Sarah Willis's 'Mozart y Mambo' project: a surprising hit and a life-changing musical journey to Cuba

Andrew Farach-Colton
Thursday, June 22, 2023

Berlin Philharmonic horn player Sarah Willis breaks barriers and records acclaimed Mozart concertos in Havana, inspiring Cuban musicians and promoting cultural exchange

Sarah Willis (photography: Monika Rittershaus)
Sarah Willis (photography: Monika Rittershaus)

‘I never dreamt that this would turn into such a huge project,’ says Sarah Willis of the three ‘Mozart y Mambo’ discs she recorded in Cuba. A member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s horn section since 2001 (she was the first female member of that orchestra’s brass section), Willis has also achieved something akin to celebrity status as the host of documentary programmes on Deutsche Welle (the German government’s international broadcast service) and as a presenter for the BPO’s Digital Concert Hall, while her YouTube channel has amassed nearly 60,000 subscribers.

‘First of all,’ she tells me via Zoom from Baden-Baden during a break between rehearsals with the BPO, ‘I must say how incredibly grateful I am to Alpha Classics for taking a chance on this project. I’d gone to a couple of the big labels with the idea to record the Mozart horn concertos in Cuba and they said they didn’t think they could sell it. I have a feeling they may now be sorry that they didn’t take it because it ended up at the top of the classical charts for months. It’s been incredible.’

‘Being able to explore being a good soloist with my musical family in Havana was –and still is – a very special thing’

Willis first visited Cuba in 2017 to pursue her love of salsa dancing. ‘I’d fallen in love with the Buena Vista Social Club recordings, like so many of us did, and learnt to dance salsa in Berlin, where I studied with a Cuban teacher.’ She’d taken ballet classes as a young girl and enjoyed them, but she says that once she hit adolescence she felt awkward and self-conscious. ‘I never danced. I wasn’t sporty. And it wasn’t until I discovered Cuban music that I found music my body wanted to move to; it had never wanted to do that before.’

So, when Willis was in Miami, Florida, working with the horn players of the New World Symphony (a training orchestra for young professionals), she took advantage of the fact that Cuba is just a short flight away. ‘You get in the air, open your peanuts and you’re there. It’s as quick as that.’ There was some inevitable culture shock – she describes arriving in Havana as feeling ‘like landing on a different planet’ – but she was instantly smitten.

Cuba is a magical place for musicians and music lovers, as I myself learnt at first hand when I was there with my family in 2019 as part of a cultural exchange programme. I tell Willis about wandering around Havana and finding people making music on nearly every street corner. And even in some of the smaller towns we visited, the consistent quality of musicianship from singers and players of all ages bowled me over. ‘I can’t add anything to that,’ she says, ‘because that’s exactly how it is. Music-making isn’t something Cubans do as a hobby, it’s part of their DNA. Music and dance. And music isn’t only made using instruments. There’s a kind of music when they’re simply talking to one another in the street,’ she says in a sudden sing-song voice, ‘and they dance in almost every situation – while waiting in a queue for food, or at a bus stop. They’re always moving when they’re talking. It’s just an incredibly musical place.’

Dancing ‘like a Cuban’: when Willis first visited Cuba to pursue her love of salsa dancing in 2017, she met the Havana Lyceum Orchestra – and a unique project was born (photography: Jochen Beckmann)

She’d gone to Havana to dance salsa at its source, but the long tendrils of the French horn world latched on to her adventure and she was asked to do a masterclass. Then she heard the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and that was that. ‘I fell in love with the musicians, the way they make music, and the type of people they are, so I decided I had to do something to raise awareness of this orchestra.’ She started with a brief documentary for Deutsche Welle (the first of many, all of which are now available on YouTube), and then – after she found a monument to Mozart in the middle of Havana – came the idea to record the Mozart horn concertos.

‘I am not a soloist,’ she says, ‘and I’ve never considered myself one. Of course, in a sense, horn players are always soloists because we have the potential to ruin a concert with one note. But standing in front of an orchestra was never something I felt confident enough to do, to be honest.’ In fact, apart from some performances of the Mozart concertos when she was a music student in London, she’d never played them in a professional, public setting.

I tell Willis that I find her trepidation odd given how much of a natural she is on camera, whether she’s hosting a documentary or interviewing, say, John Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Sir Simon Rattle or Gustavo Dudamel. ‘I know. Everybody says the same thing. I seem so confident and outgoing – and I am. I think it has to do with the fact that I started presenting and talking into cameras and communicating about music much later in my professional life. When I was a student learning the horn, I’d have traumas on stage where I was sweating, my knees were knocking and I was absolutely terrified of missing notes. I was the only horn player in my year in school, so I had no friends. I was so lonely as a student, and these things stay in you. So this insecurity is there from an early age and I’ve never managed to get rid of it completely.’

‘In order to play Mozart minuets, you should know how dancers at that time would have moved. It’s exactly what I’m doing with Cuban music, it’s nothing new’

In one of the documentaries made about the first of the ‘Mozart y Mambo’ recordings, Willis talks openly about how she’s affected by impostor syndrome, which shocked me. I confess to her that I suffer from terrible impostor syndrome. Given that she played for a decade in the Berlin Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim – she joined just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and was, in fact, the first member of that orchestra to come from the West – and has spent more than two decades with the Berlin Philharmonic, is it possible still to harbour such self-doubt? ‘Oh, it’s worse because I’m in the Berlin Philharmonic,’ she says. ‘The higher you go, the further you fall.’

I’m not happy to hear that Willis suffers so, but there is a strange sense of consolation to discover that even someone at the peak of their profession, as she most certainly is, faces struggles similar to mine. ‘I’m actually really glad you picked up on that comment in the documentary,’ she says, ‘because it’s the absolute truth, and I have no qualms about saying it in public because what I just heard from you is what I hear from students all around the world. They say: “It makes us feel so much better to know that you go through this, too.” I hate to tell them that it’s a lot worse when you’re playing live in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, surrounded by the best musicians in the world. Yes, I made it there, but you still have to keep proving yourself. You’re only as good as your last concert.

‘As for presenting, it’s nothing I’ve ever had any traumatic experience with so I feel much freer doing it.’ The moral of her story, she says, is to work with students on how to manage their insecurities and fears. ‘These days, music schools offer mental training, meditation, yoga and other techniques, and they talk openly about performance anxiety. I think if I’d had that as a student, my life as a horn player might have been a lot easier.’

With saxophonist-composer Yuniet Lombida and percussionist Enrique Lazaga (photography: Monika Rittershaus)

What gave Willis the ability not only to play the Mozart concertos in public but also to record them was her relationship with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. ‘With my Cuban musicians, I learnt how much greater our human potential is when we’re in an atmosphere of feeling loved and supported. I learnt that I could be a much better player, a much better soloist. Yes, I’m a good horn player with my orchestra in Berlin, but being able to explore being a good soloist with my musical family in Havana was – and still is – a very special thing.’

I had the pleasure of reviewing the first two ‘Mozart y Mambo’ releases for Gramophone and was wowed by her solo playing, describing Willis as ‘a marvellous Mozartian’ whose attention to detail helped to illuminate the music’s operatic character. I was similarly impressed by the elegance and flair of the Cuban selections – some of them riffs on Mozart, while others are drawn from traditional Cuban songs and dances. In her booklet note for the second disc in the series, Willis writes about one of the musicians teaching her the Cuban saying: ‘If you can’t dance it, you can’t play it.’

‘Classical musicians aren’t renowned for their dancing skills or for being big movers,’ she says, ‘but I was lucky because I had a good dancing teacher – a Cuban who thought I was talented. He made me into exactly the kind of dancer he would want his own dance partner to be. So my Cuban friends say I dance like a Cuban. I don’t speak Spanish like a Cuban, but I dance like one simply because that’s how I learnt it. I’ll never be as good as them, of course, because they have it in their blood – you walk around and see these little kids dancing on the street, it’s amazing; but I did learn it really well.

‘That wasn’t enough for the second album, though, because I wanted to bring something original to the table. The first had been such a success, but we didn’t want to simply copy it, and that’s where the idea for this new Cuban “horn concerto” came from.’ Cuban Dances, a suite of six traditional dances, each written by a young Cuban composer, make up this new concerto. ‘What they managed to do was to capture the traditional rhythms of Cuba and put them down on paper so that people like me can actually play them. But as I was practising these pieces I realised that even though I could play the notes, I didn’t really feel the music. Yes, I could feel the cha-cha-cha and the mambo, but the guaguancó and changüí? I didn’t even know what those were. It was the saxophonist-composer Yuniet Lombida, one of the most important people in the project, who had said: “Chica, you know that if you can’t dance it, you can’t play it,” so he put down his instrument and we literally danced all six dances for the next six days. After that, I could play them because I felt them. I learnt that the changüí is like dancing salsa with hiccups – it’s always off the beat – while the guaguancó is all danced in the hips and the knees so it has a more earthy feeling.’

Willis says that to play any music well, you need to know its background. ‘If you’re going to play Mozart minuets, you should know how dancers at that time would have moved and held their bodies. It’s exactly the same as what I’m doing with Cuban music, really; it’s nothing new, just a bit more complicated – and so much fun! Improvising is still really hard for me, though, because I’ve been trained to play exactly what’s on the page. Not only that, but horns play in a different key; we always have to transpose, so you’re hearing the music in one key but fingering it in a different key. Anyway, I still feel like a stiff classical musician when I’m required to improvise. I have learnt to improvise in singing, though.’ And with that, she launches into a few phrases of scat singing à la Ella Fitzgerald. ‘But to put that into my horn through my lips and my fingers – well, I’ll just say that I have the utmost respect for my Cuban musician friends who can just stand there and play from the heart without worrying about sharps, flats or modulations. I still feel very inadequate in that regard.’

Willis brings the same zeal to teaching others that she does to her own studies and works regularly with students and youth orchestras around the world. In one documentary filmed at a youth orchestra event in Chile, she says to a young musician: ‘There’s nothing like youth orchestra energy.’ I ask her to explain what she meant. ‘I started the horn very late, when I was 14. I was lucky that my first teacher was incredibly inspiring and instilled in me a love of music and of the horn. After very few lessons he told me to go and play in a youth orchestra. I’d never played in an orchestra before, and I felt like I was only making these mini-elephant noises with my horn when I practised at home. So I sat there in this orchestra and realised that with my mini-elephant noises I was actually making music with other people. It was a lightning bolt moment and I decided this is what I wanted to do with my life. Then I moved on to better youth orchestras: the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and the European Community Youth Orchestra.

‘Youth orchestras have this amazing energy. You know, when I was a young musician, I was a nerd. I loved classical music. I practised in my free time instead of hanging out at the shopping mall like my school classmates. When I met these kids in youth orchestra, they understood me. I didn’t have to explain anything. I felt loved and appreciated, and that’s what youth orchestras are for. At least, that’s what I found – and then I found my Cubans, and it felt very similar.’

‘Principal wind players of the BPO joined me in Havana in the middle of lockdown to record Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante’

I tell Willis of the August I spent in London during my days as a music student in late 1987, and how I went to as many BBC Proms performances as I could, including an amazing concert with Pierre Boulez conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. ‘I was there!’ she shouts. ‘I was playing! When people ask what was the best concert of my life, well, that was definitely one of them.’

Our conversation inevitably returns to Cuba and I’m eager to find out more about the final instalment of the ‘Mozart y Mambo’ series. ‘The big feature of this last disc is that three principal wind players of the BPO joined me in Havana during the middle of lockdown to record Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for winds, K297b. To have them there with me was such an incredible experience. My colleagues in Berlin knew about what I was doing in Cuba, sure, but nobody really got it. My friends met the Havana Lyceum Orchestra musicians and worked with them, and they saw the architecture and the amazing light in Havana – all three are complete Cuba converts now.’

The album is entitled ‘La bella Cubana’ (‘the good Cuban’), not only because it features an arrangement of that traditional Cuban song but also because while making the first album the Cuban musicians told Willis that Mozart would have been a good Cuban. ‘Now, at the end of this project, they say, “Sarah is a good Cuban,” and that’s the best compliment I can imagine.’

Willis says that while the project has been an unanticipated success, she hasn’t earned a penny. All the money she would have made has gone to help the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. ‘I set up a fund called “Instruments for Cuba” because the musicians were playing on really terrible instruments. There were double basses you couldn’t tune, violinists were using viola bows, and some instruments were simply falling apart. Now, thanks to this project and to some very generous people, we’ve been able to provide new instruments. I don’t think we in the West realise how terrifying it can be to sit in an orchestra not knowing if your instrument will work. It’s hard enough to play the notes in the right place, in tune and with a beautiful sound. That should be our priority.’

Willis’s Cuban love affair and the ‘Mozart y Mambo’ recordings have changed the lives of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra musicians in other ways, too. ‘When you were in Cuba with your family in 2019, things were pretty good there, relatively speaking. Then came Covid. Havana went silent – if you can imagine that and how sad it was – and now the country’s in a very bad way. Tourists haven’t come back. The war in Ukraine means the Russians aren’t coming back. They’ve changed the currency so everything is too expensive for most Cubans, and nothing’s coming into the country. “Mozart y Mambo” has helped to finance the families of the musicians, so we’ve been able to hold on to some hope.’

In other words, I say, Willis has changed people’s lives in a meaningful way. ‘This has been such a moving experience for me – oh, I think I’m going to cry.’ She takes a moment. ‘I’ve never really sat down and thought how much it’s changed all of us. I’ve gained so much confidence as a soloist. I’ll always have impostor syndrome, I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of it, but now I’m ready to go out and find a new project. And the Havana Lyceum Orchestra musicians now believe that they’re worth listening to. Many are now studying abroad – we’ve made that possible. Basically, we’ve created this family that’s very similar to a youth orchestra family. We love and support one another. I don’t have any children of my own, but now I have a family of 43 Cubans.’

‘Mozart y Mambo’ Vol 3 will be released on September 2

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe to Gramophone today

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