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Introducing himself in Prague in Elgar’s Cello Concerto is 22-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who won the BBC Young Musician award in 2016. In the second half of the concert, compositions by Suk and Dvořák will be performed.
Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103 (18')
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Adagio, moderato (attacca)
Lento. Allegro molto
— Intermission —
Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn “St. Wenceslas”, Op. 35a (8')
Czech Suite D major, Op. 39 (23')
Sheku Kanneh-Mason cello
Jakub Hrůša conductor
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When Josef Suk wrote his last composition Sousedská in 1935 for an outdoor ensemble from the village where he was born, he inscribed in the score the comment: “Exemplifying a composition that demands skill from neither the composer nor the players.” This is just one example of Suk’s peculiar sense of humour. At the same time, Suk was very much aware that the path to the highest artistic standards was difficult for both composers and performers. For example, in his Cello Concerto Edward Elgar created what is today one of one of the most famous works for that instrument, but the failed premiere obscured the concerto’s exceptional quality, and as a result the concerto did not become widely known until many years after the composer’s death.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is already in great demand worldwide. He became a household name in 2018 after performing at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Windsor Castle, a performance watched by nearly two billion people globally. Sheku initially garnered renown as the winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, the first Black musician to take the title. He has released two chart-topping albums on the Decca Classics label, Inspiration in 2018 and Elgar in 2020.
Sheku has made debuts with orchestras including the Seattle Symphony, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, Japan Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic, and Baltimore Symphony orchestras. Highlights this season include performances with the Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, New York Philharmonic, and London Philharmonic orchestras.
In recital, Sheku has performed at venues and festivals around the world from Wigmore Hall London to Carnegie Hall New York. Current and future seasons include appearances at the Barbican Hall London, Berliner Philharmonie, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Suntory Hall Tokyo, and tours of North America, Italy, South Korea and China.
During the Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020, Sheku and his siblings performed in twice-weekly livestreams from their family home in Nottingham to audiences of hundreds of thousands around the globe.
Sheku began learning the cello at the age of six and now continues his studies with Hannah Roberts at the Royal Academy of Music in London as a Bicentenary Fellow. Sheku was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 New Year’s Honours List. He plays a Matteo Goffriller cello from 1700 which is on indefinite loan to him.
Born in the Czech Republic, Jakub Hrůša is Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, Music Director Designate of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden (Music Director from 2025), Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.
He is a frequent guest with the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Vienna, Berlin, Munich and New York Philharmonics; Bavarian Radio, NHK, Chicago and Boston Symphonies; Leipzig Gewandhaus, Lucerne Festival, Royal Concertgebouw, Mahler Chamber and The Cleveland Orchestras; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. He has led opera productions for the Salzburg Festival (Káťa Kabanová with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2022), Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House, Opéra National de Paris, and Zurich Opera. He has also been a regular guest with Glyndebourne Festival and served as Music Director of Glyndebourne On Tour for three years.
His relationships with leading vocal and instrumental soloists have included collaborations in recent seasons with Daniil Trifonov, Mitsuko Uchida, Hélène Grimaud, Behzod Abduraimov, Anne Sofie Mutter, Lukáš Vondráček, Lisa Batiashvili, Joshua Bell, Yefim Bronfman, Rudolf Buchbinder, Gautier Capuçon, Julia Fischer, Sol Gabetta, Hilary Hahn, Janine Jansen, Karita Mattila, Leonidas Kavakos, Lang Lang, Josef Špaček, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Klaus Florian Vogt, Yuja Wang, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Alisa Weilerstein and others.
As a recording artist, Jakub Hrůša has received numerous awards and nominations for his discography. Most recently, he received the Opus Klassik Conductor of the Year nomination and the ICMA prize for Symphonic Music for his recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, and the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik for his recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, both with Bamberg Symphony. In 2021, his disc of Martinů and Bartók violin concertos with Bamberg Symphony and Frank Peter Zimmermann was nominated for BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone awards, and his recording of the Dvořák Violin Concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Augustin Hadelich was nominated for a Grammy Award. His recordings of Dvořák and Martinů Piano Concertos with Ivo Kahánek and the Bamberg Symphony, and Vanessa by Samuel Barber from Glyndebourne both won BBC Music Magazine Awards in 2020.
Jakub Hrůša studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek. He is President of the International Martinů Circle and The Dvořák Society. He was the inaugural recipient of the Sir Charles Mackerras Prize, and in 2020 was awarded both the Antonín Dvořák Prize by the Czech Republic’s Academy of Classical Music, and – together with Bamberg Symphony – the Bavarian State Prize for Music.
The English composer Edward Elgar grew up in the family of a church organist who owned a shop that sold sheet music and instruments. Little Edward began playing the piano at school, and he learned to play the organ by watching his father. He also borrowed a variety of instruments from the family shop and taught himself to play them without receiving any kind of instruction, so he soon mastered not only piano and organ, but also violin, viola, cello, and bassoon. He also began composing in a similar manner. At age 16 he became a free-lance musician, so he got experience mainly as an instrumentalist, church organist, and conductor. He mostly composed choral music, but he did not achieve true renown as a composer until he reached the age of 42, when he wrote his Enigma Variations, Op. 36. The great conductor Hans Richter held the work in high esteem and prepared and led its premiere. The idea of creating a set of variations with a secret, “encoded” theme is indicative of Elgar’s unusual imaginativeness, and as a self-taught composer, he was not under any restraints. The work is a covert tribute to the composer’s wife Alice and to the friends who supported Elgar during the years of uncertainty as he got his start as a composer.
Another of Elgar’s most important works is the Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. Just choosing the cello as a solo instrument represents a great challenge for composers. Antonín Dvořák may have put it most succinctly, once warning his composition pupils that unlike the piano or violin, which are capable of carrying themselves in front of an orchestra as ideal solo instruments, the cello does not possess comparable tonal qualities: “it whines up high and mumbles down low”. It is possible that after Elgar’s Violin Concerto (1907–1910), he was taking on a challenge as Dvořák had done—dealing with a difficult compositional task. The solutions the composer selected definitely hint at this. Elgar chose an unusual four-movement layout that differs from most other concertos and is more typical of chamber music, and Elgar’s concerto has a great deal in common with the chamber music genre. The composer deals with the cello’s sonic limitations by using a very delicate instrumental touch, and the music itself is in fact very personal, even intimate in character. Elgar’s musical language achieves perfection in its musical expression of pain and sorrow. The melancholy phrases that descend ever more deeply into despair and gloom are the key to the interpreter’s grasp of the entire work. The concerto dates from a time of great resignation immediately after the First World War. The composer himself was battling illness, but above all he was affected by the decline of his beloved wife’s health. She managed to attend the concerto’s premiere, but she died the following year. Although the premiere on 27 October 1919 featured the superb cellist Felix Salmond, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Elgar conducting, the performance did not turn out well because of a lack of sufficient rehearsal time. The failed premiere proved to be too much for the concerto. Despite the efforts of many outstanding cellists, it was not until 1965 that the work gained wide recognition thanks to the legendary recording made by Jacqueline du Pré, who was 20 years old at the time.