subtle, not at all a straightforward declamation of Romanticism. Reinhardt’s opening could have been more aggressive, but her graceful, magnanimous gestures brought out the dark, brooding complexities of Schumann’s tragic depiction of the torment of Byron’s Count Manfred.

Award-winning Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, considered one of the greatest composers of her generation for her accomplishments in structure, style and shadings of color, has been impressing audiences both symphonic and operatic with her versatility in multiple genres. A self-described “Finn living in Paris,” she reached notoriety with her first opera, L’Amour de loin, which was telecast internationally in HD from the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, the first such work by a woman composer to be performed at the Met since 1903. The opera is about love and death, but her Ciel d’hiver (“Winter Sky”) is extracted from a three-movement orchestral piece based on a more upbeat subject: the legend of Greek mythological hunter Orion.

The full, rich sounds sustained in the strings represent the darkness of Orion’s winter sky, while blazes of musical light from the winds flash by in quick succession, evoking the brilliance of the stars against the night background. Saariaho shows a dexterous command of early Stravinskian melody and a deep comprehension of Debussy’s ability to portray an atmosphere of mystery. Reinhardt’s attention to detail served both composer and orchestra well, as she skillfully delineated the evolvement from single-line slivers of melody to multilevel harmonies summoning images of planets and stars orbiting in the night sky.

As opera was to Mozart, so the symphony was to Beethoven. He famously pushed the classical music envelope early in his career by starting his first symphony with a Dominant-7th rather than a traditional Tonic chord. Astonishingly mature as a work of a prodigious youth still in his 20s, his initial effort in what became his most prominent genre shows an enticing preview of his future brilliance in writing for full orchestra.

It was in the Beethoven Symphony no. 1 in C major, Op.21 that Reinhardt was at her best. She has a flair for the classical, Haydnesque style, and each movement of the piece was carefully and lovingly crafted, especially in the rhythmic detail and ebullient energy she brought to the piece, eliciting the finest possible sound from every section of the orchestra, the string sections in particular. The first violins are sounding better than ever under the leadership of their new concertmaster Noah Geller. 

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