From 'parrandas' to The Philadelphia Orchestra: Ricardo Morales embraces the joy of musical collaboration
Puerto Rico’s own Ricardo Morales leads the way on the clarinet for the Philadelphia Orchestra this weekend as a principal soloist.
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For Ricardo Morales, principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, his love of music began as a young child, when, as the second-youngest of six, he “got to join the band” - his family - as they sang and played instruments in parrandas, a Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling common on the island.
Those early days of singing carols, playing a little bit of the bongos, and following his father’s lead on guitar led to further musical education at the Escuela Libre de Música in Puerto Rico, and, eventually, careers in professional music for Morales, as well as each of his five siblings.
Their family “band” now includes two composers, a trombone conductor and professor of trombone, a percussionist who plays in the Lion King on Broadway orchestra, a cellist in a string quartet - and Morales, a clarinetist, or, as he puts it, “the only one who goes fififi.”
“It gets pretty loud in the house whenever we are together,” he admitted with a laugh.
Morales started playing clarinet when he was 11, following in his older siblings’ footsteps at the Escuela Libre de Música in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“I just loved the clarinet. My teacher was just so wonderful, so supportive, so great,” he recalled.
“I remember I loved it so much and I was looking forward to it so much, that even the first day that I got my clarinet, and I came back home and I was practicing, after the fourth hour my parents were like, ‘hey, do you want to save some lips for tomorrow?’."
The “musical scene in Puerto Rico is quite strong,” Morales explained, due in part to Pablo Casals, the famous Catalan cellist, conductor, and composer who founded the Conservatory of Puerto Rico He also inaugurated the Casals Festival, held annually on the island since its founding in 1956.
Programs like the Escuela Libre de Música, where Morales studied, are especially important, he said, as they help ensure that more Puerto Ricans, and Latinos overall, are represented in concert music, because they start instruction at an early age, when students are still in elementary school. They are financially accessible, since they are public schools, and the quality of instruction is “phenomenal,” Morales said - the staff, after all, includes teachers trained at some of the world’s top conservatories.
For Morales, that kind of early music education is key for involving more Latinos and African-Americans in concert music.
“When we see an orchestra, it’s basically every single person there is the culmination of a lifetime of work. So, it’s not something that we can be doing something else, and we think that’s interesting, and then we turn on the job and then we get good at it,” he said, noting that top musicians begin playing their instruments at the age of five, on average.
It’s mostly economic factors that create that divide, Morales said.
“When you have economic stress, then you don’t have the motivation to drive an hour to get to a $100 lesson when [your kid’s] in fourth grade. It’s an expensive proposition,” he said.
This kind of early exposure to music is not accessible to everyone due to the cost of private instruction, and cuts that are often made to the arts in public schools.
However, though viewed as superfluous, arts and music are actually vital aspects of education for everyone, Morales asserted - he believes that if they were taught more widely, then many “social ills...will be much more ameliorated because people would basically understand how we are much more interconnected and have a much more panoramic view of the world.”
In concert this weekend, Feb. 21-23, Morales will show off his skills as the soloist in Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 2, in a special program that also includes Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 3.
But, even though he’s the star of the show this time, his primary motivation still comes from being a part of the band — just like when he first started singing with his family in the parrandas.
“Yes, I have a leading role...but it always feels like it is a complete coordination or cooperation, to create a musical world,” he said.
“It’s not, like, just me showing up, and some back-up band or anything like that,” he added with a laugh.
It’s this group musical effort that has stuck with Morales through all his years in music.
“I think what I can say that I bring from what I have learned is trying to bring the joy of collaboration.”