“I only went to Havana to dance salsa!” confesses Sarah Willis, the Berliner Philharmoniker French horn player. “It’s just a short hop from where I was in Miami, but when the news got out on the horn bush telegraph, they asked if I’d do a masterclass while I was there. I met these musicians from the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and what is now called the Havana Horn Ensemble and it just blew me away how well they could play Mozart. Nobody knew there was classical music going on like that in Cuba. Well, they know, but we didn’t!”

Sarah Willis
© Monika Rittershaus

The experience inspired Willis to undertake an ambitious project which investigated what would happen if you combined Cuban popular music – salsa, son, mambo, bolero – with that of Salzburg’s favourite son. The result was Mozart y Mambo, a riotously fun disc which topped the classical charts for months when it was released during lockdown, when the world frankly needed some riotous fun. 

What was her reaction to the way the Cubans played Mozart? “I’m not a jaded musician,” she explains, “but I hear a lot of stuff. We play a lot of Mozart and play it with passion – especially if you’re a horn player because of the four concertos – but I was taken aback with how fresh this was, how different, how full of life. And also how it looked, the way they played; we’ve made three documentary films now and you can see they have it in their bodies. Whether they’re playing Cuban music or classical music – they play with their whole soul and their whole body.”

Following the disc’s success, Willis recorded another, where she commissioned a new work, Cuban Dances. “My Berlin Phil colleague Stefan Dohr does it all the time,” Willis explains, “asking famous composers to write pieces for him. I love Cuban music so much that I thought the best way to promote the horn and to get people interested in it would be to give them some new music to play. There was a competition, but we had so many good entries that I decided that in the end, instead of choosing one composer for a concerto, I’d have a series of six movements – six dances – by six different composers.” 

Willis talks movingly about what the Cuban project has meant to her. “It’s been the project of my life. I’m very lucky to play in such an amazing orchestra as the Berlin Phil with great conductors, great soloists and my colleagues are all the best musicians I know in the world. I’m very lucky with all my television stuff too, but this project has changed me as a person and as a musician. I’ve found another corner of the world where I suddenly felt at home for some reason,” she confides. “You know in The Jungle Book when Baloo and Bagheera go to rescue Mowgli from the monkeys and Baloo gets dressed up in a grass skirt and coconut lips and he’s supposed to go in there and charm King Louie, but he hears their music and he can’t stop dancing? That’s how I felt. Cuban music got under my skin, into my blood; I have no idea why – there’s samba, there’s fado, there’s flamenco – but Cuban music really did it for me. Being able to incorporate that into new repertoire for the horn is something incredible.

Sarah Willis, José Antonio Méndez Padrón and members of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra
© Monika Rittershaus

“I’m surrounded by great people all day long but these Cubans really touched my heart, not only how they play the music but how they are; they have so little, yet when you’re there and you see how happy and humble they are and how much they love the music, it makes you become a more humble person yourself. 

“I’m not a soloist by choice – I’m happy to be a tutti player – but with them I dared to try and it’s been an amazing journey, not only because they’ve learned about Mozart but I’ve learned a lot about Cuban music and about myself and what my limits are. People say, ‘Oh you’ve done so much for the Cubans,’ but I feel they’ve done so much for me.” 

Sarah Willis and the Havana Lyceum Orchestra
© Sarah Willis

Before joining the Berlin Phil in 2001, Willis played at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden just across the city. The Staatskapelle Berlin is a heck of a first gig for a young British horn player! “I got very lucky because I’d just left the Guildhall. Actually I was forced to leave because I wanted to take a year off and they wouldn’t let me!” she laughs. “I had the chance to play in Berlin with the Radio Orchestra, so I took it. I was taking lessons with Fergus McWilliam of the Berlin Phil and, after a couple of months, he told me that a job had come up at the Staatsoper. This was 1990-91 and the Berlin Wall had just come down in 1989, and he told me I should apply. I was only 20 years old, fresh out of music college and I thought ‘I don’t want to sit in the dark and play in an opera orchestra, opera’s not so exciting.’ How wrong was I? I spent ten years there – the first westerner in the orchestra, the first girl in the brass section – they must have thought I came from Mars! I didn’t speak any German and they didn’t speak any English, but I’d lived in Moscow for five years and most of them spoke Russian so that’s how we communicated at the beginning! It was the start of Daniel Barenboim’s tenure. I learned so much and the Staatskapelle changed from being this sort of eastern bloc orchestra of a quite good opera house to the top world class opera house it is today and I felt like I made that journey with them. I wouldn’t have left, I think, for another orchestra apart from the Berlin Phil.” 

Having played in both orchestras, how does Willis compare their sounds? “The Staatskapelle has a very traditional, beautiful German sound. They are an opera orchestra so they’re not as powerful as the Berlin Phil which, as a concert orchestra, is sometimes like a wild animal on stage! An opera orchestra will always be more tender, in a supportive role, but we don’t talk about better or worse. Both are traditional German orchestras but the Philharmoniker are just a little bit more meaty, a little bit more creamy.” Although the Berlin Phil plays one staged opera a year (recently at Baden-Baden), Willis misses playing in an opera orchestra. “When young players ask me for advice, I say go and play opera because you learn so much.” 

Auditioning for the Berlin Phil is a “terrifying” process. “Because we are a self-governing orchestra, we get to choose. We don’t have a committee, the Chief Conductor can come if he wants – he gets one vote, just like everybody else – the whole orchestra goes to an audition.” I am surprised when she tells me that none of it is screened. “The Berlin Phil is such a visual orchestra that it’s important to see how someone presents themselves, how they are on stage, how they speak through their music. I appreciate that about them. I’ve never felt a disadvantage to being a woman and when we take people we’re really looking for the best musician, not based on gender and I think that’s great.” Pre-auditions are conducted by the section. “You play your solo piece – usually Mozart for the horns – and then maybe a romantic concerto and then orchestral excerpts.” 

What are they looking for in a new recruit? “We’re listening of course for perfection, but someone’s not going to not get the job because they missed one or two notes. We’re looking at the technician, the overall musician and does that person play in a style – or could play in a style – that fits to how we play? The Digital Concert Hall makes it easier to do your homework!

“I ended up on stage with the other finalists and it was like a Russian roulette. I played then had to wait until the other guys had all played the same excerpt. It’s also about who’s got that mental strength to not crack – literally, for a horn player!!”

Female brass players are still relatively rare in German orchestras, but Willis sees a change. “I’m proud that I made it into (for me) the best orchestra in the world and we now have a second female, Paula Ernesaks, in the section and I’m very proud because she’s my student, an Akademist from Estonia.

Sarah Willis, Paula Ernesaks and the Berlin Phil Horns
© Berliner Philharmoniker

“A couple of my female students said ‘We feel very sorry for you because you never had what Paula had – you never had a Sarah!’ I never had someone to guide me. There are some top horn players that I looked up to, like Marie-Luise Neunecker, Frøydis Ree Wekre, Gail Williams in Chicago, but they were far away so it makes it all worthwhile to hear something like that. It feels like a responsibility.” 

As well as choosing their new orchestral colleagues, the Berlin Phil also selects its own Chief Conductor. Willis joined after Sir Simon Rattle had been chosen, but was involved in the appointment of his successor, the media-shy but much admired Kirill Petrenko. What, I wonder, is different when Petrenko is on the podium?

“The length of the rehearsals!” Willis laughs loudly. “It’s funny, at one of his first rehearsals he talked about how we’re all going to work together and learn from each other, ‘But one thing I can’t do: I can’t shorten rehearsals!’ It has its benefits, of course, if everything is well rehearsed,” she concedes. “On the other hand, sometimes we like to be let off the leash and do exciting things. Kirill is this very special type of musician that works with us relentlessly almost to the point where we think, ‘Oh come on, we can play it!’ but then he can let go in the concert so that it doesn’t feel controlled. He can conduct with such abandon and because it’s so well rehearsed there’s that space to be spontaneous.” 

She recalls with particular fondness their incredible Beethoven 7 at the BBC Proms in 2018. “Do you remember that shout at the end?! I’ve played many Proms but here there was complete silence… and then it exploded. I’ll also never forget the dance project we did with Sir Simon,The Rite of Spring. The great thing is I play in an orchestra that has highlights every week!”

We talk about up-and-coming young horn players to listen out for. Diplomatically, Willis is reluctant to single out any for special attention. “I am very proud of our Akademists, however. Of my last two, Paula is now in the Berlin Phil and the other, Haeree Yoo, is now the principal horn of the WDR in Cologne.” 

But we end up coming full circle back to Cuba. “I am very proud though that we’ve had our first Mozart y Mambo success in the German orchestral world. One of my Havana Horns, Ernesto Herrera del Río, has just won the position of principal horn in the Leipzig Symphony. The Cuban project made it all possible: he was living in an area of Havana, I found him and heard him; he was the first person to play for me there. I sent him to Spain where he studied on a scholarship. Two years later, he’s playing on a horn the project has paid for, he comes to Germany, does the audition, wins it, then gets on a train to Berlin to tell me himself.” A good reason to feel proud.