2016 Winner's Story
It’s safe to say that life for cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has changed significantly since he won BBC Young Musician. In the last year, he’s performed as concerto soloist with Chineke! Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall and with the National Youth Orchestra at the Barbican. There are forthcoming concerts with the Tonhalle, the Concertgebouw, CBSO, RLPO, Philharmonia and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A BBC Four documentary Young, Gifted and Classical was made about Sheku and his family. Not to mention the new agent, a record deal with Decca Classics and the permanent loan of an Amati cello. As Sheku himself puts it, “it has made a phenomenal difference to my career."
Sheku had watched BBC Young Musician for years. “I always found the programme incredibly inspiring”, he says. “I used to imagine what it would be like to take part.” He had seen his older sister Isata reach the Keyboard Final in 2014 so he knew what to expect. Isata was on stage beside him as his accompanist when Sheku won his place in the Grand Final. There, at the Barbican in London, he performed Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no.1 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. It’s a pretty daunting experience for a teenager, and with a lot at stake, but Sheku wasn’t distracted by what could happen later. “While I was playing the Shostakovich I wasn’t thinking of the competition, just about the music and the performance. I don’t think any performance is perfect and there are always things that could have been more precise. But I like taking risks when I play and going with the moment, which makes live performance so special. I was very aware of what brilliant musicians Jess and Ben were so I never assumed I would win!”
‘Jess and Ben’ are fellow finalists Jess Gillam (saxophone) and Ben Goldscheider (horn) and Sheku reckons that it’s the relationship between the musicians that gives BBC Young Musician its unique atmosphere. “I think what is special about BBC Young Musician is the friendliness amongst the competitors. We were all going through the same thing and I was lucky that everyone was so easy to get on with, at every stage of the competition.”
According to Sheku, BBC Young Musician is an experience worth having, with or without the prize money and the big career boost that the winner enjoys. “I really don’t think this competition is only about winning. Going through the process of preparing for each round, learning how to focus on the music above all else and to perform under pressure – all this is a fantastic learning experience and will improve you as a musician. Also, you get to meet excellent young musicians and receive useful feedback from the adjudicators after each round.”
And his advice for those wondering whether to enter in 2017? “I would certainly recommend BBC Young Musician. Everyone is friendly and supportive and it’s a way to improve your playing. It made me mature very quickly as a musician. I learned a lot from the feedback I got and I have more confidence in my own musical instincts.”
Sheku will return to BBC Young Musician in 2018 to perform at the Final on 13th May.