wed 12/08/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: horn player Sarah Willis | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: horn player Sarah Willis

theartsdesk Q&A: horn player Sarah Willis

Midnight recording sessions and late-running buses; playing Mozart in Havana

Go Mambo! Sarah Willis with saxophonist Yuniet Lombida PrietoMonika Ritterhaus

Horn player Sarah Willis joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 2001. She juggles her position with spells of teaching, interviewing soloists and conductors for the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall and hosting an online series of Horn Hangouts, interviews with musicians streamed live on her website and archived on YouTube. Willis's new album, Mozart y Mambo, is an exuberant blend of solo horn pieces by Mozart with traditional Cuban music. Recorded in Havana in January 2020, a percentage of the album’s proceeds will go towards buying instruments for the musicians of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. Via Zoom, we discussed how the project started life, and the joys and challenges of working in Cuba.

GRAHAM RICKSON: You first visited Cuba in 2017. How did that come about?

SARAH WILLIS: I teach once a year at the New World Symphony in Miami, where you can spend two and a half hours passing through immigration in Miami Airport before even boarding the plane, barely touching your peanuts by the time you arrive in Havana. I’d always wanted to go to Cuba because I love salsa dancing, and, like everyone else, I was a fan of Buena Vista Social Club. When I was in Miami filming my TV programme Sarah’s Music, I thought about making a documentary about Cuban music, though it’s difficult do anything there without masses of preparation, without the right permits. A contact who’d helped send a couple of string players to Cuba for several years suggested I go and run a horn masterclass, so I agreed, not knowing if I’d find any horn players at all. I had an email from a Cuban conductor, and booked my ticket. The next day I went into the rehearsal room in Havana expecting just a couple of horn players, but there were loads of them, and all really good. They play on the most dreadful instruments, but I was blown away by their standard. They hadn’t had much technical training, having learned by ear, imitating what they’d heard on cassettes and CDs. Many had a big, vibrato-heavy Russian sound, because that was the horn sound they’d encountered on recordings. The students were a pleasure to teach, and the party afterwards was a joy as well. There’s a specialist music school in Havana, and a university music department, plus the Lyceum Orchestra of Havana, which is now affiliated with the Mozarteum Salzburg.

We’re conditioned to think of Cuban music being little more than salsa, not that there could be a thriving classical culture in the country.

Jose Antonio Mendez PadronIt’s difficult for classical musicians in Cuba, as there’s not a lot of audience. So much of the economy is based around tourism, and tourists don’t go to hear a Beethoven symphony when in Havana. The Havana Lyceum Orchestra began as a student ensemble, and their conductor José Antonio Méndez Padrón (pictured right) has shaped them. He could leave Cuba and make a career anywhere. The players are almost too reliant on him – he’s used to feeding them, like baby birds! The amazing thing about Cuban musicians is not that they play so well, but how they make most of their money. They play piano and sing in bars, and they all play percussion. One of my horn students plays piano on the CD.

Can you describe the process of making the recording?

This project wouldn’t have happened if the Cubans didn’t already know me. I told them I wanted to record a Mozart horn concerto and also film a documentary. Three months before, we were still waiting for the paperwork. The visas arrived two days before Christmas, and we left Berlin on 27 December. The film director was asking me about what we’d do on each day, who we’d be interviewing and at what time, and I had to say, “I don’t know!” In Cuba, you can’t plan anything. Sometimes buses are late or don’t turn up at all, or there’s no water or electricity. It’s such an unpredictable country, but part of the charm once you’re used to it. Without my Cuban team, nothing could have worked. Recording sessions started at 10.30pm, and many of the musicians would arrive in the afternoon to make sure that they were in Havana. No one can afford to live in the city – they all live miles out of town. We’d organise transport back, as the sessions wouldn’t finish until 2 or 3am. It was exhausting. Not ideal, but it created an incredible team feeling. You hear it on the CD. It’s not a soloist and an orchestra. This may sound cheesy, but it’s literally a love affair between us. We really gel. I was very nervous, as I’m not a soloist, but a tutti player. Everyone’s played Mozart’s 3rd Horn Concerto – it’s a big deal. I’m fine in a recording studio but the concert was filmed live, with no second chances. I was in the dressing room, and suddenly realised that we were all here, that everything had worked out. The recording engineers were based in a changing room, with cockroaches running around. No air conditioning. These conditions brought us all together; it was a team effort.

As a low orchestral horn player, playing Mozart 3 must have been quite liberating?

We’ve all heard Mozart's K447 a million times, and I’ve sat on countless audition panels listening to it. The slow movement, the Larghetto, was the first piece I ever performed in public. You’re very much influenced by the recordings you’ve heard first. The movement is usually played slowly, but it’s in 2/2, not 4/4. My conductor José reminded me that this is a romance, not a funeral. He’s right. He kicked off at a tempo too fast for me, but we eventually found the right speed. I love it now, but it took some convincing.

Watch Sarah Willis and friends in action

What can western musicians learn from Cubans? You’ve been working in a city where things don’t always function, where some of the players have lousy instruments, but you’ve returned enthused.

Each time I come back from Cuba, I realise why I do what I do, why I am a musician. It’s about sharing and learning. I really love my job in Berlin, but it’s a job. When you play with musicians who don’t have the access to classical music that we have, you witness true passion. My musicians were like sponges. They’d played a lot of baroque music before, but not as much Mozart. We talked about vibrato, articulation, and making a fuller sound. In my musical world in Berlin we are expected to be perfect – you don’t want to mess up live on the Digital Concert Hall, where the potential for humiliation is enormous! I went to Havana feeling a little stiff, and playing Mozart was in my comfort zone. But then we had this Rondo alla Mambo, the Mozart third movement turned into a mambo. I was making the wrong notes short, and the wrong notes long. Yuniet Lombida Prieto, the saxophone player, was really strict with me. When we played the two songs, El Manisero and Dos Gardenias, he told me that I couldn’t play until I could sing them. I learned about how mambo is made, and how the percussion instruments all fit together. I couldn’t learn to improvise well – I had a go, but wasn’t happy with it. Whereas the Cubans grow up with a brilliant sense of harmony, and can improvise for hours. I really learned to love what I do. We’re so privileged here in the West. It breaks my heart that these musicians were supposed to be here on tour in Europe now, but their visit has been postponed because of Covid.

Returning to an earlier interview on theartsdesk, how have things changed in the last decade for female horn players?

If you look at the photo of the Havana Horns, you’ll see that 10 out of the 15 players are female. That’s a sign of the times. When I taught in Japan recently, the masterclasses were full of girl brass players. It’s not a "thing" anymore, and I almost can’t hear that question anymore, “what’s it like being the only girl in the brass section?” I’m a girl, and I’m in the brass section. That’s all there is. Getting back to the CD, I’m relying on the whole horn world to support this project. This is a terrible time to be asking people for money, but one euro from the sale of each disc goes towards buying instruments for Cuban musicians. Please buy it - I promise that you'll love it!

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