Berlin Philharmonic Horn Player Sarah Willis Plays Mozart y Mambo with Cuban Musicians on New Album, Out Now on Alpha Classics

The Classical concerto meets the rhythms of Cuba on Mozart y Mambo, a new recording from charismatic British-American French horn player Sarah Willis. Recorded in Havana this past January and just released by Alpha Classics, the album presents Willis – the first female brass player in the Berlin Philharmonic – with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and other leading Cuban artists in a joyful pairing of Mozart masterpieces, including the Third Horn Concerto (K.447), with two new Mozart-inspired mambo compositions and original arrangements of Cuban classics. A self-described “musician on a mission,” Willis has joined forces with Alpha Classics to use part of the album’s proceeds to buy new instruments for the orchestra. A documentary about the project titled Mozart y Mambo – A Cuban Journey with Sarah Willis aired on Germany’s Deutsche Welle TV late last month.
In a characteristically charming and informative liner note, Willis – the “first lady of the French horn” (The Arts Desk, UK) – explains:
“This exciting, unique and, I admit, somewhat crazy project combines much-loved solo pieces for French horn by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with traditional Cuban music. At first, they are definitely not the most obvious pairing, but to all those who ask me, “Why record Mozart in Cuba?” I can only say: Once you hear it, you’ll know why! The energy and passion of these musicians is so inspiring, and I hope you will be able to hear the special atmosphere we created during the recording. … This project has been one of the highlights of my life and I am so happy to share it.”
The project came about after Willis first visited Cuba to give a masterclass in 2017. As joyous, playful and light-hearted as it was sincere, heartfelt and impeccably performed, music-making in Havana made a deep impression on her. She was also thrilled to discover Cuba’s thriving classical scene, and when a local musician, pointing out a statue of Mozart in the city center, remarked that the composer would have made a good Cuban, Willis found herself in complete agreement: the extraordinary exuberance and musicality that permeated the Cuban capital were among the very qualities for which Mozart is beloved. When she encountered the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, she was bowled over by the gifted chamber orchestra and its Chief Conductor, José Antonio Méndez Padrón, and determined to introduce them to a global audience. And thus, Mozart y Mambo was born.

Showcasing Willis’s own virtuosity and the artistry of the orchestra, the album intersperses Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E-flat (K.447), Rondo in E-flat (K.371) and Concerto Movement for Horn in E-flat (K.370b) with arrangements of three Cuban classics – Qué Rico el MamboDos Gardenias and El Manisero – and two new mambo compositions – Rondo alla Mambo and Sarahnade Mambo – both of which draw inspiration from Mozart and were written for the recording. Besides Willis and the orchestra, Mozart y Mambo features some of the most respected figures in Cuban popular music, including saxophonist/composer Yuniet Lombida Prieto, trumpeter Harold Madrigal Frías and pianist/arranger Jorge Aragón.

Willis originally scheduled a European summer festival tour with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, which due to the COVID-19 pandemic has now been postponed till 2021. Of the recording, she says: “I feel so lucky and grateful we did all this before the world shut down.”

Mozart and mambo in Havana (photo: Monika Rittershaus)

About Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 2001, becoming the first female member of the brass section. Her previous discography includes her 2014 solo album, Horn Discoveries, and Opera! and Four Corners!, both recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic Horns. Also something of a media personality, she runs a successful series of online interviews known as “Horn Hangouts” and fronts a Deutsche Welle TV classical series titled Sarah’s Music.
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Sarah Willis: Mozart y Mambo

Alpha Classics
Recorded in Havana, Cuba in January 2020
Released July 10, 2020

Sarah Willis, horn
Havana Lyceum Orchestra
José Antonio Méndez Padrón, conductor
Harold Madrigal Frías, trumpet
Yuniet Lombida Prieto, saxophone
Jorge Aragón, piano
The Sarahbanda
Havana Horns

Mozart: Concerto Movement for Horn in E-flat, K.370b
Dámaso Pérez Prado (arr. Joshua Davis): Qué Rico el Mambo
Mozart: Rondo in E-flat for Horn and Orchestra, K.371
Edgar Olivero: Sarahnade Mambo (based on Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik)
Mozart: Horn Concerto in E-flat, K.447
Joshua Davis & Yuniet Lombida Prieto: Rondo alla Mambo (based on third movement of Mozart´s Horn Concerto, K.447)
Isolina Carrillo (arr. Jorge Aragón): Dos Gardenias
Moisés Simons (arr. Jorge Aragón): El Manisero [recorded live]

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