published Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Teen cellist faces fears to win Chattanooga Symphony & Opera competition (with video)

  • photo
    Hannah Kuhn, 17, is the third-chair cellist in the Chattanooga Symphony & Youth Opera. This year she won the CSO Youth Orchestra's concerto competition. She also has been the third-chair cellist in the Tennessee All-State Orchestra for the last two years and is the principal cellist at the Center for Creative Arts.
    Photo by Allison Love.
    enlarge photo

  • Hannah Kuhn
    Hannah Kuhn practices Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, with which she won this year's CSO Youth Orchestra concerto competition.


Hannah Kuhn, 17, is the third-chair cellist in the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Youth Symphony. This year she won the CSO Youth Orchestra's concerto competition. She also has been the third-chair cellist in the Tennessee All-State Orchestra for the last two years and is the principal cellist at Center for Creative Arts.


• School: Senior at Center for Creative Arts.

• Siblings: Sisters Emily, 21, and Hayley, 24.

• Favorite piece to play: Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op 85.

• Favorite composer: Beethoven.

• Musical idol: Jacqueline du Pre.


Do you know a child age 17 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which appears in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at or call him at 423-757-6205.

Watching Hannah Kuhn, 17, perform Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, it is difficult to imagine the hours of practice and the obstacles she has had to overcome to master it.

The piece, written in 1919, was the product of the English composer's deep depression over the human toll taken by World War I.

It is not, Hannah said, an uplifting work.

"That piece is so emotional," she said. "It's very depressive."

Yet it is, by far, her favorite and has been since she first heard it after beginning her cello studies in sixth grade at Center for Creative Arts.

"I immediately wanted to play Elgar," she said. "That concerto has been with me all along. It's a sad piece, but it comforted me, in a way. To me, it was the be-all end-all."

The concerto, one of Elgar's best-known works, first captured Hannah's fascination when she watched a performance on YouTube by famed English cellist Jaqueline du Pre.

Hannah, now a senior at CCA, said she was intimidated by the piece at first and didn't expect to begin working on it until she was in college. Her private instructor, Chattanooga Symphony & Opera cellist Annie Camp, thought differently.

In 2010, she asked Hannah to come in with a list of concertos to begin working on. Elgar's concerto didn't even make the list.

"I wouldn't even suggest it because it was too grand," Hannah said.

But when Camp offered it up as a possibility, Hannah jumped at the opportunity.

Despite the carpal tunnel syndrome she developed from practicing an average of five hours a day, Hannah dove into working on Elgar's composition when she was given approval to practice again.

Since then, the piece has been Hannah's white whale.

She began working on it with an eye to performing it for the 2011 CSO Youth Orchestra annual concerto competition, but the August auditions coincided with the death of CCA senior class president Kelly Butler, a close friend.

Suddenly, Hannah said, the emotional weight of the concerto was too personal, and during her performance, it was too much to bear.

"I got very emotional," she said. "I cried in the middle of my audition. I was able to make it through but not play to the best of my ability."

Hannah refused to let the piece get the better of her, though.

Sandy Morris, who recently retired from directing CCA's string program, said Hannah is a tenacious, deliberate student and has grown as a musician as she assailed Elgar's work.

"She [approaches] the piece so carefully because she has loved it for so long," Morris said. "Her technique, the cello sound and the piece have grown together. They work as a trio."

With the feedback of her family, friends and teachers, Hannah polished her performance over the last year. When she auditioned in August for this year's competition, she won with her performance of the piece's final movement.

"She has a very, very high level interpretation of [the piece] at this point," Morris said. "I listened to her right before the audition, and I was amazed at how far she's come."

Hannah serves as her school's principal cellist and twice has been selected to participate in the Tennessee All-State Orchestra, the state's highest scholastic string ensemble. However, those honors pale in comparison to winning the competition, she said.

"It meant more to me than anything," she said. "By the time I got up there, I was nervous, but I proved to myself and other people that I knew the piece."

As this year's winner, Hannah will perform the piece twice in public concerts. The first will be during the Youth Symphony's fall concert on Nov. 5. The second will be as part of a February concert with the CSO.

Even having won the competition, Hannah said she probably will never be able to move past the Elgar.

She has been using it as an audition piece for the musical conservatories she hopes to attend after graduating, and the more she works with it, the more textures she uncovers.

"I don't think I'll feel that [I've conquered it] with this piece," she said. "That's not a bad thing because it's always going to ebb and flow and change. I always want to learn new things about it."

Contact Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @Phillips CTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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