Sarah Willis, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic for 19 years, speaks of her new solo album, Mozart y Mambo, what it's like to be part of the Berlin Philharmonic sound and how she learned to dance to Cuban music.
James Baker: Good time--that will get any musician's attention, and for Berlin Philharmonic hornist Sarah Willis, good time and good timing have special meaning. Her recording “Mozart y Mambo,” just releasing this weekend, was recorded in Havana, Cuba, in January. A few months later, and this recording might've only been a dream.
Sarah Willis: When that was broadcast two weeks ago, I just watched it and I just got really goosebumps because we recorded it in January in the first week of January and in Havana, and it's like a different world. We hugged, we danced, we sat close to each other, we went out for dinner - you can see all this love that we have for each other. The Cubans kiss people a lot you know, that's how they greet each other. And and you just right now you just can't imagine doing that anymore. So I'm so grateful that we got this done. And normally you wouldn't release a CD in in the summer months. It's not a good time. But right now I think it can give people, you know, hope that this wonderful time will come again, and also with this music I hope the listeners will have this too. But I really smile every time I hear these pieces and I really heard them a lot, but I just don't get tired of them because you hear the energy these Cuban musicians have, you hear the love they have. It's very inspiring and it breaks my heart right now there is no music going on in Cuba. Cuba is practically only tourism. There are no tourists going there. They are having a really rough time. And I just can't imagine a silent Havana but that's what it is right now. So I hope and pray that this will all go away soon and we could all get back to music making.
James: Sarah, we all know that every good project has a beginning. Where did "Mozart y Mambo" begin?
Sarah: My very first time there, I held a master class, and I had no idea how many people were going to turn up at this master class. Okay, there's a symphony orchestra there. So maybe four horns. We had this about 40 people turn up to that master class. And each one of them -- I didn't hear all of them -- but each one of them I heard, they were so talented. They were playing on the most awful instruments. You could imagine, some of them. A couple of them had quite good instruments because they'd been to Europe and they'd been on exchange programs. And the instruments are always passed down in Cuba. So you know, the very young students were playing on on pieces of metal ... but they were proud of them and they'd polish them and they'd stick them back together with tape and things like that. And I just thought ... what incredible musicmaking is going on, and that evening I went to a concert by the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and heard the most incredible Mozart symphony. I thought "where am I?" You know, I'm in Havana, I'm expecting to hear salsa, and I didn't know that Cuban music is not salsa, there is no salsa, it's son, mambo, cha-cha-cha, but not salsa. Salsa is more the other parts of Latin America, and I was listening to sublime Mozart. Afterwards at the party which, of course, every every good Cuban can party, I just thought, "you know, I want to come back here and make music with them." I came back, I filmed four programs of my TV show, “Sarah's Music,” about the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, the Mozart Festival, about my new ensemble, the Havana Horns, about song, about learning how to dance. And out of that this project of mine, which album will have just been released when you hear this -- “Mozart y Mambo” and this crazy project of mixing Mozart and mambo music was born and . . . yeah, I hope you've enjoyed it.
James: Speak a little more about “Rondo alla Mambo.” This just seems like a bit of mindbender, especially for us horn players since we are accustomed to playing a hunting motif in 6/8, certainly not a mambo. It's just all over the place, and I'm sure Mozart's father, Leopold, would not have understood. Wolfgang, on the other hand, and he's such a champion there in Havana, he would have probably thought it very cool. How was it for you? Was it a mindbender?
Sarah: It was totally difficult for me having played Mozart “Third Horn Concerto” really all my life as a horn player. And then I knew that I wanted to turn this movement around into a mambo. So I asked my arranger, Joshua Davis, who lives in Australia -- he's a trombone player -- and he arranges most of my low horn crazy pieces and for the Berlin Philharmonic, and he arranges pieces from my family concerts. And I said to him, “Joshua, I want to turn this into a mambo.” He's like: “No problem.” And he sent me back this mambo in 5/4 time and orchestral musicians don't like 5/4 or 7/4 time, we always get terribly lost. And, and I was just like, "uh-oh, what am I done here?" Because the way I've learned the piece, I just couldn't play it. It just wasn't in my fingers. And then Joshua said, “Listen, I'm not quite an expert in Cuban percussion and rhythm.” So I said, “I've got just the person.” And we called up Yuniet Lombida, who's our saxophone player on the album, as you said, incredibly talented. One of the best saxophone players in Cuba and also a wonderful arranger; that's another talent these Cubans have, you know, they're, they're musically incredibly well brought up, they have a very good training, they can all do solfege, they can sing all the notes with the names, they can arrange, they can play the piano and Yuniet's a great arranger and so we got in touch with him on WhatsApp. Thank goodness Cuba now has internet because otherwise we wouldn't have been able to do that. We had a Whatsapp group between Perth, Australia, Berlin and Havana, Cuba. And Joshua said, "OK, Yuniet, here's the theme, 'Ta Tata Tata Tata Tata, Tata Tata.' OK, 5/4 time" . . . Yuniet said, "that's great." And then he said, "but you need to do this geek-a bok-a #&*@%" and he would sort of sing these incredible rhythms. And Joshua was like, "Ah, OK, I'll just try and write that down." Because he had to write it down for me otherwise I wouldn't have a clue, and for the orchestral musicians, and then Yuniet rehearsed with the percussion alone for a long time in Havana so that it was all perfect by the time we came. And you'll hear in the “Rondo alla Mambo,” you recognize the Mozart -- I hope! You recognize the Mozart very well. But by the time you get to the end, it's turned into a montuno, which is something in Cuban music; as the theme comes and Yuniet had taken the theme of the rondo, the notes, and changed the order around; the montuno was all his work, Joshua just orchestrated it then when we got to that part. He changed it into a montuno where we all sing and a good Cuban mambo needs a chorus. So it ends in this completely big fiesta and people singing and people dancing. And yeah, and then I have to hit the high note at the end after all that dancing. So it was quite a challenge. But I really, I just love this piece. I'm really proud of it.
James: Sarah Willis, telling us about the making of “Rondo alla Mambo” for the recently released CD called “Mozart y Mambo.” This is my second time interviewing Sarah – we first met on the phone some seven or eight years ago. She was about to go onstage at Carnegie Hall with her colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonic. Sarah, how many years has it been since you became the first woman ever given a contract to play in the brass of the Berlin?
Sarah: I've been playing the Berlin Philharmonic since 2001. It seems like yesterday that I joined but I really am not the new girl anymore.
James: When I listen to the Berlin Philharmonic on the orchestra's Digital Concerthall, I am always blown away by the unanimity of the musicmaking. Of course we all know there are a number of great orchestras around the world, but few if any match the consistent quality and the unique quality of the Berlin. Sarah, is there a method to that or is it just magic?
Sarah: It's a funny thing, you know, because it's called the Berlin Philharmonic and we play with the Berlin Philharmonic sound. But half of the orchestra are foreigners. They're not German. They're not even from Berlin. We have we have so many different nationalities in the orchestra now. But you're right, we have this unified sound and for example, I came from England and in England, horn playing, the style, is wonderful, but it's a little bit different. It's a little bit darker. The articulation is different, but the way I played was much more suited to German style and, and I think many of the members of the orchestra, they found that as well in Emmanuel Pahud, our principal flute, is from France; our harp player, Marie-Pierre, she's also from France, and our second horn, Andrej Zust if from Slovenia, our third horn's from America. It really is crazy. But we all have this unified sound, and I am grateful every day that I play in this amazing orchestra.
James: The album is “Mozart y Mambo,” and it features the work of the extraordinary hornist Sarah Willis. The album just released today, and I'm happy to have spoken to Sarah yesterday via Zoom. Sarah, you have a great deal of fun with the mambo side of the album, and I find particularly infectious you and your ensemble of Cuban horn players in “Que rico el Mambo.”
Sarah: Yeah, my Havana Horns, I'm very proud of them. I formed this ensemble when I first went to Cuban in 2017, and I left Cuba saying, "Guys, you've got to meet. You've got to play together because they weren't really playing together. They didn't have this ensemble feeling, and I said, "You've got to practice. I want you to practice together," and I gave them a whole load of ensemble music. And the next time I came back for the filming we flash-mobbed Havana, and then they're on the album and you heard them. They sound absolutely fantastic, and they sing well as well. I'm very, very proud of them.
James: “Que rico el Mambo,” one of the most famous of mambos by the Mambo King, Dámaso Pérez Prado. We heard Sarah Willis and the Havana Horns -- this from Sarah's new album, called “Mozart y Mambo.”
James: It's time to get back to the conversation I had yesterday with Sarah Willis, a member of the horn section of the Berlin Philharmonic for the past 19 years. What a pleasure it was to talk to her about her new CD which just released today, and what a fun disc it is, too. It's called “Mozart y Mambo.”
James: You know, a lot of orchestra horn might spend a lifetime without making a solo horn with orchestra recording. What was your motivation to do this?
Sarah: Well as a horn player, of course, it's a dream. I mean, I always dreamt of recording all four Mozart horn concertos, but I prefer to be tutti, I prefer to sit in the back in the section rather than stand in front of the orchestra. I'm really happy in the group. That's why I've done CDs before with the Berlin Phil horns, as part of the group. I've done solo CDs with Brahms' “Horn Trio,” you know, playing with others, but to be the actual soloist standing at the front, I haven't done a CD like that before. So when I decided to do this and do this project, I realized that if I wanted to bring some sort of recognition for my Cuban musicians, the only way I was going to do this was to put my name on it, and then I had to put my money where my mouth was and be a soloist and it actually terrified me, to be honest. And the month before the recording, I worked very, very hard, not only at my horn part, but also at my mental state because I know people listening, they may not, they may not believe me, but just because I'm in the Berlin Phil doesn't mean I don't get nervous, you know. And I have to work really hard at making myself the soloist, not only the organizer of the whole project, it was quite a big burden that was on my shoulders. So, to do the Mozart horn concerto, of course, I could have done all four on a traditional, a traditional album, but I am not a traditional person. So I decided to do it like this.
James: Well, I hope you'll do the others.
Sarah: I am planning them, I would love to, we're seeing how this CD will do. And I'd love to tell you that part of the proceeds from the CD are going into a fund called instruments for Cuba, and I'm planning to to buy instruments for my Cuban friends. Some of them really are in desperate need, not only instruments, but strings for the violins, with all the string players, double bass strings are so expensive, and they just can't get them. There's no shop in Cuba you can go to and buy these things. Reeds for the woodwinds, sticks for the percussionists, you know every time I go over there, my suitcase is full. I brought a pair of cymbals last time. So, so it's I'm really hoping that we will raise some money. It's a bad time to ask anybody for money right now. everyone's struggling, but there's no hurry. We're going to keep this project going, and if anybody's out there who wants to help, I would be very happy.
James: I'm a horn player, so I know great low horn playing when I hear it, and yours is outstanding low playing. I sense that in “Mozart y Mambo” you're showing us that yes, I can play high, and Mozart makes you prove you are secure with high B-flats, but you're also showing us what a great low player you are.
Sarah: I'm so happy that you notice that does that, there's that pedal low D in the cadenza of the “Concert-Rondo.” I think there's a real sort of note down there. And in the “Rondo alla Mambo,” the piece inspired by the third movement of the horn concerto, there's some really big low horn acrobatics down there. It's a matter of pride as well. You know, we low horn players. We are the supporting players in the section and we don't usually have to play very high but if you have an evening of John Williams film music or a Shostakovich Symphony, the low horn players have to play up there with the high horn players, so I have to keep up my high chops, as we say and, of course, it's a matter of pride to put some high notes in the horn concerto cadenzas. And in the “Rondo alla Mambo” there's quite a few of them. I just think, I think too much specializing I am a specialized low horn player because that's my job, but you have to keep up all your four and a half octaves on the horn because you never know what's coming next week. And you can't say, "oh sorry, I can't play the high notes because I'm a low horn player;" I can say, "sorry, my high notes are not as good as a high horn player" but I still have to be able to get them.
James: I'm so glad you've included the “Concert-Rondo” on “Mozart y Mambo,” and I must say that I waited with baited breath to see what sort of cadenza you brought to the work. This cadenza opportunity, more than any other in Mozart's solo horn works, seems to invite an 'anything goes' attitude.
Sarah: But you've never heard mambo in it before!
James: No. I've never heard mambo in that cadenza, til now. How'd you come up with that?
Sarah: Well, one of my dearest friends and one of my favorite horn colleagues in the Berlin Philharmonic of all times is Klaus Wallendorf, who was our third horn for many, many years. He's now retired. And he had written me the cadenza which you'll hear on the album for the Mozart “Third Horn Concerto.” He'd written me that cadenza for my Berlin Philharmonic audition back in 2001, because we were good friends, and I had been at the Opera in Berlin for 10 years and I played extra with the Berlin Phil and I knew I had to have some sort of really big firework cadenza, and Klaus wrote it for me. So when the album, the idea, was being baked and cooked in my mind, I was like, OK, I better do it the traditional cadenza. I'll do Klaus' cadenza for the third concerto, but in the Concert-Rondo. I wanted to come up with something. You know, I just, I didn't ask him to put mambo in it. I just said, "can you . . . what would you do here? "And then he wrote me this tiny little cadenza. You don't want it to be too long because the “Concert-Rondo” is really tiring to play. And this version has the 18 extra bars, which someone discovered a few years ago and put that in there, which makes it really like a Bruckner Symphony. And Klaus sent me back this version with the “Que Rico al Mambo” which is what we play with the Havana horns in the middle. It's like, it's like a horn player just flips out and then suddenly collects himself and says, "Oh, no. Okay, back to Mozart," and I loved it, and I had to practice it is very hard. It doesn't really lie under your fingers. It's quite a tricky little lick. But I put it in there. It's a bit cheeky to do so but it's a nod to my love for mambo and my love for Klaus.
James: First, Sarah, let me say how much I enjoy “Mozart y Mambo,” it's just a perfect balance of the Mozart we love and the vibrant world of Cuban music. My congratulations to you, to your surrounding musicians and arrangers – the Havana Lyceum sounds terrific – and to your producer and engineer who followed you all the way from Berlin. This recording sounds great.
James: But I've got one more question, and a Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields song to prompt your answer. I'm almost sure that I've heard you say, some time ago, that you don't dance. After watching your film “Rondo alla Mambo,” I disagree.
Sarah: Well, you know, James, it's really, musicians do not make good dancers. That's usually what happens. I don't know how many musicians you've seen at a disco or at a party or I don't know raves or whatever they call them nowadays. We're not that great at sort of moving our bodies. You know, it's I don't know why we have a lot of rhythm when we play but not when we dance. But when I'm dancing with someone, and I have a good partner because in salsa dancing, you're actually only as good as the guy who's leading you, then I'm quite good. I had a good teacher. I learned from a Cuban here in Berlin, and he liked the way I moved so he turned me into his demonstration partner so he would always say, "chica, chica, come here," and he turned me like in all these different directions to show the rest of the class. So I was very proud and, and I learned quite well. And I remember the very first time I went to Havana, Pepe the conductor picked me up at the airport. He took me to where I was staying and said, “Let's go out into into the old Havana viejo, the old town.” And the first salsa bar we came to, and I say salsa bar, that was not, it was they were playing Cuban music, the first bar where there was Cuban music, I stopped and I was in seventh heaven. I was like this, I just, I just want to dance out here on the street. And I could see Pepe look at me and think, "oh, man, now I gotta dance with the tourists." And, and he said, very politely said, “Would you like to dance?” I said, "Oh, yes, please." So he started dancing. And I kept up and he did one little turn and I could see him thinking, “Gosh, she went in the right direction.” Then he did another little turn and I did it perfectly. And then he went, do we do we do we do we do, turned me around and around, up and down, and then he stopped. He said, “I've never known that, I've never experienced that from a non-Cuban before,” and that was one of the best compliments I've ever received in my life; so I can't dance at a disco, I can't you know do any of that hip-hop or stuff, but when I dance salsa I turned into a party animal.