Sarah Willis and Ursula Jones awarded RPS Honorary Membership

15 Jan 2024

Two much-loved icons of classical music – the horn player Sarah Willis and the dedicated supporter and organiser of musical initiatives Ursula Jones – have today been made Honorary Members of the Royal Philharmonic Society in recognition of their outstanding services to music.

RPS Honorary Membership was presented to Sarah and Ursula in a special event at the Royal College of Music in London on Monday 15 January. Given all they have both done to champion brass music, the event was presented by the RCM brass faculty. In it, Sarah joined an ensemble of current horn students to perform The Hunters' Chorus from Weber's Der Freischütz, The Beatles' Yesterday, and Qué Rico el Mambo from Sarah's Mozart y Mambo project. Head of Brass Amos Miller then presented a ‘Q&A’ with Sarah and Ursula on their remarkable life stories in music.

Since 1826, the RPS has presented Honorary Membership in recognition of those who devote their lives to music and uplifting others with it. It was first presented to the composer Weber and subsequent recipients include Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Verdi, Dvořák, Clara Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Stravinsky, Yehudi Menuhin, Pierre Boulez, Janet Baker and more recently Evelyn Glennie, George Benjamin, Marin Alsop, Stephen Sondheim, Sarah Connolly, and Judith Weir.

Sarah and Ursula with the RCM horn students

On presenting their certificates at the event, RPS Chief Executive James Murphy read the following citations:

‘Classical music is a boundless, tireless force. Some of the greatest musicians are those who somehow match its colossal energy with extraordinary spirit of their own. Sarah Willis is one such luminary. In 2001, she did something truly gamechanging, becoming the first female brass player in the Berlin Philharmonic. For some, that could have been the ultimate feat: destination fulfilled. For Sarah it was barely the start. She’s been such a role model in how she’s used that position to radiate classical music’s wonders, forever making time amidst the most intensive orchestral schedule to present television programmes, lead educational ventures and masterclasses, and harness digital technology to further music’s aura. Those present need no introduction to her hugely popular online ‘Horn hangouts’ nor her central role mentoring and presenting the YouTube Symphony Orchestra to 33 million viewers worldwide. Her joyous ‘Mozart y Mambo’, fusing Mozart’s music with Cuban classics, and giving young Cuban musicians a central, empowering role in the adventure, is living proof of classical music’s timeless power to lift hearts and minds.

Miraculously matching Sarah’s energy whilst in her nineties, Ursula Jones is nothing short of a musical icon. What an extraordinary life in music she has led. She co-founded the English Chamber Orchestra in the 1950s and brought together multiple other orchestras for notable occasions, including for Leonard Bernstein, for the first West End production of West Side Story. Today, she invests such care and generosity in supporting so many young musicians in the UK and in her native Switzerland. She is one of the great brass champions, recently raising thousands for Brass for Africa by cycling daily round Regents Park, and moreover presenting numerous bursaries and awards in the name of her late husband, the great trumpeter Philip Jones, himself a recipient of RPS Honorary Membership in 1999. To the best of our knowledge, they are the first couple in history to both receive this honour. Recently hearing the fanfare that Lutosławski wrote for her as a gift, we are reminded of Ursula’s remarkable link to so much of our precious musical heritage, but she is also a force for the future, forever rolling up her sleeves and giving her all to build a pathway for new generations to shine.

Sarah’s latest album, ‘Mozart y Mambo – La bella Cubana’, the third volume in its series, has recently been released. Details here.

‘Brass Spectacular – in memory of Philip Jones’, organised by Ursula, takes place at 6pm on Saturday 17 February at St John’s Smith Square in London: a fantastic showcase of exceptional brass ensembles from all the UK music colleges. Details here.

Annually, the RPS welcomes nominations for Honorary Membership from RPS Members and colleagues across the music profession. Recipients are decided upon by the RPS Board of Trustees and advisory Council. A full list of those who have received Honorary Membership from 1826 to the present day can be found here.

Sarah with the RCM horn students