Artist to Watch: Hannah Collins

Cellist Hannah Collins inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City (photo by Jim Barcus)

The Kansas City Cellist Has Released Her First Solo Album Amid a Calendar Filled with Live Performances

Cellist Hannah Collins, assistant professor at the University of Kansas, is a prolific chamber music collaborator. She’s also just released her first solo album: “Resonance Lines.”

Collins arrived in Kansas in 2016 and began performing frequently in both Lawrence and Kansas City. She already had a friend and collaborator on faculty, her duo partner percussionist Michael Compitello. They joined forces in 2011 as New Morse Code, though cello and percussion are an unusual combination. “We did not form the group based on instrumentation,” she said, “we formed a group because we were interested in working on projects in the same way.”

“We both had some experiences where we really got to be collaborators during the building of a piece,” said Collins. “We realized that when you go onstage, when you’ve been part of the process the whole time, when there have been issues and you’ve had time to sort them out, when you know the piece as well as you would know any ‘traditional’ rep, you feel much better on stage, a strong advocate for that piece. The piece comes across better, people enjoy it more and everything is good.”

Recent performances include a project at the Lansing Correctional Facility, with composer Ingrid Stölzel and flutist Sarah Frisof, and the opera monodrama “dwb (driving while Black)” with composer Susan Kander and soprano/librettist Roberta Gumbel. They spent four years developing that work, which was performed in Kansas City in 2019. In 2020, they made a filmed version and released an album.

Though they didn’t set out to impart a particular message, many projects explore social consciousness. “When we get together with collaborators . . . we tend to do this in a really organic and slow way,” said Collins. “If we are going to build a new piece with somebody, we might get together and just listen to music together or . . . brainstorm, spend some time together, eat a meal together. And the kinds of things that come up in conversation when you are hanging out are the things that are on everyone’s minds.”

Their current project is “The Language of Landscapes,” about climate change and climate action. They recently won the inaugural competition for the Ariel AVANT “Impact Performance” prize, which included a two-week incubation residency.

The project includes work from Christopher Stark and Viet Cuong and a newly commissioned work by Andy Akiho, with a video component by Hannah Wasileski, along with community engagement activities and a tour in the spring, including a performance at the Lied Center.

If you can’t tell already, Collins is, at her own admission, “obsessed” with chamber music.

Shortly after moving to the area, she was guesting with local groups and soon became a member of Bach Aria Soloists, too. “We laugh so much in rehearsal, but everyone is flexible and creative and just beautiful musicians. I’ve never been in a group quite like that before, where sometimes we are playing ‘traditional’ pieces, but we can just as easily be making our own group arrangement or working on a new commission,” said Collins.

Though Collins graduated from the Yale School of Music with her master’s degree in music, she earned her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering. “I just grew up surrounded by people who love music and are also doctors. I’ve always been really interested in science and medicine and designing things.”

During her undergraduate years, she played “a ton of music,” but she also studied how sensory perception differs between people. “You and I don’t necessarily have all the same smell receptors and we don’t necessarily feel temperature the same way, but we manage to move through the world functionally.”

“All my research projects and work in the field was about sensory perception — weirdly, not about musical perception — but just general sensory perception: taste, smell and feel. There are these questions: What are each of us perceiving; what makes a shared experience?” Collins said. “That’s very relevant to a musician who is trying to design or interpret something in a way that is going to impact everyone despite how different everybody in the audience might be.”

Of course, as with most musicians, her schedule cleared out considerably in March 2020. But by April, she’d realized she had time to take on a different type of project, and she set out to record her first solo album. “The idea of the project had been floating in my mind,” said Collins.

Most of the pieces on “Resonance Lines,” said Collins, “have lived in my life for about 10 years . . . although it took making the album to articulate how they are related, or how they interact in my mind and in my experience.” Caroline Shaw’s “in manus taus” is inspired by the 16th-century motet by Thomas Tallis; Kaija Saariaho’s “Dreaming Chaconne” is a variation on the earliest known work for cello, from 1670. For the album, Collins commissioned Thomas Kotcheff, who wrote “Cadenza (With or Without Hadyn),” inspired by Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1.

The phrase “resonance lines” comes from physics, but Collins used the term metaphorically, again tapping that sensory perception background.

“Sometimes you hear a certain song on a certain day and you are with a certain person and that sticks with you forever. It just strikes a nerve, or it goes into your memory with all those associations and it just . . . glows a little hotter than the other things around it.”

When those moments happen, said Collins, you find out more about yourself. “These pieces all hit me in some way for specific reasons,” she said. “It’s an album full of music made by people who are feeling these connections and these resonances.”

She brings these connections and sense of collaboration to her teaching, as well. “As a student, I always valued finding those people in my environment who I could talk to, who weren’t competitive, who would share . . . Having a kind of attitude more toward collecting information and sharing ideas extends very naturally to teaching,” she said. “You never know what kind of sparks can come, or where they are going to come from, as long as you keep the conversation open.

Along with upcoming performances with Bach Aria Soloists and New Morse Code, Collins also joins in NAVO’s “Cellissimo” celebration, with some of the region’s finest cellists, keeping true to her penchant for collaboration and shared experience.

Learn more at hannahcollinscello.com. “Resonance Lines” is available from www.sonoluminus.com.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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