Star pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason on Liverpool, family and Beyoncé

Isata Kanneh-Mason talks to LiverpoolWorld about her musical journey and expectations as the Young Artist in Residence at the Liverpool Philharmonic.

“I love Beyonce. I have always been a big fan and I find her very inspiring. She has an incredible voice and is an amazing performer. Her music has helped me through some tough times,” says pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason.

Kanneh-Mason, the eldest sibling of the talented Kanneh-Mason family, is inspiring many people around the world herself.

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She received the coveted Elton John Scholarship for her undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music, London, in 2013 and performed with Sir Elton in Los Angeles the same year.

Kanneh-Mason was on stage in Liverpool on Thursday evening to play the Clara Schumann piano concerto alongside the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their new chief conductor Domingo Hindoyan.

She is the Young Artist in Residence at the Liverpool Philharmonic and has a connection to the city. She recorded her first album Romance and her latest album Summertime, which is described as a ‘journey through the musical landscape of 20th century America’, with the orchestra.

Speaking to LiverpoolWorld she says: “During last season, of course lots of things didn’t go ahead, but I still went to Liverpool and recorded my second album and played with the orchestra. I feel like it’s all starting properly now and there are lots of exciting projects.

“I have been to the Philharmonic a few times now and I think the orchestra are wonderful musicians - I really, really love playing with them. But also as people, they are all so lovely and welcoming.”

Kanneh-Mason says she’d like to explore Liverpool more: “At the moment my go to place is Liverpool Cathedral and the gardens because it’s close to the Philharmonic, but I’m open to suggestions.”

Lockdown recording

In the spring of 2020, during the height of the pandemic lockdown, Kanneh-Mason and her siblings performed live-streamed music from their family home in Nottingham to audiences of thousands worldwide.

The pianist, who is based in London, also recorded the album Carnival with her six siblings at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. Aged between 11 and 25 all play either piano, violin or cello or a combination.

Isata Kanneh-Mason. Photo: Robin Clewley

It was the first time the family teamed up for an album, which also features Oscar-winning actor Olivia Coleman and best-selling children’s author Michael Morpurgo reading poetry.

Also on the record is the Kanneh-Masons’ own rearrangement of Bob Marley’s hit, Redemption Song, marking the 40th anniversary of its release.

Morpurgo, who joined them at a BBC Proms performance in August, says of the family: “These young people are remarkable, not because they are young, not because they are the seven siblings from one family, but simply because they make magnificent music together, and it is evident they love doing it. Hear them and you know it. See them and you know it.”

Kanneh-Mason explains: “Recording the album came at a good time because we were in the middle of lockdown with no other commitments. We immersed ourselves in the music and we rehearsed together a lot.

“There is definitely no tension as we have been playing together for years. We are always able to switch into professional mode when we are recording and not argue like siblings. I think we all found it really fun. It was a group effort and we all lived it together, preparing in one house so it was a very special time.

“We went out to a studio to record it. For many of us it was the first time we had left the house in five months and so it was a very special experience.”

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Kanneh-Mason, 25, graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2020 with a Master of Arts in Performance and the Diploma of the Royal Academy of Music.

She is no stranger to being on stage and led five members of her family into the spotlight in 2015 in front of none other than Simon Cowell, who was a judge on Britain’s Got Talent.

They made it to the semi-finals, watched by parents Stuart and Kadiatu – who are not musicians - with Cowell declaring they were “probably the most talented family in the world”.

The following year Isata Kanneh-Mason’s brother Sheku became the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician title and has gone on to achieve great success. Isata and her sister Jeneba have both reached the finals themselves in different years.

Every year the European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO) nominates a group of artists viewed as exceptional to be named as its Rising Stars.

Isata Kanneh-Mason is part of that group for the 2021/22 season and will be travelling around concert halls across Europe alongside her work with the Liverpool Philharmonic.

She says she would love to play a duet with Argentinian-born pianist Martha Argerich who is now 80: “I don’t think it is really very possible, but that would be very cool.”

Childhood

Kanneh-Mason’s first memory of sitting at the piano was on holiday in the Caribbean with her grandparents: “I was about five playing the piano and I remember being really excited by the sound. My grandparents played, they were not professional musicians, but they had a love of classical music, like all of my family does.

“I think I felt an instant connection to the piano - as much as a child can.”

Kanneh-Mason says she practiced for one or two hours a day in primary school, then in secondary it went up to three or four. She would take one day off and then do six hours, but was never a “crazy eight hours a day person”.

Now she practices about three or four hours a day.

Although she loves performing, Kanneh-Mason is candid about the effort it takes to be a professional musician: “I think it is impossible to feel motivated all the time, no matter how much you love something. I don’t think that’s human. I am very suspicious of people who say they are always motivated.”

The Kanneh-Masons. Photo: Jake Turney

She says she has never read reviews: “My siblings and I all decided a while ago that it would be a bad idea to read reviews - whether they are good or bad. So we have a ‘no reading reviews or anything online rule’ and we just stick to that. I find that very useful.”

Kanneh-Mason does enjoy some feedback though in the form of young people and their families from a variety of different backgrounds who attend concerts.

“We are seeing more and more diversity at our concerts and it’s always amazing when children say, ‘I started playing the piano because of you or I’m inspired to practice more because of you guys’.

“We want to bring more people into classical music so it’s always a really special moment when that happens.”