Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason were back. The two musicians had previously spoken with Trenton music students in November 2020, over Zoom. On April 28, a day after their Princeton University Concerts debut, the renowned sibling duo traveled to Trenton Central High School (TCHS) for an in-person reunion.
Sheku was the winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, the first Black musician to take the title. Two years later, he garnered global attention when he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. His sister, Isata, was the recipient of both the 2021 Leonard Bernstein Award and the 2020 Opus Klassik Award for Best Young Artist. Her debut album on Decca Classics, Romance—The Piano Music of Clara Schumann, entered the UK classical charts at No. 1 when it was released in July 2019.
Sheku and Isata’s recent tour of the U.S. brought them to San Francisco, Ann Arbor, and Princeton, where they performed together for audiences of hundreds. They opened their TCHS visit by performing for a much smaller but no less enthusiastic audience of music students.
“Take time to warm up,” Trenton Arts at Princeton program manager Lou Chen said to Isata.
She sat down at the piano and played lightning-fast scales. Her hands rolled across the keys like waves rolling across the sea.
“I’m ready,” she said. The students exchanged grins.
Sheku settled his white cello case on a table and took out his instrument. He didn’t take out music; he would play from memory.
The duo started up a sweeping melody that had been the encore for their performance the night before: an arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River.” Both demonstrated striking range. On the cello, Sheku’s bowing went from grainy and coarse to smooth and serene. At the piano, Isata’s playing went from heavy and intense to soft and melodious.
After receiving enthusiastic applause, Sheku and Isata prepared to accompany the TCHS Orchestra in playing selections from The Phantom of the Opera. Isata pulled out the sheet music and peered at it like she was seeing it for the first time, sizing it up and contemplating how she would go about playing her part. It turned out that she was sight reading, even though she played the piece like she had practiced it hundreds of times before.
The orchestra joined in. So began the very groovy “Overture,” with strong accents from the drums and
trumpets. Then the melody softened and blended into a quiet, clarinet-driven rendition of “All I Ask of You.” Next came “The Music of the Night.” When the strings swelled, Sheku’s cello could be heard swelling right along with them. Violins soared like shooting stars, trumpets glimmered like moonbeams—and then the piece was over.
Then the orchestra prepared to play a piece called “Strasbourg/St. Denis.” “Do you play a little jazz?” TCHS Orchestra director Joseph Pucciatti asked Isata.
“No,” she said, “but I’m going to.”
Trumpets pulsed and strings raced. One at a time, various student soloists stood up to play. A flutist, a violinist, and a trumpet player all performed inventive solos to great applause. Isata may not have played much jazz, but she jammed along like the best of them.
After the piece was over, the orchestra lowered their instruments and listened to Sheku and Isata perform the second movement of Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. The piece began with a bitter waltz of chromatic keys, evoking images of a ship buffeted by storm-tossed waters. At one point, Sheku scraped his bow against the strings to produce a hollow sound like that of a faint wind striking a sailcloth. Isata played soft scales over Sheku’s playing, and it seemed that the storm had abated, if only for a while.
A loudspeaker announcement interrupted the melody: “Please contact the main office.”
Sheku and Isata glanced at each other and launched back into the stormy chromatic waltz. The gales of their music chased the announcement into silence, and their playing continued, triumphant.
When Isata lifted her hands from the keys and Sheku raised his frayed bow from his cello, the audience erupted into their own storm, one of applause. Bravo! Wow! Oh my God. Eventually, the room went silent, and Sheku and Isata took a seat next to Chen for a conversation.
Chen opened the conversation by asking them how it felt to resume in-person performances after almost two years of edited recordings and empty concert halls. “It feels so good to be back,” said Isata. “Playing in person just feels more real than Zoom.”
When asked to describe the other’s musical strengths, Isata said that Sheku was skilled at listening, producing dissonances, and capturing detail. Sheku said that Isata had an amazing facility at the keyboard.
Then the Trenton students had the chance to ask Sheku and Isata questions. Nason, a senior trumpet player, wanted to know how they approached learning new pieces of music.
“It usually starts with having listened to the piece, either a recording or at a concert,” said Isata. “I usually listen to a few different recordings. After that I always start learning the notes. I usually choose a piece because I have a feeling about it anyway, so I just go about making that come across in my playing.”
Sheku nodded. “I think it’s helpful when you play it to see the different layers of sound, so I have kind of a musical map in my head of what’s coming in terms of the structure.”
He fingered his frayed bow as he spoke. When another student was called on to ask a question, she pointed at his bow.
“Your bow hair’s coming off. How many bows do you go through?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s a problem,” said Sheku. “It depends on what I’m playing. Shostakovich does demand a lot from the bow. I have three bows and I get each one rehaired once a month.” The students murmured to each other in astonishment.
Sorange, a junior alto saxophone player, asked how they overcome creative slumps: “Have you ever gone through that? Do you try to take a break, or do you just power through?”
“I would say a bit of both,” said Isata. “If I hit a slump, but I have concerts, I don’t really have a choice. I just power through. But if I have time, I’ll take a break from the music and come back to it later.”
Sheku added, “If it’s a particular piece of music, then I find that looking at it from a different angle is always helpful.”
Francisco, a senior violinist, asked how they interpret music.
“It’s helpful having knowledge of how music is constructed, like in music theory,” said Sheku. “The important thing is how you connect that with what it makes you feel.”
For the final question, Nason asked them point-blank: “Why do you play?”
“Good question,” said Isata. “For me, music is the only place that I feel that I can fully express myself. Humans have put everything into music, all their emotions, all their life experiences. When you’re playing music, you get to feel that and express that. I think in life, it’s not always acceptable to fully express yourself. On stage and in music, you can.”
“For me, experiencing all that’s in a piece you’re playing and then being able to share that with a room of other people is a very special feeling,” said Sheku. “It’s a very powerful feeling as well. In that moment you have such a power to influence and move and surprise the people in front of you. That is really the best feeling.”
Sheku and Isata’s TCHS visit was sponsored by the Neighborhood Music Project, a collaboration between Princeton University Concerts and Trenton Arts at Princeton.