Meet Isata Kanneh-Mason, a renowned concert pianist with a passion for classical music. At the age of 27, she has already established an international career as both a soloist and chamber musician. Born and raised in Nottingham, Isata is the eldest of seven siblings, all of whom are talented musicians. Her love for music has led her to release several solo albums and perform in prestigious venues around the world.
You’re about to play your first solo Prom. Exciting? Nerve-racking?
As Isata prepares for her upcoming solo Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, she expresses a mix of excitement and nerves. While she has previously performed chamber music Proms, this will be her first time playing as a soloist in front of a large crowd. Isata will be performing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, a piece she loves for its energetic and rhythmic nature. Despite the anticipation, Isata acknowledges that the true magic of a performance can only be felt when collaborating with the orchestra.
There’s a preconception that the life of a concert pianist is lonely, solitary, even tortured. How do you manage a work-life balance?
Isata emphasizes the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance as a concert pianist. While she is disciplined and enjoys practicing alone, she understands the risks of isolating oneself for too long. Isata sets aside specific hours for practice each day but also makes time to see friends and family, ensuring that she has a well-rounded life outside of her musical pursuits.
There have been legal complaints recently about musicians who practise at home. You live with friends in a flat in north London… it can’t be easy.
Isata reveals her solution to the challenge of practicing at home without disturbing her flatmates – she has a piano with a silencer installed, allowing her to practice anytime using headphones. However, when she needs to play on a professional instrument, she has access to other locations where she can hone her skills.
As the eldest of seven siblings, you must have had the burden of leadership thrust on you, or doesn’t it work like that?
Isata reflects on her role as the eldest sibling and how it influenced her upbringing. While there was some expectation for her to set an example for her younger siblings, she emphasizes that their musical careers have developed in unique ways, and they support one another. Scheduling and communication through group chats help them stay connected as a family.
You have always found a natural flow between different kinds of music – and you’ve never regarded classical music as stuffy…
Isata and her siblings have always embraced various genres of music, including classical, from a young age. They believe that classical music encompasses a wide range of human emotions and can be understood if one listens attentively. Isata highlights the universal appeal and emotional depth of classical music, debunking the notion that it is inaccessible or elitist.
You and your siblings attract noticeably different, more diverse audiences. How can they be tempted into other classical events?
Isata acknowledges the challenge of attracting diverse audiences to classical music events but believes that personal connections can play a significant role. By introducing newcomers to specific soloists or composers they resonate with, they may be more open to exploring other classical works. Isata also emphasizes the importance of performing in various venues, such as state schools and unconventional spaces like car parks, to reach people from different walks of life.
Because you and your siblings all succeeded in your Nottingham state school, people expect you to have the answers to the growing problem of music education…
Isata acknowledges the privilege she and her siblings had in having supportive parents and a nurturing school environment. She believes that the lack of funding is a significant issue in music education but also emphasizes the value of music in fostering self-discipline, confidence, and collaboration. Isata hopes that society recognizes the holistic benefits of music beyond its academic or performance aspects.
In your playing, you’ve been determined to bring lesser-known composers to the fore. Have you got more in mind?
Isata has always been passionate about shedding light on lesser-known composers and pieces. While she has focused on this exploration in her musical career, she believes that all musicians should embrace the discovery of new works. Isata mentions her inclusion of Dohnányi’s “Variations on a Nursery Tune” in her album “Childhood Tales” as an example and expresses her current fascination with the music of Sofia Gubaidulina.
Isata has been inspired by various pianists throughout her life. From her early years, Martha Argerich has been a role model for Isata. She also admires the recordings of legendary pianists like Rachmaninov, Artur Schnabel, and Sviatoslav Richter. Among contemporary pianists, Isata is a huge fan of Benjamin Grosvenor and Beatrice Rana.
What do you listen to off duty?
Isata’s music tastes extend beyond classical. She enjoys listening to artists like Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, and Lauryn Hill. She is also a fan of film soundtracks and musicals, with personal favorites including “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “Miss Saigon,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Isata loves exploring different genres of music in her leisure time and often attends live performances.
Don’t you find the pieces you’re working on are forever playing round in your head?
Surprisingly, Isata shares that she manages to switch off from work when she is not at the piano. Whether she is walking, at the gym, running, cooking, or traveling, she enjoys listening to a variety of music rather than constantly replaying the pieces she is currently practicing.
You meet a reluctant classical newcomer. What should they listen to?
Isata suggests introducing a reluctant newcomer to the fourth movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2. She recommends this piece because it is thrilling and has been featured in the film “The Page Turner.” Isata also mentions the first movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet as another accessible and captivating composition she discovered at a young age.