Unfettered joy. This is what Ricardo Morales possesses. No, that’s not right. He doesn’t possess it, he emits it. Like a glow.
To speak with Morales is to receive a gift of smiles, both his and the ones he draws out of you.
It’s no surprise, then, that the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a fluent and enthusiastic collaborator. Beyond the music he plays as part of an ensemble, he creates original works in partnership with people he respects, from concertos to the instruments he plays.
Back in 2011, Morales attended a rehearsal of his colleague, principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner. The piece Khaner played was the concerto that composer Jonathan Leshnoff had written for him, and Morales’s immediate reaction was to want one for himself.
Leshnoff, who is based in Baltimore, was there that day, and Morales introduced himself. He explained that he loved the flute concerto and would like to do a collaboration. “We just hit it off right away,” Morales told me on the phone from his home. (Spoiler alert: We spoke the day after he debuted his concerto.)
Of course, enthusiasm alone doesn’t cut it when it comes to an artistic collaboration; more ingredients are needed. “It’s difficult to find a composer who you trust, for them to create something for you,” Morales explains. “Basically what I have to do is to recreate, to represent, the vision of the composer. You have to have some kind of camaraderie. And for me [with Leshnoff], the camaraderie was built just in my admiration of his music. So we got together and we started to think about what are the qualities that one would envision the concerto would have.”
From there, the duo established their goals for the piece. They discussed the mood they wanted to express, and what Morales wanted to feel he would be accomplishing when he would eventually play it.
“So I described to him what I really liked in his flute concerto,” Morales continues. “There’s something that people can take with them, a tune that they can hum, that they can recognize. It can make an impression in your mind and in your heart. I wanted people to sit down on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy it at home – not just an intellectual exercise. That was very important for me.” Morales also wanted the composition to highlight the subtle nuances the clarinet can express, and that its music has always been portrayed as having a female voice.
Morales sent Leshnoff recordings of his performances so the composer could become familiar with how he plays in different genres and with his general style of performance.
Though Leshnoff pressed Morales to provide details of his technical range – how fast he was comfortable playing, what registers he preferred to play in – Morales responded that his primary interest was to play beautiful music. “Write your piece,” he tells me he insisted, “and I will do my best to accomplish that. If there’s something that cannot be done at that moment by me, then we can talk about alternatives.” He didn’t want to impose too many constraints on the way that Leshnoff would compose. Morales wanted him to feel free to write “what is in his heart and mind.”
When the first draft of the concerto was ready, Morales took the train from Philadelphia to Baltimore. He read through the draft, then started to play it. “When I finished with the first movement,” he told me, “I was so moved I started weeping. I couldn’t help myself, I was so happy. I got all teary, and I actually cried. I wept in happiness, because I felt like he understood exactly how I like the clarinet to sound, and how I envision the qualities of the clarinet to be used.”
Years before venturing into the world of commissioning new music, Morales teamed up with Morrie Backun to develop a new clarinet. This long-term collaboration has involved a very different process than his experience working with Leshnoff on the concerto, “but similar in the sense that one has to have a particular kind of openness, like when I said to Jonathan, ‘please just write it the way that you want, and if there is something I cannot play, then just leave it there and we can work on some alternative.’ So that way we can have the process be fluid.”
Backun was making bells and barrels at the time Morales met him in 2003, and he seemed eager to show off his wares. Backun presented an assortment of parts made in a variety of woods, which Morales describes as “a rainbow of colour. It was just really, really beautiful.”
The pair worked together to fit Morales’s existing clarinets with bells and barrels customized to tweak his sound to his desired quality, but eventually they had one of those moments that changes everything. They looked at each other and said, “You know what? Instead of modifying and adjusting other manufacturer’s clarinets, why don’t we just make our own from the very beginning?”
Morales recalls their initial approach to developing a brand-new clarinet: “Envision playing on the best instrument that you could possibly imagine. And now you’re playing one of the most difficult or the most beautiful pieces that is close to you, and what you envision happening in terms of how it will feel, how it will sound, how you’ll get along with the instrument. That is basically how we started this instrument. It really helped us to get us away from the status quo, from the myth of tradition.”
Backun and Morales were uninterested in maintaining the status quo. They weren’t after celebrating tradition. They didn’t want to start with some agreed-upon standard, then put their own twist on it. “If you want to make something that has a lasting impact and you want to improve the craft, you cannot start with that, because it is almost self-defeating,” Morales explains. Instead, the two decided to start from scratch. Their goal was to change the conversation entirely, moving the game to an entirely new field of play: to focus on the tension between what clarinetists think they want because it’s what they’ve always been given and what they actually need.
“In music and life in general,” Morales says, “sometimes what we want is different from what we need, right? You know, I want a hamburger with fries, but what I need is a nice salad.”
The result of their collaboration is the MoBa clarinet and line of accessories.
Thirteen years after they first met, Backun and Morales continue to work closely to refine the MoBa line of products. “The most enjoyable part is that we are not even close to being done,” Morales says with a smile I can hear across the phone line. “It feels like it’s a great first step to the future of what the clarinet can truly be. So as the instrument improves, then certain elements of the playing can change, and you improve your playing, and you can actually have the opportunity to play music better. We try to have more fun when we play. It’s important to have the instrument as a tool that allows us to accomplish every musical and artistic wish, no matter how far-fetched it may seem.”
Ricardo Morales is one of the most sought-after clarinetists today. He joined The Philadelphia Orchestra as Principal Clarinet in 2003, having held the same position with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra starting at the age of twenty-one, under the direction of James Levine. He has been asked to perform as Principal Clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and, at the invitation of Sir Simon Rattle, with the Berlin Philharmonic. He also performs as Principal Clarinetist with the Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra and the Mito Chamber Orchestra, at the invitation of Maestro Seiji Ozawa. He currently serves on the faculty of Temple University. Ricardo Morales is a Backun Artist and performs on MoBa clarinets and accessories, which he co-designs with Morrie Backun.