Legacy Conversations Video Series Ep.3: Sarah Willis

Berlin Philharmonic French Horn player and music educator extraordinaire talks her lifelong love for the music of John Williams and the unforgettable experience of performing his music under the Maestro’s baton

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden

Audio-only version:

French Horn player Sarah Willis is one of the most generous musical citizen of the world. In addition to being one of the most talented and distinguished French Horn players in the world, she’s a true music ambassador of her instrument and a devoted and joyful educator, sharing her deeply passionate love for music and music-making with a worldwide community that’s growing bigger every day.

Sarah Willis (Photo © Sebastian Haenel)

Born in Maryland, USA, Sarah is the daughter of a foreign correspondant who took the family around the world, living in USA, Tokyo, Moscow and finally settling in England when she was 13. She began playing the horn aged 14 at school and then attended the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She went on to study full time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, with teachers Anthony Halstead and Jeff Bryant, and later studied with Fergus McWilliam in Berlin, where she became 2nd Horn in the Berlin State Opera under Daniel Barenboim in 1991. During this time, Sarah played as a guest with many top orchestras such as Chicago Symphony, London Symphony and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and performed worldwide as a soloist and in various chamber music ensembles.

In 2001, Sarah Willis joined the Berlin Philharmonic, becoming the first female member of the brass section, a post she helds to this day. In addition to her work in orchestra, she performed and recorded works for chamber groups, including the successful solo album Horn Discoveries released in 2014. Sarah is involved in many of the Berlin Philharmonic education projects and especially enjoys creating and presenting their Family Concerts. She interviews conductors and soloists for the Digital Concert Hall and in 2011, she presented live to 33 million viewers during the Final Concert of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

Photo © Sebastian Haenel

Sarah is a passionate advocate of music education and makes full use of digital technology and social media to reach audiences worldwide. She runs a successful series of online interviews known as Horn Hangouts where she talks with distinguished French Horn and brass players from all around the globe. She is also a regular interviewer on TV and online and the host of the classical music programme Sarah’s Music for Deutsche Welle TV. In 2020, she co-produced and presented the documentary A World Without Beethoven and released the album Mozart y Mambo, a special personal project involving young music students from Cuba performing pieces fusing the world of traditional Cuban music and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. She called the project “one of the highlights of my life.”

Sarah Willis and the members of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra joining for a “flashmob” in the streets of Havana, Cuba, for the project “Mozart y Mambo” (2019, photo courtesy of Sarah Willis)

Sarah Willis is a gigantic fan of John Williams and his music since 1977, when she saw Star Wars for the first time with her family. Growing up as a French Horn player cemented her admiration for Williams’ music as the years went by, falling in love also with the scores for Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park and many others, all distinguished by challenging and beautiful writing for the horn. As part of the Berlin Philharmonic, she didn’t have many occasions to perform Williams’ music or playing under his baton, but an occasion materialized in 2019, when she went to Tanglewood, USA, to interview Maestro Williams for the documentary A World Without Beethoven; she was invited by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to join the horn section for the annual “John Williams’ Film Night” concert.

Sarah Willis and John Williams at Tanglewood in 2019 (Photo courtesy of Sarah Willis)

As a member of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sarah was of course part of the recent historic concerts that John Williams conducted in Berlin, an experience she doesn’t hesitate to define as one of the most joyful she ever had as a musician. This is the main topic of the conversation Sarah had with The Legacy of John Williams for this new episode of the Legacy Conversations video series, where she sat down with editor Maurizio Caschetto and head contributor Tim Burden to recollect the joy and happiness of working for a full week with Maestro Williams, but also the challenges of playing a very demanding repertoire especially for the horn section. Sarah also illustrates what makes John Williams’ music so special for the horn player, sharing anecdotes and stories from the rehearsals and the whole experience, but more importantly communicating her deeply contagious love for music and music-making.

The horn section of the Berlin Philharmonic that performed on the John Williams concerts in October 2021 (from left to right): Stefan Jezierski, Georg Schreckenberger, Sarah Willis, Chris Parkes, Paula Ernesaks, Johannes Lamotke (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

We’re very grateful for the time Sarah spent with us talking about her love for John Williams, her memories of those fantastic concerts and her tremendous insight as a musician, but also about the importance of connecting with people through music. She’s truly a music ambassador, one of the most generous and passionate music citizen of the world and a genuinely kind and warm human being.

Photo © Monika Rittershaus

Video Credits:

The Legacy Conversations Video Series

Episode 3: “Bells Up!” – A Conversation with Sarah Willis
Hosted and Produced by Maurizio Caschetto
Video Editing and Post-Production by Maurizio Caschetto
Photos Courtesy of Sarah Willis, Monika Rittershaus, Stephan Rabold (Berliner Philharmoniker)

“Olympic Fanfare and Theme” Composed and Conducted by John Williams
Performed by the Berlin Philharmonic

© 2021 thelegacyofjohnwilliams.com

John Williams and Sarah Willis in Berlin, October 2021 (photo courtesy of Sarah Willis)