The most recent release in Sarah’s Willis’ Mozart y Mambo project is one of the more interesting, inspiring, and creative things I’ve seen in classical music in a while. Sarah Willis is a horn superstar who plays in the Berlin Philharmonic, and is also a tv presenter, sharing her love of classical music with everyone willing to listen. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and she spoke passionately about her musical colleagues in the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and conductor (whom she calls her musical soulmate), José Antonio Méndez Padrón. 

In our conversation on Classical Breakdown, Sarah shares all the secrets and musical details in Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances, which includes the first ever Cuban horn concerto, 2 Mozart horn concertos, and a couple of arrangements you’ll be humming for days.  

Sarah takes us on a journey, sharing insights and details in the music we would otherwise never know, like how they think Mozart would’ve been a good Cuban, animals interrupting the recording sessions (some of which you can delightfully hear in the album), how she had to go beyond her classical training, and more. 

For me, it’s the unrelenting commitment to the details. There are moments in the Mozart horn concertos that I haven’t heard like this before, moments that can easily be lost when the orchestra, conductor, and soloist aren’t fully in agreement.  

Sarah Willis
Monika Rittershaus

Before she went to Cuba for the first time, Sarah wasn’t even sure how many horn players were in the country before she arrived to teach a masterclass. She was "blown away” at the number of horn players that showed up for her masterclass and their passion for classical music. This led to her commission of the first Cuban horn concerto, detailing in the liner notes:  

I commissioned six talented young Cuban composers to write the first ever Cuban horn concerto and thus Cuban Dances for solo horn, strings and percussion was born. With Cuban Dances, we have created a musical map of Cuba and its musical heritage in six movements from six different areas in Cuba. The result is a fresh and modern adaptation of Cuba’s most well-known dances. 

Not only are the parts challenging, but she also quickly learned the truth to the phrase “If you can’t dance it, you can’t play it.” Although she was familiar with salsa before arriving in Havana, it took some dedication to learn the traditional Cuban dances. This wasn’t just about learning a dance for fun, some of the rhythms she’s being told to play in the concerto aren’t typically written down, as Cuban musicians learn and improvise on them from an early age.  

The result is worth it, this doesn’t sound like a “classical player” trying to play in any other style. She sounds as much at home playing Cuban dances on the horn with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra as she is playing Mahler in the Berlin Philharmonic.  

Part of her project is raising the level of quality instruments in Cuba, which are commonly inadequate or in need of repair. To learn more about her Instruments for Cuba fund, visit her website here.

Check out the Classical Breakdown episode with Sarah Willis here!

Enjoy the album "Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances" here!

Sarah working with horn players in Cuba and a horn flashmob!

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