Listen to Deutsche Grammophon’s podcast series presented by Sarah Willis who plays the French horn in the Berlin Philharmonic and is also a well-known and popular presenter of classical music programmes. Deutsche Grammophon’s podcasts give an insider’s view of the label’s star performers and their most recent recordings. Scroll down to read our interview with presenter Sarah Willis who reveals insights into the musician’s world that most of us never see. During the pandemic Deutsche Grammophon’s podcasts have started to fulfil a new role. Sarah explained, “They make a vital bridge between the audience and the performers.”
“Is that a conch on your shelf?” asks Sarah Willis, peering from Berlin into my London study via the Zoom screen. “Can you play it?” Next thing I know, I’m taking the shell down and wondering how on earth to get a noise out of it. Willis vanishes from the computer screen, then returns with a conch of her own. As first horn in one of the most famous orchestras in the world, it’s no problem for her to make it sound as if it’s summoning spirits from the deep. Fortunately for my neighbours, mine doesn’t work.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s British French horn player has been summoning some occasionally elusive spirits for quite a while. Besides her ‘day job’ in the orchestra, she is often to be found on video and audio alike as a media mover and shaker; and for musicians she can be more than an interviewer, because often she is also their friend.
“They make a vital bridge between the audience and the performers”
Sarah Willis has been creating a series of podcasts for Deutsche Grammophon, which in normal times involves grabbing the label’s artists for an interview when they happen to be in Berlin. Usually the fun flows unabated, while offering a glimpse into the musician’s world that most of us never see. But with the pandemic, these podcasts have started to fulfil a new role. “They make a vital bridge between the audience and the performers,” Willis says.
Given the absence of live performances through much of 2020, the interviews can supply an element of personal contact that is more important than ever. “Today people often discover the music through the performer,” she points out. “Someone might get interested in a person through media or social media first, and then find out what they do – and that’s how they discover music.”
Pitching the interviews at the perfect level is not as easy as it sounds
Pitching the interviews for Deutsche Grammophon’s podcast series at the perfect level is not as easy as it sounds. “It’s a challenge for me to make it accessible, not too nerdy but still with a good knowledge of what’s going on in the music scene,” says Sarah Willis. “It shouldn’t be boring or trivial for people who are knowledgeable, but I also want to make it interesting for people who maybe stumbled across Lisa Batiashvili in the newspaper and thought, ‘Oh, she’s lovely, let’s listen to her podcast …’ Then they find out she’s even more lovely!” Listen to Lisa Batiashvili perform ‘The Terry Theme’ from Limelight from her new album City Lights.
Willis’s not-so-secret weapon is the fact that she is a musician herself: in many cases her interviewees already know her as a colleague. “That means they can’t come up with the usual speeches that are prepared for publicity because they know I won’t put up with that,” she says. “They’re aware I’m on their level: I play in a good orchestra and I know what they’re talking about. It’s really important to me that they feel comfortable and come away from the interview having had a great time.”
As an interviewer you have also to sense the personality very quickly
The artists’ personalities are many and varied and it’s Willis’s job to bring out the best in them during her interviews for Deutsche Grammophon’s podcast series. There’s a helpful clue to that: their playing. “Any big-time artist of course has their stage persona and what they want to show the world, but for musicians, how we play is how we are: you can’t hide that. As an interviewer you have also to sense the personality very quickly. For instance, I’m not going to hammer someone with questions or try to make them laugh if they’re just not like that. A good interview, I think, is based on the chemistry between the two people. Understanding the person early on is very important, knowing how far I can push with my questions.”
One pianist she loved interviewing was Vikingur Ólafsson
One pianist she loved interviewing was the popular Icelander, Vikingur Ólafsson: “I was a little bit star-struck, to be honest. His voice is very deep, he’s extremely tall and he has quite a mystical air about him when he plays, which is wonderful. But talking to him was really fun: he was far more open than I expected.” Watch Víkingur Ólafsson performing his transcription of Rameau’s ‘The Arts And The Hours’ from his latest album Debussy • Rameau.
Another was the young Korean superstar Seong-Jin Cho, whose podcast, Willis says, has been snapped up by a gigantic fan-base in his home country. “I expected him to be quite shy and soft-spoken, as I’d watched a lot of interviews with him beforehand. He was, at first – but he warmed up amazingly. He’s not the most extrovert performer, yet that’s what makes his Chopin and Bach playing so absolutely exquisite.” Watch Seong-Jin Cho performing the ‘Adagio’ from Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy in C Major from his latest album The Wanderer.
Sarah Willis has teased out exceptional nuggets of insight
Sarah Willis has teased out exceptional nuggets of insight for Deutsche Grammophon’s podcasts – for instance, with the violinist Daniel Hope, whose Hope at Home series of lockdown recitals was snapped up for broadcast by the TV station Arte. “I talked a lot to Daniel about his living room and how it was just being taken over by Arte in the lockdown time. That was real insider information. Millions of people watched those concerts, but finding out how the series was made was the only real look-in behind the scenes.” (Hope at Home has recently resumed for the latest lockdown). Watch Daniel Hope performing Satie’s Gnossiennes No. 1 from his latest album Hope at Home.
The most recent Deutsche Grammophon podcast features the Austrian-Iranian cellist Kian Soltani, with whom Willis reveals, among much else, a startling situation that faces musicians in the Covid-19 world: the pressure of playing their first concert since March with live-streaming to a massive audience, going “from zero to a hundred!” Listen to Kian Soltani performing the ‘Allegro’ from Dvorák’s Cello Concerto in B minor from his recording with Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin.
Other discussions in Deutsche Grammophon’s podcast series have ranged from Christian Löffler on electronic music to the cellist Camille Thomas enthusing about shoes, notably Louboutin; and for the mandolinist Avi Avital, laundry problems. “His washing machine is always breaking down,” says Willis. “He keeps the plectrums in his pockets and sometimes forgets to take them out, so the picks get into the works …” Watch Avi Avital performing the ‘Allegro’ from Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor from his new album Art of the Mandolin.
To end, there used to be Willis’s “Horn Challenge”, in which the interviewee would try playing her French horn (the instrument, incidentally, is notoriously difficult for beginners). Since the Covid-19 crisis, she has instead been challenging them to play with her their most feared moment of repertoire that involves the horn. Hope homed in on the slow movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Cho on the opening of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Horns and mandolins don’t often mix, but with Avital Willis turned the instrument into a baritone for Don Giovanni’s serenade ‘Deh Vieni Alla Fenestra’.
And there’s always that conch shell …
Listen to Deutsche Grammophon’s podcast series now.