Orchestral Student Awards Recognize Ensemble Members for Musical Accomplishment and Leadership

Violinists in performance

Every year, students in the Department of Music's Performance Program are recognized for their high level of accomplishment in their discipline and their commitment to their ensemble(s). This year, nine students from the University Symphony Orchestra have been recognized. 

Ellis Bonoff Kohs Award for Orchestral Excellence

Established in 2003, the Ellis Bonoff Kohs Award for Orchestral Excellence is presented to outstanding undergraduate or graduate students in the University Symphony Orchestra who are members of the woodwind, brass, or percussion sections. It is awarded each year to University of Chicago students who have been members of the USO for at least one full season, and who have consistently demonstrated the highest level of musical accomplishment on their instrument, as well as an extraordinary commitment to the Orchestra during that tenure.

Emerson Ahn headshot

Emerson Ahn, horn, is a fourth-year Political Science major with research interests in authoritarian regimes and international relations. Originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Emerson began his music education with piano lessons at age six. At age eight, he had the opportunity to start a band instrument through school and chose horn due to his love of John Williams and movie scores. He has since played with numerous ensembles in the Philadelphia area including the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Bravo Brass Ensemble, Philadelphia Sinfonia, and the Center City Chamber Orchestra. Emerson has been with the University Symphony Orchestra since his first year in the College and loves its diverse repertoire and musical experiences as a horn player. Beyond the USO, Emerson continues to play piano and is teaching himself guitar and bass. After graduation, he will spend next year on a Boren Scholarship studying Indonesian in Malang and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Claire Dennis, headshot

Claire Dennis, harp, is currently a fourth year at the University majoring in Economics and minoring in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Born in Los Angeles, Claire attended The Buckley School and then Harvard-Westlake for middle and high school. She began playing piano at the age of four, and started playing harp when she was 9 years old. She has played harp in her school orchestra and symphony from 4th grade on, as well as for all four years at the University. Claire has enjoyed playing harp in pit performances for musicals, and as a featured soloist in concerts at The Buckley School and at Harvard-Westlake. Claire has played harp as a studio musician, recording for Capitol Records, and has performed as a wedding harpist. She intends to continue her musical training, and hopes to play for the Symphony Orchestra at the University of Southern California, where she will be pursuing her Masters in Accounting following a summer internship at Ernst & Young in Los Angeles. Her other hobbies include reading, playing golf, snowboarding, and speaking Mandarin Chinese.

David L. Fulton Prize for Orchestral Excellence

Established in 1998, the David L. Fulton Prize for Orchestral Excellence is presented to outstanding undergraduate or graduate student stringed-instrument players in the University Symphony Orchestra. It is awarded each year to University of Chicago students who have been members of the University Symphony for at least one full season, and who have consistently demonstrated the highest level of musical accomplishment on their instrument, as well as an extraordinary commitment to the Orchestra, during that tenure.

William Cerny headshot

William Cerny, cello, is a fourth year in the College majoring in Astrophysics. He began playing cello in the first grade, and has since played in a variety of ensembles, including serving as principal cellist of his high school orchestra and as a long-time member of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra program. At UChicago, William began in the University Chamber Orchestra for his first year, before joining the University Symphony Orchestra, where he has participated for the last three years. While a student, he has greatly enjoyed attending numerous diverse concerts from UChicago's many student music groups, as well as Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts downtown. He will begin studies toward a PhD in Astronomy at Yale University in the Fall, where he hopes to join a chamber music ensemble and to continue private lessons.

Luke Diggins headshot

Luke Diggins, violin, began playing at age five when he was introduced to the instrument in his kindergarten music class. He quickly took to the instrument and began playing with his elementary school’s string ensemble shortly afterwards. His first performances included arrangements of Pachelbel’s Cannon. From this early ensemble, Luke learned he especially enjoyed playing music in groups.

Luke joined New England Conservatory’s preparatory music program in Boston when he was nine and would play in various ensembles there every week until he graduated high school nine years later. He played his first full symphony and learned to play chamber music at NEC.

Upon arriving at the University of Chicago, Luke knew he wanted to continue to play violin and especially to participate in one of the ensembles the University offered. The USO seemed like a great opportunity to do so. He participated in the Orchestra all four years, played a lot of fantastic music, met many great musicians, and wore three different Halloween costumes for concerts.

Luke is so thankful for his time in the USO with Maestra Schubert and hopes to find similar groups to continue to play music together in the future.

Ben Gerhardt headshot

Ben Gerhardt, violin, recently graduated from the College, majoring in Philosophy. His thesis argues for reading Plato’s philosophy as the foundation for modern-day science fiction. Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ben has been playing the violin for the past 18 years and counting. During his four years in the University Symphony Orchestra, Ben studied with David Taylor, the associate concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Outside of violin and orchestra, Ben listens to hip-hop and soul music, and he loves reading science fiction, watching movies, and exploring the city of Chicago. A burger enthusiast, Ben’s explored every worthy burger in Chicago, taking what he’s learned into the kitchen. 

Emma Van Lieshout headshot

Emma Van Lieshout, viola, is a fourth year in the College, graduating with degrees in Public Policy Studies and Economics. She has been playing the viola for twelve years—since she was nine years old—and studied privately in the Kansas City area with Nell French. During her musical career, Emma has served as principal violist in the Kansas All-State orchestra and soloist with the Blue Valley North Symphonic Orchestra, and she also performed with the NAfME All-National Orchestra and the Youth Symphony of Kansas City. During her fun-filled four years with the USO, you might have recognized Emma as a teal crayon or Smurfette at the Halloween concert, her favorite event of the USO season! You might also know her as a Resident Assistant for Halperin House or the president and choreographer for Tap That!, UChicago’s tap dance RSO. Next year, Emma is excited to return to the university—and the orchestra too—as a graduate student at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Ellyn Liu headshot

Ellyn Liu, violin, is a fourth-year Computer Science and Music major in the College from Peoria, IL. She began playing the violin at age nine and has studied with numerous violinists, including Jane Hoffmire, Tricia Park, and John Macfarlane. Before college, she served as the concertmaster of her high school orchestra, principal second violinist of Central Illinois Youth Symphony, a member of ILMEA District and All-State Honors orchestra, and frequently played in string quartets.

Ellyn has played with the University Symphony Orchestra for the past four years. Outside of USO, she performs in the Chamber Music Program and works as an assistant in the music department. She enjoys studying music theory and history, and recently completed a BA thesis in music. She also volunteered with the South Side Free Music Program teaching violin lessons in Hyde Park for two years and serves as co-director of UChicago ACM-W. After graduation, Ellyn plans to move to Seattle to work as a software engineer at Microsoft and hopes to continue her musical studies there.

Clara Mikhail headshot

Clara Mikhail, contrabass, was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and is graduating with a degree in NELC and a minor in Music. A longtime musician introduced to orchestra at Lane Tech High School, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, and Merit School of Music’s Philharmonic Orchestra, Clara has played with the University Symphony Orchestra for four years and the Middle East Ensemble for two. Clara plans to continue playing with both groups post-graduation, take Arabic maqam lessons with Wanees Zarour, and overall keep music an integral part of life. 

Jennifer Morse headshot

Jennifer Morse, contrabass, began playing 12 years ago, when she was 10 years old. She played in orchestra in middle and high school, also participating in the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra. She has been in the University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s bass section for four years, since her first year at the College. At the University of Chicago, Jennifer double majored in English & Creative Writing, and has written for the Chicago Maroon and UChicago’s music magazine, Firebird. She also runs Undergraduate Women in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and has worked at the University of Chicago Press for three years. After graduation, she will be staying at the Press for two years before applying to grad school. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, and writing.