Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances

Sarah Willis, horn Havana Lyceum Orchestra José Antonio Méndez Padrón, conductor ALPHA CLASSICS 878

Reading the advance publicity predating the release of the ALPHA recording of Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances my excitement grew by the minute: a new album featuring both the music of Mozart and music of my native Cuba!

I had listened and enjoyed the first Mozart y Mambo album and looked forward to the return of hornist Sarah Willis to Cuba there to record a couple of Mozart concertos with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. The recording, available both as a download and as a cd will be released in September.

Sarah Willis commissioned six young Cuban composers: Pepe Gavilondo, Yuniet Lombida, Wilma Alba Cal, Ernesto Oliva, Jorge Aragón, and Yasel Muñoz, to each write an original composition. The Havana Lyceum Orchestra , conducted by José Antonio Méndez Padrón recorded Danzón de la Medianoche, Un bolero para Sarah, Tamarindo Scherz-son, Guaguancó Sencillo, Sarahchá, and ¡Ay Comay! Un Changüí pa ́Saryou, all six with Willis as soloist.

In addition, two Cuban pop classics, Maria Teresa Vera’s Veinte Años and Richard Egues’ El Bodeguero, plus a Pepe Olivero arrangement of the Papageno-Papagena duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute completed the Cuban portion of the album, which elsewhere featured Sarah Willis as soloist in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Horn Concertos No.2 in E flat major, K.417 and No. 1 in D major, K. 412.

Sarah Willis is as much of an entrepreneur as she is a hornist, and she is quite good as both. In her enthusiastic liner notes, she announces that her commissioned work from six Cuban composers will yield the first ever concerto for that instrument composed by a Cuban. I cannot contradict that claim other than point out that I know a concerto when I hear one and what I hear in the album described as dance tunes for solo horn, strings, and percussion is a set of charming cross-over pieces driven by superbly played Cuban percussion against a sentimental wash of pop strings.

Willis is not the first musical artist to travel to Cuba to record an album. Simone Dinnerstein went there a few years ago to record Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major and the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major. The multi-talented Yalil Guerra has made several visits to Cuba there to record some of his own work. Cuban musicians are wonderfully trained and immensely resourceful in what Cubans call “resolver”, playing often second-rate instruments and traveling all over the map of Cuba to play underpaid gigs.

When a foreign artist comes to record an album in Cuba, she will have terrific musicians with whom to work and state of the art recording facilities to be had for a fraction of what that same recording would cost in America or Europe. The musicians will be the beneficiaries of better pay and the recording artist will work in a happy atmosphere with a group of congenially enthusiastic artists.

The music making in the Mozart y Mambo album is very good. Sarah Willis is an elegant hornist with a fine command of her instrument, and she stylishly plays the classic sobriety of the Mozart concertos, and the funkiness of the Cuban music.

The gifted members of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra are compellingly led by their maestro, José Antonio Méndez Padrón in thoroughly idiomatic performances that leave nothing wanting. These are immensely talented young people for whom music is both livelihood and lifesaving in a complex society in which the finer things of life take a backseat to the basic needs of food and shelter.

I am reminded of a story a Cuban musician once told me of having to commute for two hours one-way from her home outside the city to rehearsals and performances in central Havana. A clarinet player I spoke to would often skip a meal so that he can save money to buy reeds for his instrument.

Hats off to the members of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, to their conductor José Antonio Méndez Padrón, and to their friend from Germany, Sarah Willis!

Rafael de Acha © 2022

Rafael de Acha © 2022

Rafael de Acha has enjoyed a distinguished career in the arts as a performer, stage director, producer, and educator. He was born and grew up in Cuba. At the age of 17 he moved to the United States to study Drama at the University of Minnesota, and later Languages at L.A. City College, Music at the Juilliard School of Music, at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, and at the New England Conservatory of Music, from which he received the Bachelor and Master of Music degrees. He has taught courses on the History of Music at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and at Florida International University, and contributed writings to Seen and Heard International and to this blog. He co-founded with his wife the award-winning New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, where he produced and staged twenty seasons of classical and contemporary theater, including fifty world premieres of plays that went on to have international and national productions on and off Broadway, including Ana in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz (Pulitzer Prize for Drama 2002 and Tony Nomination 2003.) In 2006 he and his wife, Kimberly were presented with a citation from The Dade County Cultural Affairs Council for “trailblazing contributions to the arts in South Florida.

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