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Classical Album of the Week: Salsa for the French Horn, Sarah Willis in Havana with Mozart y Mambo!

September 14, 2020. Sarah Willis, the first female brass player of the Berlin Philharmonic, is a musician after my own heart—she loves to dance. Ms. Willis’s affinity for Latin dance, especially mambo, led her to spend time in Cuba. Mozart y Mambo, her new album for Alpha Classics, grew out of the friendships she made there, and the result? It’s a fresh new salsa for the sound of the French horn and classical music.

Ms. Willis is joined on the album by the highly regarded Havana Lyceum Orchestra and its music director José Antonio Méndez Padrón, or, as he is affectionately called, “Pepe.” Just as they did for Simone Dinnerstein’s Mozart album, the Havana Lyceum players bring lovely, burnished tone, carefully considered articulations, natural phrasing, and graceful balances to their Mozart partnership with Ms. Willis.

It’s evident in their performance of the popular Mozart Third Horn Concerto, K.447 (which Sarah notes is written for the range in which she specializes as orchestral 2nd horn—low horn.)

Original Mozart rarities also grace the album, incomplete movements of two early horn concertos, edited and completed by scholar musician Robert Levin.

How does the “y Mambo” of the album’s title come in?

First, in a mashup of two famous Mozart compositions infused with mambo rhythms, singing, synchronized shouting and improvisation. We hear the first movement of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” in a mambo version by Edgar Olivero, called “Sarahnade mambo.”

Sarah Willis also chose the third movement of Mozart’s Third Horn Concerto to re-accent into a mambo, because she says the music is inherently dancy. It’s wittily arranged by Joshua Davis and Cuban saxophonist Yuniet Lombida Prieto. In these numbers, Sarah plays with a terrific salsa band that call themselves Sarahbanda.

Wholly Cuban music comprises the truly mambo-y part of the album. In “Que Rico el Mambo” by Damaso Perez Prado, arranged by Joshua Davis, an ebullient and impressive-sounding “flash mob” of horn players from around Cuba performs with Ms. Willis, calling themselves the Havana Horns. (The early profits from the album will go toward purchasing better instruments for these “amazing” players, as Sarah calls them.)

Finally, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra backs Ms. Willis in two famous Cuban tunes, including "El manisero" (The Peanut Vendor) by Moisés Simons, a song from the ‘30s that achieved fame around the world. Principal flute, trumpet, piano and concertmaster have extended improvisation solos on “El manisero” in this arrangement by pianist Jorge Aragon.

My favorite track on Mozart y Mambo is Isolina Carrillo’s “Dos gardenias,” with its haunting melody and lush, orchestral sound, as arranged again by Jorge Aragon. A Rachmaninovian, sweeping, Hollywood style makes this love song a pleasure to hear (“two gardenias for you… guard them carefully, because they are your heart and my heart.”)

In any language, even one without words, and played by Sarah Willis on French horn, the song will remain in your memory.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.