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Interview: Isata Kanneh-Mason on Summertime

23 July 2021

Isata Kanneh-Mason talks to Susan Gray about her new album

John Davis

Isata Kanneh-Mason

Isata Kanneh-Mason

IT IS the morning after the pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason’s first live UK concert in five months, and she is understandably exhilarated. “I played in Brighton yesterday, which was my first performance with an audience for a long while. There was such a warm atmosphere in the hall. I felt so grateful to be back on stage. There’s such an appetite now for live concerts, both from the audience and the performers; so we’ll see some good things happen hopefully.”

At 24, Isata is the eldest of the Nottingham musical Kanneh-Mason family of seven siblings. Her brother Sheku played the cello at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding, and all her younger brothers and sisters perform. Her family were received into the Roman Catholic Church when Isata was young, and she has few memories of life before that.

“I started going to church when I was about five or six. So it was always part of the family routine, something we would do on Sunday morning; and then my secondary school was the same. I remember it being part of my childhood. It’s part of the routine and the normal thing to do: you go with the flow.”

But now the pressures of life as a touring classical musician flow in the other direction. “Unfortunately, no, when I’m on tour and busy doing all these things, I don’t go to the actual service, but I still think of these things, while I’m around and while I’m performing, it’s still part of my life, but I don’t have time to go there physically on Sunday often.”

Isata discovered Mozart’s Requiem at the same as the film Amadeus, and the piece is her and her mother Kadiatu Kanneh’s favourite mass setting. “He wrote it quite close to his death. There’s such a sort of dark excitement to the music, and a side of Mozart we don’t often see. So the pieces that I grew up loving in my childhood always have an element of nostalgia, and reach a different part of me.”

Her earliest performances were in churches around Nottingham, including Southwell Minster. She continues that, while faith does not influence her choice of pieces to play, it does inform her approach to music.

“I feel that music is something outside me, and something that I feel very in awe of, and I feel that way when I’m performing the music as well. There are things that are not tangible, and are difficult to quantify, and that’s what makes them mysterious, and makes you feel awestruck when you listen to music. These sorts of things that are quite ethereal I feel very fascinated by.”

On her second album, Summertime, Coleridge Taylor’s “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” feels particularly resonant to a virtuoso pianist facing the demands of a burgeoning career. “I don’t feel like a motherless child or anything! I think it’s a wonderful piece, because he’s not specifically speaking of an actual mother: it’s a yearning for home — and speaks of a yearning for people who have left Africa and moved to spend their lives in America.

“That yearning for home, and that a part of you is missing, never quite leaves you. I wasn’t born in Africa: I was born here; but a yearning for home is something most people can relate to, and I can relate to it. I feel very at home when I’m in the Caribbean or with my family, but you can’t be at home all the time. When I’m travelling, and in different places, I have a longing to be at home.”

The quiet place in Summertime, a joyous, rich, and unexpected exploration of 20th- century American music, is Amy Beach’s “By the Still Waters”, a paraphrase of Psalm 23. “‘By the Still Waters’ is a beautiful piece of music, and meditative in nature. The music on the rest of the album — there’s lots going on. This is the calmest point of the album. It allows me to step back and feel very still, and it works really well in the context of the album and as a piece.”

Summertime also has the first recording of Coleridge Taylor’s Intermezzo No. 2. “I couldn’t believe the piece hadn’t been recorded before, and that I hadn’t heard it before. I felt also a sense of freedom bringing it into the recorded world, because it hadn’t been done, and I could really put my own stamp on it, and bring what I wanted to the music. It’s a beautiful piece; so I hope many other people will follow suit.”

Isata Kanneh-Mason released Summertime on Decca Classics on 9 July.

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