New Classical Tracks

Sarah Willis mambos with Mozart on project with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra

Sarah Willis' 'Mozart Y Mambo' combines the music of Mozart with Cuban stylings.Sebastian Haenel

New Classical Tracks: Sarah Willis (extended)


January 20, 2021
New Classical Tracks: Sarah Willis

New Classical Tracks: Sarah Willis
by MPR

Sarah Willis with Havana Lyceum Orchestra/Jose Antonio Mendez Padron Mozart Y Mambo (Alpha-Classics)

Sarah Willis has been a horn player with the Berlin Philharmonic since 2001. She was even surprised when she won the audition!

"At the end of the audition when everyone came out and congratulated me, I was actually thinking, what? Why are they congratulating me? The other guy got it, and they said, no, you got the job. And then somebody said, 'you are the first woman in the Berlin Philharmonic brass section.' I thought, 'Oh, goodness, yes. So I am! I've got to call my mom.'"

In addition to her day job in Berlin, Sarah Willis teaches at various institutions including the New World Symphony in Miami. A direct flight from Miami to Havana is less than an hour, which made it easy for Sarah to start teaching in Cuba as well. That's where the idea for her new recording, Mozart Y Mambo, was born.

"As a horn player, I've always wanted to record the Mozart horn concertos. I mean, who doesn't? That's quite a grand statement, but I really always wanted to record them. And when I met this Orchestra, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and their conductor — wait for it — Jose Antonio Mendez Padron. But we can call him Pepe. It's a lot easier. And I had the idea of recording with them. I love the way they play Mozart. I love the way that Pepe works with them. But it wasn't enough. It was also a little bit selfish of me because I loved Cuban music so much. I decided I wanted to learn how to play it.

And what better way than commissioning some pieces to mix up Mozart and mambo and put a wonderful Cuban flair into the pure Mozart mix? So, we have pure Mozart. We also have some pure Cuban songs, but we also have a wonderful fusion of Mozart and Mambo. And that's the title.

The main concerto on the album is Mozart's Third Horn Concerto, which is an absolute favorite of mine. And the Rondeau is very well known, the last movement. It's wonderfully catchy tune. And Mozart wrote a lot of dance music. You know, you can literally dance to almost every last movement of a symphony of his. And I think the same of the Mozart horn concertos. You can dance to the last movements

I have a wonderful arranger in Australia called Joshua Davis, And I said, listen, I got this crazy idea. I want to turn this piece into a mambo. He was like, sure, no problem — Australians are so laid back. But he didn't know much about Cuban percussion. So, I said, I've got just the person to help us. And turned to a wonderful musician from Cuba, Yuniet Lombida, who plays saxophone on the album and is one of Cuba's best saxophone players and has one of the best hairstyles that I've ever seen there."

Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 3 is a favorite of yours. What did you focus on as you were putting your statement down about this piece of music on this new recording?

"I had to really go back to the basics, and I had long conversations with colleagues of mine about how to do this because you have it in your head. And I decided to sing it. So I was singing it everywhere. And I found I went back to my natural instrument, which is the voice, you know. I don't want to sing to anyone. I got a terrible voice, but you know what I mean. It sort of was if I didn't have the horn in my hands. So it wasn't a horn piece anymore — I turned it into a little mini opera for myself. And it really helped because I could play the notes. I just needed to find my way of playing the notes again, having listened to so many versions of it over the years."

How do you think Mozart would be reacting to the Mambo being incorporated into his music?

"I really hope he would have loved this because we've done our best to pay homage to him. And yeah, I hope I hope instead of turning in his grave somewhere, he's mamboing in his grave."

Mozart with a twist — Mozart Y Mambo featuring horn player Sarah Willis and the Havana Lyceum Orchestra.

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Sarah Willis — Mozart Y Mambo (Amazon)