Guest artists are often booked far in advance by major orchestras such as LACO, and it’s rare for one of these musicians to cancel an engagement. Not many excuses for a cancellation will suffice. Here are some good ones:

You’ve caught a rare tropical disease that might infect the string section. Your plane from Europe is grounded indefinitely in Newfoundland because a hurricane shut down air travel along the Eastern Seaboard. You lost three fingers in a freak amusement-park accident and are getting them reattached by a crack surgical team in Hamburg.

Yes. Those are very good reasons.

Here is an excuse that does not normally work:

“I have to play at a wedding.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during their wedding at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

But that’s exactly what the acclaimed young English cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason had to tell LACO. Though plans were all set for his Los Angeles performance in May 2018, he had to back out at the (relatively) last minute. This wasn’t just any matrimonial event, it turned out. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — soon to be the Duchess of Sussex — had asked Kanneh-Mason to play at their wedding. (They’d been impressed with him when he played at a charity event they attended.) With this honor, he’d be performing in a ceremony televised around the world.

“He’d signed a contract with LACO. Obviously, we didn’t try to hold him to it,” says LACO interim executive director Ruth Eliel with a laugh.

In fact, LACO was delighted to accommodate a royal wedding and reschedule Kanneh-Mason for a later date.

Two years later, he will perform the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 with LACO in four performances May 15-18, with music director Jaime Martin conducting. If Kanneh-Mason had stuck with his original timing, LACO would have featured an up-and-coming acclaimed performer. Now the occasion will be even more notable, this time with a worldwide-known player boasting even more name recognition.

Isata Kanneh-Mason | Photo: Robin Clewley

Adding to his LACO experience, Kanneh-Mason is also one of two artists-in-residence selected by the orchestra for the 2019-20 season. (The other is the composer Missy Mazzoli.) His first engagement is coming up soon. Kanneh-Mason will visit the Colburn School to teach a master class in cello. He’ll be joined by his accomplished sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, who will teach a master class in piano. Together they will perform in a public concert at 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at Zipper Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

“I love to play chamber music with my sister,” he says.

He is a buoyant personality on the phone, even with cranky cell reception, and while he’s probably tired more than a year later of talking about the royal wedding, he graciously tolerates the inevitable questions.

“I really enjoyed the performance,” he says. “And It’s really nice that now more people know about my music. I’ve always wanted to share my music with as many people as I can.”

A tweet he posted that morning includes a photo of him “On my way to perform at the #RoyalWedding.” It shows him sitting in a van with his shiny blue cello case in the luggage compartment behind him. He had informed his social-media fans of the gig by writing: “I was bowled over when Ms Markle called me to ask if I would play during the ceremony, and of course I immediately said yes!!! What a privilege. I can’t wait!”

He earned rave reviews for the three pieces he performed at the wedding: Maria Theresia von Paradis’ Sicilienne, Gabriel Fauré’s Après un rêve and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.

Vanity Fair noted: “And then there was the cellist, who some on Twitter have lovingly called “Cello Bae,” thanks in part to his looks, in part to his obvious talent, and in part to his ‘cello face’—the slightly more reserved cousin to ‘bass face.’”

Kanneh-Mason’s first big brush with fame came when he won 2016’s BBC Young Musician competition.

LACO became aware of him because of his involvement with the Chineke! Orchestra. The ensemble was founded in 2015 by the double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku “to provide career opportunities for young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe.”

“ChiChi heard him play when he was a young teenager and brought him under her wing,” says Taylor Lockwood, LACO operations manager.

That sparked the original invite to play in 2018 — the one that got bumped by the wedding.

When Kanneh-Mason accepted the orchestra’s invitation to be an artist-in-residence, LACO does what it’s known for: It tailored the experience to reflect the musician’s interests and passions. What kind of community, he was asked, would you like to be connecting with?

“He said he wanted to be around young people, and be exposed to a lot of young black artists,” Lockwood says. “We started to build his residency around that.”

Jaime Martín, LACO’s new music director, is excited that Kanneh-Mason is choosing to work with musicians close to his age. “I don’t know if he realizes how much of an inspiration he has become for a big group of young people,” Martín says. “Not only for young people who are interested in music, but for young people who don’t realize it until he introduces them to it.”

“I don’t know if he realizes how much of an inspiration he has become for a big group of young people.”
— Music Director Jaime Martín

The master classes at the Colburn School in December reflect Kanneh-Mason’s youthful connections. And several events during his May visit will strike similar themes.

LACO has long had a partnership with the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Students in that group will have the opportunity to attend the cellist’s official guest-artist closed rehearsal with the orchestra. They will participate in a question-and-answer session with him afterward.

Also during his residency, he will visit a Northridge elementary school to play the cello for fourth-through-sixth graders.

“I really enjoy it working with children,” he says. “Because of my closeness in age to young performers, I can relate to them in that sense. I just enjoy being able to share.”

Finally, LACO will be holding its first “cello-play-in,” open to cellists of any age, from 2 years to 90. It will be open to the public. Participants will be able to access and print music online of various difficulty levels, giving everyone a chance to play together as Kanneh-Mason leads.

His main focus during his May visit, however, will be on the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1, a newer piece in his repertoire. The piece was recorded by one of his musical heroes, Jacqueline du Pre, another brilliant young cellist. (He’s also a fan of Bob Marley).

“Her way of expressing things is very natural and very honest,” he says of du Pre. “She’s the perfect musician in many respects.”

These are busy and wonderful times for the 20-year-old Kanneh-Mason, whose world has only gotten bigger since he booked — and then had to postpone — that first Los Angeles engagement. Now he can finally make a proper LACO debut. This time it’s a sure thing. You only get one royal-wedding excuse every 10 years.



Featuring music by Saint-Saëns, Beethoven and the world premiere of Derrick Spiva Jr’s Prisms, Cycles, Leaps: Part III “To Be A Horizon”.