Mozart y Mambo – Sarah Willis in Cuba

Sarah Willis with horn in Havana (Rittershaus)

A unique musical encounter: Berlin Philharmonic horn player Sarah Willis travels to Havana and combines classical music with Cuban rhythms.

June 26 (Deutsche Welle) ‘Mozart should have really been born in Cuba!’ This sentiment is at the core of a project that combines Mozart and Cuban music. Sarah Willis had the idea years ago, and finally, in 2020, she made her dream a reality. Sarah Willis is a horn player in the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She originally travelled to Havana to teach a master class. Once on the island, she encountered music everywhere, from salsa, to mambo, to son cubano. It’s hard to find a house or street in Cuba that isn’t filled with music. But in the middle of the old town in Havana stands a monument commemorating a musician you wouldn’t normally associate with Cuba: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Sarah Willis in front of Mozart monument Havana (Rittershaus)

His compositions are known for their playful ease, joie du vivre, and exceptional musicality – and indeed, there are important commonalities between Mozart and Cuban musicians.

Sarah Willis and saxophonist Yuniet Lombida Prieto (Rittershaus)

The saxophonist Yuniet Lombida Prieto is one of these musicians. He plays chamber music, jazz and salsa on the most important international stages. Then, there is the Havana Lyceum Orchestra under the direction of José Antonio Méndez Padrón. Sarah Willis describes him as having a musical soul, and that he could be a sought after world-famous conductor. However, Padrón decided to stay in Cuba. He has directed his orchestra for decades, and tries to offer talented young musicians new prospects in their home country. Indeed, many young people opt to leave Cuba. Living conditions are difficult due to challenges and shortages. Good instruments are hard to come, and even more difficult to keep in good condition because of high humidity. Performances are rare or difficult to schedule. These aren’t ideal conditions for a career as a professional musician. Sarah Willis has visited Cuba four times to teach master classes. She was deeply impressed by the high level of the musicians, the joy they exude while playing, and the art of improvisation—despite or perhaps as a result of the current circumstances.

Sarah Willis and Havana Lyceum Orchestra (Rittershaus)

And thus the project ‘Mozart y Mambo’ was born: a one-time musical experience that combines Mozart’s horn concertos with traditional Cuban music—and includes a mambo version of ‘A Little Night Music.’ The project was recorded in January 2020 and released a few months later.

Sarah Willis and final concert with Havana Lyceum Orchestra (Rittershaus)

With ‘Mozart y Mambo’ Sarah Willis wants to increase awareness about the skill and talent of her Cuban musical colleagues. A portion of the profits will also go where they’re desperately needed: acquiring new instruments for the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. The orchestra had planned to travel to Germany in the summer of 2020 to present the project live at large-scale German classical music festivals. But the concerts had to be rescheduled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are now set to take place in 2021, when the orchestra will show the world why Mozart should have been Cuban.