Cellist Drew Dansby to Perform Jazz-Influenced Cello Concerto

In a "first" for the Oberlin Concerto Competition, the soloist will be accompanied by a jazz ensemble.

April 11, 2024

Cathy Partlow Strauss ’84

young man in gold shirt, seated with cello
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Each October seniors in the Conservatory are eligible to compete in the annual Concerto Competition. An external jury selects four young artists to perform complete concertos  with Oberlin's orchestras, conducted by Raphael Jiménez.

This year cellist Drew Dansby entered the competition with David Baker’s 1987 Concerto for Cello and Jazz Band, and earned one of these four solo spots. On Friday, April 12, he'll perform this work accompanied by an ensemble of students from Oberlin's Jazz Division under the leadership of Chris Anderson, director of the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble. It is the first time a jazz ensemble has been employed as collaborators for a Concerto Competition winner's solo date.

The evening's program in Finney Chapel will also showcase the Oberlin Orchestra, with Raphael Jiménez, in performances of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 and Carlos Simon's AMEN!, written in 2017 and revised in 2019.

Meet the soloist

At 23, Drew Dansby is the youngest member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and he is the cellist of the award-winning Poiesis Quartet, formed at Oberlin in the Advanced String Quartet Seminar. Dansby won the position with Cincinnati last spring. He will graduate from Oberlin this spring with dual degrees—a Bachelor of Music in cello performance and a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry, along with minors in sociology and comparative American studies. He is a student of Darrett Adkins.

With the Poiesis Quartet, Dansby won the Grand Prize at the 2023 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, as well as the gold medal at the 2023 St. Paul String Quartet Competition. Highlights of the quartet's 2023-24 season include a recording project with Grammy-winning producer Elaine Martone and mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, the quartet's New York City debut on the Schneider Series at the Mannes School of Music, and a summer residency at the Emilia Romagna Festival in Italy. The Poiesis Quartet is continuing their studies in the Graduate Quartet Program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Dansby began playing both violin and cello at the age of 4 and continues to perform on both instruments. He was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States for three international summer tours, and was recognized as the first person in the history of that orchestra to be accepted on two instruments. 

He made his solo debut with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra at age 15, and he has performed with the Eastern Festival Orchestra as a winner of the Eastern Music Festival Concerto Competition. He was recognized as a National YoungArts Winner and was awarded the gold medal in the Cleveland Cello Society competition. 

Committed to using music as a tool for community building, Dansby has worked as a volunteer to expand access to music education for young people and created organizations and programs that have served as fundraisers and outreach vehicles to nursing homes, hospitals, and after-school programs.

As a chemistry major at Oberlin, Dansby conducted molecular dynamics and computational chemistry research under Professors Manish Mehta and Shuming Chen, and he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honors society. He also interned as an air quality analyst at the Charlotte branch of Civil and Environmental Consultants and conducted atmospheric chemistry research with Dr. Terry Miller at The Ohio State University. 


How did you come to choose the David Baker Concerto for Cello and Jazz Band?

I first learned about David Baker in 2020 during the George Floyd uprisings, when there was increased interest in the classical music community in platforming works by Black composers. David Baker was a prolific multi-instrumentalist (including cellist), improviser, and composer, who many remember for his warm sense of humor and his brilliant teaching at Indiana University. He wrote a concerto for cello and chamber orchestra and a solo cello sonata, which are perhaps more well known. But, I came across his Concerto for Cello and Jazz Band and was really curious. No recordings were publicly available at that time. I reached out to the Conservatory Library, where Deborah Campana (Head of the Conservatory Library at the time) was able to find a recording of the first movement from a limited edition CD recorded shortly after Baker finished the composition in 1987. The piece sounded wicked hard, but also had some achingly beautiful moments, and I knew I had to learn it. The library also had a scan of Baker’s handwritten manuscript of the big band score, which gave me the idea to make a transcription of the composition for cello and jazz piano so I would be able to play it for the rounds of the Oberlin Concerto Competition. I eventually met and partnered with Mitchell Galligan, a really talented jazz piano student who agreed to play my arrangement with me. I hoped this piece would be a good alternative to playing a canon cello concerto with orchestra, and thought it could also be an opportunity for collaboration between the classical and jazz departments of the Conservatory.

What has the piece taught you about your playing and how to reach an audience?

Baker wrote this work to encompass a variety of Black American music styles that are generally grouped under the blanket term “jazz,” including bebop improvisation, early R&B, and soul. The structure of the work—featuring three movements, two extended cadenzas that open and close the piece, and big band sections—bring aspects of the jazz idiom to closely resemble a European concerto for soloist and orchestra. Every main melody in the work is very accessible, almost cinematic. There is a beautiful waltz that opens the second movement, and the driving main theme of the third movement could be heard as an intro in a 90’s action film. However, each theme is cloaked in very technical cello writing. It’s been a challenge to explore how the solo part’s virtuosity contributes to the spirit of each melody or line, while not getting distracted by its difficulty. For me, this piece is also a reminder that every aspect that is cool and popular in classical music—especially contemporary American music—is Black American music adapted to more traditional European forms. 

When you think back on your time at Oberlin, what stands out about the experience of going to school here?

Oberlin has incredible professors and an academic culture that encourages critical inquiry, and I felt like I had the resources and support to pursue anything I was interested in. But I also feel like I learned as much from my classmates as I did from my classes and professors. The conservatory is a place where we often end up spending more time than even our homes or dorms. Everyone I’ve met at Oberlin is deeply passionate about community building, and it reflects in the ways we all show up and look out for each other.

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