Sarah Willis MBE is a member of the Berlin Philharmonic and is passionate about sharing her love of music with everyone. Her newest album Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances is the continuation of a project she started a few years earlier with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra in Cuba. In a conversation with John Banther, she takes us on a journey through her new album and the first-ever Cuban horn concerto!
Where to listen to Mozart y Mambo?
A list of places to listen can be found on her website here.
Sarah Willis MBE is an internationally renowned French horn player. She has been a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra since 2001 and is also an acclaimed TV and digital presenter. Traveling the world with her horn, she brings the best of classical music to a global audience.
Instruments for Cuba
Sarah mentioned the condition of many of the musicians' instruments in Cuba, learn more about her Instruments for Cuba fund and how you can help here.
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by TV presenter and horn player extraordinaire Sarah Willis. Her recent international project, Mozart y Mambo, is one of the more interesting and inspiring collaborations I've seen in a long time.
There is so much to enjoy in this episode as Sarah guides us through all the details of her music, things we wouldn't know otherwise; how she had to go beyond her classical horn training, learning Cuban dances, a hidden motif and so much more. Stay with us to the end as we hear the horn like you've never heard it before.
Thank you so much, Sarah, for speaking with me. Some of our audience is familiar with your work. But for everyone else, how would you briefly describe yourself and what you do?
Sarah Willis: Well, thank you very much for having me. It's really great to talk to you today. My name's Sarah Willis. I play the French horn in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Apart from that, I love communicating my passion for classical music to a wider audience. I love education work, but I also love crazy projects of mixing and matching certain types of music, which is how this project, Mozart y Mambo, came to life.
John Banther: This Mozart y Mambo is a continuation of what you started actually a few years ago. This is the second album?
Sarah Willis: That's right. Mozart y Mambo actually just started out as an album of things that I wanted to put out there, but it's become much more than that. It's now a big project. We raised money with the first album to help my Havana Lyceum Orchestra buy better instruments because the condition of their instruments in Cuba was really pretty poor. But they still play great. We've just brought out a second album because we realized people actually really wanted to listen to what we were doing, which made us very happy.
John Banther: Well, it's all very exciting and I think a lot of our audience might not be aware that Cuba has a particular love for Mozart, it seems. Even from reading your liner notes, it sounds like he would've been a great Cuban musician, too.
Sarah Willis: We totally agree with that. Now, I went to Cuba back in 2017 for the first time because I'd fallen in love with Cuban music. Who didn't after the Buena Vista Social Club? I learned to dance salsa here in Berlin. Classical musicians are renowned for not being the best dancers, but I discovered salsa and that was really my thing. I went to Cuba and the horn grapevine is quite active, and even the horn players in Cuba had heard that I was coming. So they asked me to do a masterclass.
Apart from dancing salsa, I turned up and heard a concert of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and I was literally blown away at the way they were playing Mozart. Because who would expect that there would be such fine classical musicians in Cuba? We all know about the popular music, the Cuba music. But classical music and Mozart? That was really not what I expected. We started talking and as a horn player, I've always wanted to record the Mozart Horn Concertos.
We were one night in the bar, as one is, surrounded by mojitos and Cuba Libres. We had a very animated discussion about what Mozart may have sounded like if he'd come to Cuba. My Cuban friend said, Mozart would've been a great Cuban. When I asked why, they said, " Well, because his music is full of dance. It's full of improvising."
Now, Mozart, when he gave concerts himself, he would never play what was on the page. He would improvise around it for ages, and the Cubans do exactly the same thing. That was the dance element, the passion in his is music, the improvising. But also, they said, " We know from history that Mozart was actually quite good with the ladies." My Cuban friend said, " And we are, too."
John Banther: They even have a statue of Mozart, I think, in Havana.
Sarah Willis: They do. Who would've guessed that? Now, to be honest, it looks a little bit like him. I think there's a picture of him in the first album liner notes that we brought out. I passed it and I didn't know it was there, and I just thought, " He looks vaguely familiar, and that's a bit of a strange statue to have in the middle of Havana." I approached it and I saw it said Wolfang Amadeus Mozart. In typical Cuban style, the name wasn't quite right. They've actually corrected it since then. But for me, it was just almost like a sign that this is what I wanted to be doing. Out of that, this crazy project was born.
John Banther: I love it. On this album, we have Mozart's first and Second Horn Concertos, what's described as the First Cuban Horn Concerto, and a few other works towards the end that we'll talk about. But just getting into the first work on the album, Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2, I think a lot of elements that I like in this and in the other Mozart will become more evident as we go on.
But something I'm wondering, we've talked about in this podcast, the modern horn versus the natural horn valves versus no valves. In Mozart's day, when he wrote this, I think in 1783, it was a natural horn, no valves. Does that affect how you interpret or play this today on the modern horn? Or is it just not really even a thought?
Sarah Willis: I think it should be a big influence in how any horn player plays it on a modern horn because we've inherited this way of playing the horn. Mozart wrote it for the natural horn, and it's really important to understand how the natural horn would've sounded. Of course, you can put modern day elements into it and some things are a lot easier with the valves. But this way of slurring, this way of playing an E- flat, what an E- flat crook would've felt like when you're playing it, and also where the hand stopping would come into place.
The horn players of those days had to play the chromatic notes by stopping the note in the bell with their hand, which made it quite a nasal sound. I think it's absolutely necessary to go back to our roots and to understand how it would be played. I studied it as well on the natural horn. I'm not particularly good at it, but I would encourage any student who is going to play the Mozart Horn Concertos, and actually any sort of music from that time, to go back and really study how it would've been played. I think that's very important.
John Banther: That's very interesting. You mentioned the crook. That's that little bit of slide you can take out of a horn and then add another one that's a different length to change the key, right?
Sarah Willis: That's right. It needs about a three- hour podcast to go into explaining exactly what that does, but it changes the pitch and each crook would give you a different feeling. The G crook is very small, and so the horn part's written in G are quite light and airy. The most beautiful crooks, I think, are F and E flat, and Mozart wrote three of his concertos in E flat. And then the first one that he wrote, the number one in D, and it meant D is a little bit longer. You have to add a little bit more onto it. It's quite a thing. Once you get to the big long crooks, your arm can hardly hold the horn. It's so far away from you. D is a really a little bit fiddly. That was the most fiddly of his concertos, I discovered.
John Banther: That's so interesting. I lived briefly with a natural horn player and I heard all kinds of sounds coming from the room.
Sarah Willis: I bet you did.
John Banther: Mozart was such an operatic composer, and I love how you and the orchestra are really committing to these long stretching lines. I think it can really be easy and performances of these concerto to have the orchestra be hands off, the typical flying in for the last rehearsal and then planning a performance for instance. There's often times I hear not so much of a collaboration or a relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, like hands- off wallpaper, but here in this, it's very, very different. There's a clear collaboration and relationship between you and this orchestra, and it really comes across when you're all playing together and committing to these long stretching lines, very aria- like lines in this concerto.
Sarah Willis: John, you've just made me so happy by saying that because there are two things about that. One is that I really feel, and this is what we found on the first album, we got so much feedback from all around the world, you can hear the love and the respect that the orchestra and I have for each other. They are literally (Spanish) , my Cuban family, and I love, love working with them. And that is very important. That makes a great collaboration.
But the other thing is that I think Mozart, any of his concertos are very similar to his operas. Okay. Maybe it's one solo role, which is what I have, but the orchestra's commentating and it's a give and take. It's very important for me to make my Mozart Horn Concertos a little bit like an opera, but be supported and not just accompanied. And the orchestra then rises up and has their say, and I'm just so happy that you notice that.
John Banther: Well, it happens a lot, I think, in this album where it really comes across. Particularly in this concerto, in the third movement, there's this sudden beautiful pastoral moment towards the very, very end. It never struck me like this until I heard this particular, your recording. The strings are droning, it's very pastoral. And then you have all these, as if you're the shepherd maybe on your horn, all these really crisp turns on the horn where just everything changes for a moment. It's so supported. Sometimes it feels like that just loses all the energy and it falls back before we get to this rounded out end, but really, it's there quite intensely.
Sarah Willis: I know which bit. I know, yes.
John Banther: Yes.
Sarah Willis: ( Singing) That's the bit you mean, and the orchestra is really droning on the bottom there. The thing about this orchestra, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, they play with all their hearts. They are poor musicians in Cuba. Really, it's a hard life, especially right now, especially after the pandemic where there was no music, live music in Cuba. If you take live music away from Cubans, you're removing their DNA. When they play, they are full of passion, and this second album was a lockdown project. I went to Cuba in the (German) time. Sorry, (German) , we say that in German. Pandemic.
We worked on it and we created it. This orchestra doesn't only play with all their heart, in those times it was giving them hope as well. They wouldn't just play one note under a soloist. They would really just think, okay, how are they going to support? What are they going to do here? That's also a lot to do with their wonderful conductor, José Antonio Méndez Padrón, who we can now call Pepe because it's a lot easier.
John Banther: Yes. I was just about to say, it sounds like he is a big part of this as well in terms of bringing all of the ideas together. Because all this, throughout the whole thing, as we'll discover, it's very cohesive.
Sarah Willis: Pepe is my musical soulmate and I was so, so lucky to meet him and to experience all this with him. He is such a good conductor that he could really have a career anywhere in the world. I think actually he's conducted at the Kennedy Center as well already with great success, but he has chosen to stay in Cuba and to take care of the next generation of classical musicians. I admire that so much, but it's a very special collaboration and one that I don't take for granted. I play with a lot of great musicians. I'm lucky that my orchestra's full of them.
But to find that person that you really don't even have to speak to about what you want to do, I just feel like he catches me at every corner. And also tells me when I'm not doing a good job as well. He'll say, " No. Come on, Sarah." It's like in the romance of the Third Horn Concerto on the first album, people remarked that it was a little bit fast, and I actually felt like playing it slowly. He turned to me, he said, " Sarah, this is a romancer. And in Cuba, our romancers are not slow." He gave as good as he got and he's just the most incredible musician, so I'm lucky to have him.
John Banther: Going to the next piece on here, what's described as the First Cuban Horn Concerto, the Cuban dances for solo horn, strings, and percussion. This is so much fun. I don't think I've ever heard anything really like this.
Sarah Willis: No, I've never played anything like this.
John Banther: Tell us about this, because it's also incredible that it involves like six composers.
Sarah Willis: Yes. Oh gosh, how long have you got? I just love talking about these amazing composers. The first album, we had Pure Mozart and Pure Mambo, and then we mixed the two quite a lot. And a followup album is always difficult to do, but we knew we had two more Horn Concertos to record and I just didn't want to mix again so much. I wanted something original. When we leave this world, we like to leave something great behind. And I thought, wouldn't it be amazing if the next generation of horn players after me could get to know Cuba music like I do and get to love it?
The problem is there is no repertoire written for the horn in Cuba, or not a lot. And there was never a Horn Concerto. I put out a call to young composers saying I needed one composer to write me a Horn Concerto and I would like it to be a collection of dances. I made a little competition and I got so many great entries that I ended up with six dances by six composers, because I just couldn't decide. They all brought something completely unique to the table.
It's a little bit like a young Buena Vista Social Club because these six young composers, they are trying to keep rhythms alive that are disappearing in Cuba. They are folk dances. They're the national dance of Cuba, the Danzón, a dance that you only do down in Guantanamo called the Changüí. The young people of today in Cuba are far more interested in the Reggaeton, in rap, in rock music, and these traditional dances are sort of getting a little bit forgotten.
The other thing that's incredible about it is that they wrote all the rhythms down, and this is why Wim Wenders in his film, this wonderful Bueno Vista Social Club, and Ry Cooder, they got these old musicians to capture what they could do on film. But what these young musicians have done, these young Cubans, they've actually written it down now, which is not easy. Because if you tell a Cuban Mambo or Changüí or Guaguancó, which is rumba, they just know and they play that rhythm.
What these composers have done, they've written it down for people like me, these complete foreigners, and so that percussionists and string players and horn players of the future will be able to play Cuban rhythms not having known much about them before. I'm so lucky to have these pieces, but I must say, it's been the challenge of my life to be able to play them properly.
John Banther: Well, we're going to talk about that because some of these are quite difficult. Starting with the first one, and you're going to have to help me if I mispronounce some of these names or dances or composers, the first dance, Tamarindo Scherz- son, by Pepe Gavilondo and Yasel Muñoz, this one is so much fun. It grabs you right away and it sticks with you. It's an earworm sometimes. I can't get it out of my head.
Sarah Willis: I'm so happy about that.
John Banther: I love the titles too, because they're interesting. This is Tamarindo Scherz- son. It's kind of we're playing scherzo, and then son, the dance.
Sarah Willis: Exactly. Pepe and Yasel, they're quite experimental musicians. When I asked them to write me a song, which is what they actually came up with this theme, but they've put another rhythm underneath it, they'd put a Changüí underneath it. Now, I already had a Changüí offered from Ernesto, which is how we finished the suite. So I said, " Guys, I love what you're doing, but I need another dance." They were like, " No problem." They basically changed the clave, the meter of the dance, and came up with this Scherz- son, featuring the famous Cuban dance, the son.
But it's not a typical son. When you think of sons, well, you think of Buena Vista Social Club. You think of dancing. You think of old guys with guitars. But these two have made an overture for me and there's even a couple of bars, which is a nod to my British heritage. If you listen really closely, there's two bars where you hear England and it's really hard, though. It's such a hard piece to play, but it's a great beginning for the suite.
John Banther: Tell me about this little Easter egg, because it sounds like handle, this little key measure moment.
Sarah Willis: You heard it. You heard it.
John Banther: It's one of the cleverest uses of handle I've ever heard. I'm listening and I'm thinking, okay, how far deep in the background is this little Easter egg going to be? It just pops out of nowhere and it just totally makes sense. But what I love especially is on the last note, thinking, oh okay, this little Baroque reference. But instead of being Baroque at all in the last note, hitting it, slight decay or lifting or something, it's not that at all. It's just a huge crescendo that rockets the strings up to that next much higher line that actually sounds a little bit like Baradene to me, but it's just one of the most clever little uses of handle I've heard.
Sarah Willis: I love interviewers who know what they're talking about, and thank you so much for listening so close and for noticing that. The funny thing was when they were composing it, I had just received an award from Her Majesty the Queen, and for services to classical music. So it was a really exciting thing to happen. They'd just heard about it and they decided to celebrate that in this piece by putting in these couple little bars of handle. It makes me very excited to know that you noticed it.
John Banther: Oh yes, yes. Now, going to the second dance, Danzón de la Medianoche, this is by Yuniet Lombida, and this is the national dance of Cuba, as I understand it. I also get a sense of why they also might say Mozart would've made a great Cuban musician. You gave some great reasons. One that I was picking up as I was listening to this is just these beautiful aria- like lines in the opening concerto, and then long arresting melodies in this dance and in the others. I think there's a lot of crossover in the more melodic aria- like nature, or there's the treatment of telling a story from one note to the end that I find a bit similar, too.
Sarah Willis: Absolutely, and that's what Cuban music does. It tells stories through music, through music and dance. The Danzón, as the national dance of Cuba, is a much slower dance. It's old people. Older people like to dance it because they don't get so hot and sweaty. It's just a dance which is so beautiful and so noble, but it does tell a story. I think what Yuniet Lombida has done with this, you can hear it like a dream.
It starts off at midnight and almost someone's dreaming of this beautiful couple dancing the Danzón. It's very, very clever done. Something very special on this track is that, the soloist, the other soloist, it doesn't really sound like a soloist because it goes all the way through. But if you really listen to the güiro, the guy playing the güiro is making magic. It's like he's speaking with his fingertips, and this is Enrique Lazaga, who is an original member of the Buena Vista Social Club.
He's over 80 now, and he was so happy we asked him. He was hilarious. He kept telling us stories at the recording of those days. Really, when he stood next to me playing that güiro, one, he was incredibly loud. It's quite a loud instrument. But he didn't just scrape it, he made magic with it, so I felt very privileged to have played that with him.
John Banther: It also is perfect with something you've said a lot about Mozart y Mambo is, if you can't dance it, you can't play it.
Sarah Willis: Exactly. That was a problem that I actually was having when I was preparing this music. Finally, I helped the composers compose it. They came up with the ideas, but I kept suggesting. They'd never written for horn at all. I mean, none of them. I would say, " That's a little difficult. That's a little easy. Can you do that here?" We had a lot of cross continent WhatsApps going on. But when I got the music and started to practice it, I realized my classical tongue. I'm seeing this music and I'm going ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, but it doesn't work at all. So I learned how to sing it. I listened to a lot of Danzón. I listened to all of them.
And then I was with Yuniet Lombida, who's an amazing saxophone player himself. He was in Berlin and I said, " Hey, can you come and listen to me play these things?" He met me at the Philharmonie, which is where we play, our hall, for the Berlin Philharmonic. On rainy Sunday afternoon, he came into the room and I started playing. He was like, " Chica, put that horn down." Literally, we danced all these numbers and I felt like a total idiot because I was so bad. But he said, " If you can't dance it, you can't play it." And he was absolutely right.
You need to understand these rhythms and where the clave, where the beat goes to get that right, and to get my classical tongue away from this Mozart articulation. It's been quite an adventure to learn these six dances, not only on the horn, but learn to sing them, learn the history of them, but also learn how to dance them. The Danzón was the easiest of them all.
John Banther: It was the easiest?
Sarah Willis: It got much harder after that.
John Banther: What were some of the other challenges, if there were any, in getting this together? Because it does sound like a pretty involved project, just to get it off the ground.
Sarah Willis: Involved is an understatement. It almost killed me. It's been the project of my life, but it's been really hard to organize. First of all, the logistics of getting my recording team from Berlin over to Havana with the equipment, permissions and flights and COVID tests and all the rest, that's already a huge thing. And then getting them all past customs with expensive microphones and things, it's not easy. Then the recording conditions themselves. We recorded in a church called San Felipe Neri, which is in the middle of Old Havana.
And as you probably know and all your listeners, Havana is not known for being a quiet, peaceful city, which is a good thing. Everyone talks loud, everyone dances loud, everyone sells things loudly, the animals are loud. It's not a studio. It's a church, so we had to start our recordings at about 10: 00 PM when things started getting quiet. But still, you'd get a bread seller or an ice cream seller, (Spanish) with the most incredibly loud voice right in the middle of my best take. But that wasn't all. We had animals. We had animals. We had a cat that wouldn't leave the hall. We had dog fights outside. We had a bird that got trapped and flew around and flapped in the microphones. We also had a resident cricket.
And this cricket, I tell you, if I'd found it, it would not be for this world anymore. But we found out where it was. It came out about midnight and it was very vocal. We found out that if we banged on one wall, it would stop for about 20 minutes. So someone always had to be on cricket duty. It'd start and then we'd be like, oh. And then you'd hear boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then it would be quiet, so we knew we had about 20 minutes. We got it out of most of the recording, but there's still a spot on the recording where you can hear him.
John Banther: Oh yes. Very difficult. Sounds like, as you said, it almost took your own life trying to get this thing out. The third dance, Guaguancó Sencillo, if I'm saying that right, by Wilma Alba Cal, this one, for me, it's a sleeper favorite. It's not that it grows on you, but the opening canto, this opening call that you have on the horn, and you already brought up some animals, and I was going to say this opening canto from you is a solo. But I don't want to lie, because it really is a duet with that cricket that you can hear in the back. Oh yes.
Sarah Willis: You heard it. That was exactly where we couldn't shut him up.
John Banther: Usually, stuff like that also drives me crazy. But here, not at all. Because in my imagination, my overactive imagination, I'm thinking, okay, so you have this beautiful calling out all of your ... You're dumping all of your emotions out on stage, and I imagine this cricket is just there nearby. As everyone is silent as it can be, it's a recording session, and this cricket's wondering, why is no one responding? I have to call out to her now.
Sarah Willis: This cricket. I tell you, the thing about the canto, this part where I played the solo, was we recorded that after we recorded the dance part of the Guaguancó. The orchestra was allowed to go home because it was about two in the morning, so I had nobody left to bang on the wall. I only had the recording team in there, well, the recording studio, which was actually one of the dressing rooms, and there was no one else there. Mr. Cricket or Mrs. Cricket, whoever it was there, just chirped along. But I think you're right, it was like dueting with nature, and that's what this canto would've been, this calling there. It's either a calling to the gods or calling to the dance.
The Guaguancó Sencillo means a simple Guaguancó, and Guaguancó is one of the three types of Cuban rumba. The rumba, this type was brought over by the slaves from Africa. They would sing quite melancholy about their life back at home, and this would be picked up by the Cuban rhythms. This is a wonderful mix of Afro Cuban style. I wasn't quite sure who I was calling to, but I feel like it is quite a holy moment.
John Banther: A reason why this one is also a favorite for me is because it takes about half the movement to feel like then we really get into the main part of the dances, this long slow buildup. And in context, especially with the previous dances, it's so worth it. I don't know. The impact it has, even though it's just slight, the difference before and after, I think, but the buildup, it just makes it so gratifying to listen to.
Sarah Willis: Wilma Alba Cal is a very talented composer and I was so happy to have a female composer working on this with me as well. Because as you know, horn, it was always quite a male dominated world, and composers as well. To find a female talented Cuban composer, I was very happy about that. She's a choral composer and conductor and she didn't actually know a lot about Guaguancó when I asked her to do that particular dance. So she learned to dance it, she learned to sing it, and she learned all the history about it, which is what I then had to do to be able to play it. But she's very, very clever with the orchestra. A lot of people on the inside music of the music world have said that's the one that's impressed them the most, because of the way she uses the horn and the strings.
Guaguancó is not an instrumental. It's more percussive. You have a singer, you have someone dancing, and you have many different percussion instruments. She's used the strings as the percussion instrument and the horn starts with this lyrical calling, but then she turns it into one of the percussion instruments. And by the end, the horn is just going ( singing). I got one of my friends to actually play this for me on the conga, so that I could understand how he hit it, to help me help my tongue hit it. It was quite a job, but I'm glad you enjoyed it because it's a very special piece.
John Banther: It really is. You also said this was the most difficult dance to learn. I'm wondering, do you remember, was there an actual breakthrough where it finally made sense to you? Or is it still maybe really difficult?
Sarah Willis: Well, it made sense. To sing it really helped, and to practice it with the percussion really helped me. They gave me a groove. They just gave me a Guaguancó groove and they said, " Just play on top of that." That really helped. But to learn, this one's all in the hips and the knees. They bend the knees and they twist their legs. It's also a dance of the guy trying to get the girl, and it tells a story. She lets him in or she doesn't. It's a really difficult dance for me to learn. It's a beautiful dance to watch, but I find that one hard. But singing it really helped me, and watching a lot of it as well.
John Banther: Wow. I have bad knees, so I think I'll sit that one.
Sarah Willis: No. No, that wouldn't be one for you.
John Banther: No. But we get to the fourth dance and I think you know what time it is now, Sarah. For the fourth dance, we have to turn the lights down low.
Sarah Willis: Absolutely.
John Banther: Get comfortable. It's like we're going back in time.
Sarah Willis: Isn't it gorgeous?
John Banther: It is. Un Bolero para Sarah, another fun title with your name in there, by Jorge Aragón. This one, you also mention, well, one, of course it's beautiful and it's really arresting, and you mentioned you can hear a bit of Mahler influence in the horn writing.
Sarah Willis: Yes. Jorge Aragón is an incredibly talented arranger and he's done most of the song arrangements for me on my albums. But he hadn't composed anything. And when I asked him to compose something, I know he's a great film composer and arranger. We call him the John Williams of Cuba, because he really is very talented. Now, he's living in Madrid and he's hoping to have a big breakthrough. With this Bolero, it was really important for him to use the influences that have classically influenced him, and Mahler is really one of his top influences.
Just the way he used the calling and the echoing effect, especially at the end, there's a little cadenza and a call, and you can almost hear the horn across the lake answering. I was just transported back to the Havana of the '40s where Havana was full of life and rich and sparkling, and all the American stars went there. For me, it's a mixture of film music and Gustav Mahler, but Jorge would be very proud to know that people have heard that influence. It's also perfectly written for the horn. He couldn't have written better for what I can do on the horn, my sort of sound. It's really a dream to play.
John Banther: It does sound wonderfully written for the horn. There's the moment, I think it's middle, towards maybe two- thirds the way through, something like that, where I get this impression where so far it's been you and the orchestra, a very close relationship together. They're playing together. But then all of a sudden, it sounds like actually these two characters, you and the orchestra, as if depicting lovers separated worlds apart by land or sea. And they're thinking of each other, but they're not together. I get that kind of sense in the music with that one.
Sarah Willis: That's beautiful. I really think that's the alpine influence of Mahler that Jorge brought in there.
John Banther: Yes.
Sarah Willis: Also, he plays the piano himself in this, and all the composers did in the numbers with piano. In the first one, the Tamarindo Scherz-son, Pepe Gavilondo is playing the piano. And in this one, Jorge is playing the piano. If you listen really closely, the dialogue that he is having with me is just incredible. When I looked at his part, there's nothing written down. To bring this music into publishing state, he had to actually sit down and listen to the recording and write down what he played. Because for the recording, he just made it up on the spot.
John Banther: Ugh. You really make us fall in love with this fourth dance. We're in a trance by the end, but then we're woken up-
Sarah Willis: Good. Yes.
John Banther: ... by the next dance, perfectly. Sarahchá, another just fun title. This one by Yuniet Lombida and Ernesto Oliva. Now, the lights are back up. We have this fun title, Sarahchá, and the riding for the horn is very, very difficult. It almost sounds like for moments, they were just together and thought, just give Sarah the flute part and then we'll just move on.
Sarah Willis: Oh my goodness. You are so right. When I got the music, I was like, " Guys, you're kidding me". This was the last movement to be composed because the suite was originally five movements. We'll get to the final movement, the Changüí, in a minute. But the problem was, when I got that, the music for that, I realized this might be way too difficult for anyone to play outside of Cuba. Not just my part, but the orchestra part. I sent it to my brother, who's a conductor living in the States, and I said, " Could your orchestra play this?" He was like, " Forget it. None of us can play this because it's all on the offbeat."
John Banther: Right.
Sarah Willis: I thought, okay, I need another piece, another movement, so that you can have an alternative ending if people don't want to play the Changüí. Of course, we wanted to play them all, and this is how the Sarahchá was born. It was pretty much a last minute thing, so I didn't have a chance to see the music until it was almost a recording. And then I got the music, I was like, you've got to be kidding me. It was exactly that. I said, " Is this the flute part?" " No. No, it's the horn part."
But this one seems to be making the rounds. People are loving it. It's a mixture of cha- cha- cha and mambo, a very fast mambo. They've also written very well. They wrote this together because of the time that they had to do it in, and it was very interesting to see what they came up with. It's a lot of fun to play and a lot of fun to dance.
John Banther: There's singing in this one, too. Is that you and the orchestra singing the chorus part?
Sarah Willis: Yes. Now, in a typical Cuban cha- cha- cha, there's often a (Spanish) , a chorus, and we are singing. We had a competition in the orchestra. Who was going to write this little (Spanish) ? The Cubans make them up as they go along. The whole Buena Vista Social Club were guys just making up the lyrics as they went along. You have the chorus and then you have someone just telling a story.
They all were coming up with these crazy ideas and the one that won is the one, of course, you hear. And they say, " (Spanish) ." The horn of Sarah is sounding all over the rooftops of Havana. (Spanish) , the horn of Sarah, (Spanish) . The horn is dancing with this cha- cha- cha. That's the one that won and they won the chocolate.
John Banther: That's incredible. What also, I think, is just so notable is that we're on the fifth dance and it doesn't sound like we've had music written by all of these different composers. It really does sound like this flows and it's very cohesive in every way possible, really. I think for this one, the cha- cha- cha and mambo are probably the most familiar sounding dances to Americans. If you started eating dinner at the beginning of this entire piece, I think at this point, you'd probably start getting up and moving around. This is-
Sarah Willis: That's exactly my-
John Banther: It's hard not to move around to this one.
Sarah Willis: Exactly my intention. What we've done for German TV is we made a film as well about it, and we filmed each dance in the city it originated in.
John Banther: Oh wow.
Sarah Willis: We filmed the Danzón in Matanzas, which is where it came from. We filmed the Sarahchá up on the rooftops over Havana, and we had to repeat it 100 times until the cameras were happy. But we learned a lot about dancing it as well. Because there were just, " Well, play it." But also then there were some takes where we just had to dance to it, and trying to keep up with the Cubans was a good challenge.
John Banther: Going to that final dance that you mentioned, the Changüí, this one, ¡ Ay Comay! Un Changüí pa´ Sari, by Ernesto Oliva. This one, as you said, it sounds like it was hard to put together a lot of starting on the offbeat here.
Sarah Willis: Yes. Ay Comay is a phrase that the Guantanamerans use. When they see people working in the fields, they say, " Ay Comay." It' sort of, " Hi." " Hi, girl," or, " Hi, auntie." Or it's even, " Hi, comrade," as well. It used to be, but people don't use that so much anymore. Changüí pa´ Sari, Sari is my nickname in Cuba. That was nice that he put that in. The Changüí, I got the MP3 before I received the music. This starts very simply. It says ( singing). I thought easy; one, two, one, two. And then the percussion come in after about 16 bars and it's like a hiccup. It's like all of a sudden, you realize it's not ( singing), but it's (singing). It's all on the offbeat.
I thought, well how does the horn fit in here? And then I got the music and I've never seen so many off beats in my life. Now, horns are used to playing the off beats in Strauss waltzs or something, but never in something like this. This I must say, even though the notes are not so hard to play, the challenge of playing an entire piece on the offbeat, this was huge. This took me a long time to get ready. This was another one I had to learn to dance before I could play it, because dancing the Changüí is like dancing salsa with hiccups. It's always not quite where you expect it to be.
John Banther: The entire work is just incredible. I think we don't have anything like it, and hopefully this will inspire more works like this to be written.
Sarah Willis: Nothing would make me happier to know that future generations discover Cuban music and learn to love it like I do. But I'm hoping also that the next generation of Cuban composers will see what's possible. We'll see. We've worked out a system with the percussion, which makes it easier to write it down. It's been a whole education project as well, and so I really hope. That would be wonderful to have more pieces, not only for French horn, for any instrument, which combine this classical training that we've had, but in a way of writing it down, so that it sounds like something authentic.
John Banther: We'll have much more on Mozart y Mambo right after this. The best part is the album's not over. We still have several more works here. The next Horn Concerto, the Horn Concerto No. 1 by Mozart, which I think he wrote in his last year, 1791, I love how the Cuban dances lead into this. Because this concerto, it's not long. It's less than 10 minutes. It's two movements, but you get a completely different perspective when you listen to it after listening to everything else in full. I think it's also an example of, again, where this album also shines because you hear it so differently. It sounds like the " if you can't dance it, you can't play it" wasn't just for the Cuban aspect of all this, but it also seems like it fits right in with a Mozart, too.
Sarah Willis: I absolutely agree, because Mozart has this dance element in his music and it's really noticeable in the Horn Concertos, especially in the last movements. We put number one there because there was nowhere else to put it really, but it's nice that it's there. Because I play in the Berlin Philharmonic, that's my job. And I'm doing all this because I'm a horn player. I'm a classically- trained horn player, so it's very important to me to go back to my roots. It's great to learn new stuff, but I have to go back to my roots and say, " Look, this is what I do." To have accompaniment or a partner in my Mozart, like the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, that gave it that very special dance element and I think it fits in there well. I hope it did. It's the only place we could put it.
John Banther: It absolutely fits well. And then we have two works right after the Mozarts, which really, it feels like it's tying the whole album together. We're starting to wind down here, starting with this song, Veinte Años, by María Teresa Vera, arranged by Jorge Aragón. This is with Carlos Calunga singing and there's almost not much to say. It speaks for itself. It's beautiful. I imagine it almost probably felt like a lesson for you, being there and hearing Carlos sing. ( Singing)
Sarah Willis: Carlos is also from the Buena Vista Social Club. He was quite young when that came out. He was a backing singer, but he sat in on all the sessions with Ibrahim Ferrer, and he has such a fantastic human voice. When I said, " Who should we get to sing? And I'd like someone from Bene Vista," they said, " Well, you haven't got a lot to choose from. There are not many left." And then Carlos was recommended because he also sings perfectly in tune. Now, singing in tune is not necessarily something that people do that much because it's nice to pull tunes around. But if you're going to play it with a classical orchestra and a classical horn player, you have to sing also in tune.
Carlos turned out. We'd rehearsed it and it's a beautiful arrangement by Jorge Aragón. Carlos turned up and he's a tenor, so he wasn't going to sing it very often. As you heard on the recording, it's quite high with really an amazing note at the end. He said, " Let's run it once and then record it." We ran it, but we kept the microphones going, of course, and we were in tears afterwards. We were literally in tears. There was a silence after, and I think we've used a lot of that first take because there was a silence. It was so beautiful. His voice is so beautiful and the words are so incredibly sad.
It just was one of those goosebump moments you'll never forget. And yes, I learned a lot about how to play this sort of Bolero song. It's not easy. It really is not easy following an act like that.
John Banther: The next one, El Bodeguero, this one is a lot of fun because there's lyrics here that weren't written for you, but turned into an inside joke it sounds like.
Sarah Willis: Totally. (Spanish) , which means, take some chocolate and pay what you owe. Now, the joke is that there's no chocolate in Cuba right now. It's not actually a joke, it's very sad, but we made it into a joke. They sang in the rehearsals, " Take the chocolate. Pay for it, if you can." Because if there is any chocolate, it would be on the black market and very expensive. ( Singing) That was our (Spanish) that we sang there. We did this one purely out of selfish reasons because I love the song so much. It's one of the most famous songs to come out of Cuba. I love it and I just wanted to play it on the horn. So I asked Jorge Aragón to do this one for me, and he did, and it's beautiful.
John Banther: It works. It's beautiful, and you said you brought lots of chocolate over as well during this time. Was there a particular popular favorite for them?
Sarah Willis: They love M& M's. They love Toblerone. They love Nutella. Do you have Nutella in America?
John Banther: Oh of course.
Sarah Willis: They love Nutella. Things are really tough in Cuba right now, especially after the pandemic. The only way you can get yummy things like that is on the black market. I brought six suitcases when I came with me and most of them were full of treats for the orchestra during the recording. It's really, really difficult times right now.
John Banther: Wow. It sounds like, and it's wonderful you were able to do that. These are two beautiful things to end the album with. In fact, it sounds like to me, the album could end right here. We'd all be happy.
Sarah Willis: It could have, but I wanted just a little nod to the first album. I thought that the audience, if they've listened that far, they deserve a little encore, which is how our final piece. It's a tiny little thing. It's three minutes long. It's an aria, which everyone knows very well from Mozart's Magic Flute, and I just wanted to make people smile with this. Did you smile?
John Banther: I'll tell you, Sarah, when Camille, the publicist that got us in touch, when she reached out to me and sent over the music, I looked down and I saw that. That's the first thing I played. I thought, okay, I'll listen to everything, but I have to hear what this is first. Because I just see Pa Pa Pa, Mozart, with baritone sax in here as well. I played it immediately and I was smiling. I think I even wrote to Camille, the publicist, saying, " I listened to the Pa Pa Pa first." I love it. I couldn't get over it.
Sarah Willis: No, it's very special. I was talking to Pepe, the conductor, about what piece we could do a mix of, because we did so many mixes in the first album. I just wanted a tiny little encore just to say, " Look, Mozart might have done this." He was the one that came up with the Papagena, Papageno aria from the Magic Flute from the second act. And then I thought, okay, if I'm going to be Papagena, of course, who do I want to be my Papageno? What's going to make them laugh? Yuniet Lombida is the most talented saxophone player. And I just thought, but normal saxophone isn't enough. He has to be a big, full- blooded baritone saxophone. Those are the first notes you hear from Papageno and everyone I know has just burst out laughing.
John Banther: Ugh, it's great. This is going back to your last album, because everything in it so far as with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, this has a separate name to it, the ensemble. Sarahbanda?
Sarah Willis: Yes. Yes, Sarah again. Sorry. Sarahbanda is my salsa band, and that's formed out of purely selfish reasons because the salsa band plays differently to an orchestra. They have a rhythm section. These three players are incredible, and they have this drive that a classical orchestra doesn't have. Even in Cuba, the percussion have to adapt to what the strings are playing. Or maybe play a bit later because the winds are breathing. But my salsa band is a seven- piece ensemble with a piano, three percussion, bass, saxophone, and horn. The boss of that is Yuniet. He's the absolute boss of the band. I'm just the backing singer.
We did a very nice recording for the first album and I really wanted them to be on the second album as well. They had a lot of fun recording this because most of them hadn't heard the Magic Flute at all yet and they were like, " Oh, this is nice. Who wrote this?" " Mozart." " Oh nice." It's turned into a bit of a contra dance. Yeah. It does what Mozart intended. It starts peacefully and gets faster and finishes in a flourish. But the arranger is a Cuban, Edgar Olivero and he lives in Spain now, but he's just so genius with what he does. I said, " Listen, what about this aria?" He's like, " No problem." Two days later, the Pa Pa Pa appeared.
John Banther: Wow. It's so wonderful. It reminds me of back in the day, you had a CD. You're growing up, you just put it in the CD player and you let it play. And then you just forget about it, but it's still playing. And then there's that hidden track after four minutes of silence.
Sarah Willis: Exactly.
John Banther: This is the reward for us.
Sarah Willis: I was thinking of doing that. It's funny you said that. I was thinking of doing that, but then I thought, actually these days nobody really listens to a CD that much anymore. If you do a bonus track on a CD, it would come out on the streaming platforms with all that silence before it, so we decided not to do that. But that's the intention. It's supposed to be just a little encore, a little nudge in the ribs to say, " Here's the band, this is what we have to say. We love Mozart and this is what he might have done, if he'd recorded the Magic Flute in Havana."
John Banther: If you'd asked me a couple weeks ago, how many different clever names and words you can come up with in music using the name Sarah, I probably would've said, " Oh, probably about none." Right? None.
Sarah Willis: Yeah. The Sarahbanda.
John Banther: That's perfect.
Sarah Willis: Come on, that was the obvious one. What I like about playing with the salsa band is they take no prisoners. They just go, and I have to play in a completely different way with them and with the saxophone than I do. When we perform it, I play sideways so that my bell is pointing out at the audience. I have to play completely on the beat, if not before the beat, which is very unusual for a horn player. It's really completely selfish reasons, but it's so much fun to play with them. It's just a different color and I'm hoping we're going to make loads of pieces with The Sarahbanda. But they had never done things like dynamics before.
In their salsa band, salsa bands start louder and finish louder. They start at one tempo and either they finish at the same tempo or they go faster. To get them to do echoes and somethings, piano and accompany was also something new for them and they had a lot of fun doing it. Now, the Pa Pa Pa, we recorded at three in the morning because we'd had a thunderstorm before and the church flooded. One of the percussionists couldn't get there because he was on a motorbike, so we just hung around and we had a jam session. By the time he got there, everyone was pretty tired. But it turned out all right.
John Banther: It turned out all right, for sure. Is there anything else you want listeners to know about you or this album?
Sarah Willis: We have a fund to buy musicians instruments. I didn't really go into that. But if people want to help support us, then all this project is to support my Cuban musicians. No one's making any money out of it at all. We are just being able to buy new instruments for them and with sheet music, and also helping some of them study abroad. It's turned into this big project and if anyone's interested in helping us out, we'd be more than grateful.
John Banther: We'll put more information on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org, including where to listen. Well, thank you so much, Sarah, for joining me and talking all about Mozart y Mambo.
Sarah Willis: Thank you for having me, and thank you for listening to it, and thank you for loving it. Because I can really tell it with your questions and how you've listened to it that it's made you happy as well. Mission accomplished. That makes me very proud.
John Banther: What an album, and one with melodies that you'll be humming or singing for days, if not weeks. Thank you for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. If you have any episode ideas or questions, please send me an email at classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. If you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.