The long-awaited arrival of the Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason duo at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on April 19 fulfilled every expectation of greatness. Intensely focused, lyrical, and at one with their instruments and one another, the Kanneh-Masons delivered a wholly convincing recital from start to finish. The rapport between these two musicians is the kind that every teacher of classical music dreams about, and there were many such teachers in the audience to see and hear those dreams come true.
Both halves of this substantial concert revealed something about national musical cultures and the 20th-century cello repertoire. The program knit together a pair of relationships between a mentor and a pupil. Frank Bridges taught Benjamin Britten, and Karen Khachaturian was a student of Dmitri Shostakovich. The common dedications of the Britten and Khachaturian pieces to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich added a further dimension of musical heritage to the proceedings.
In the first half, we heard how young Britten took on and surpassed his mentor, while in the second, the pattern was reversed, with the younger composer coming first and the elder statesman offering the more accomplished production. Where Khachaturian presents the full range of effects he learned from Shostakovich in his Sonata, Shostakovich shows how those effects can reach the ineffable.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, harnessing flawless technique to a palpable yearning that had the audience in a perpetual swoon. Isata Kanneh-Mason, on the other hand, sparkled and danced through her challenging portions of the program with great subtlety and restraint, only to emerge for the occasional fiery instance of brilliance. This recital was a concert that those privileged to witness it will be talking about and cherishing for a long time.
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