Spicy clarinet joins Omaha Symphony for ‘The Firebird’ Ricardo Morales grew up in Puerto Rico, in what can only be described as a musical family. Morales is now a world-renowned clarinet player, and his five siblings are accomplished musicians, but the feisty, bubbly Morales didn’t always know things would turn out this way. “I thought I would play bongos in a salsa band or something,” Morales says in a telephone interview from New York. Morales, now the principal clarinetist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, was in New York City to play a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and to visit one of his brothers. At press time he’d just been offered a position as principal clarinet position with the New York Philharmonic It was one of Morales’s older brothers who turned a young Ricardo on to chamber music. “He kept me prisoner in his room and played Brahams and Mozart, and he would whack me in the head if I tried to escape,” Morales says, laughing at the memory. “I would cry when he hit me and our mother would come running like, ‘What are you doing to him?’ And my brother would say, ‘We have a little music fan on our hands. He’s crying because he’s so moved by the music.’” Eventually, Morales had to choose an instrument. His decision wasn’t based on anything technical, but rather a desire to get out of singing. “It’s so childish, the way I went about it. My father always had our family sing Christmas carols, and he also had us sing these old romantic Latin songs, about lost love and things like that. When I was singing, everyone would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute!’ But I was mortified. No little boy wants to sing about lost love. I was completely embarrassed. So I picked up an instrument. I needed something to play so I wouldn’t have to sing. I knew I needed a wind instrument.” At 11 Morales entered Escuela Libre de Musica, a San Juan public school with heavy music curriculum, which all of his siblings attended. Morales speaks highly of his school, crediting a large part of his success to his education and the teachers who gave him chances to audition. “Sometimes dreams come true,” he says. “But there’s a great deal behind it. It’s never just an isolated incident. I always say success is part family upbringing and support, part faculty, part practice and part access to people who can give you a chance. Those things always work in concert, and luck comes to the prepared. Being surrounded by people who knew where to get you access made all the difference.” Not only did Morales come from a musical family, he married into one. His wife and her sister both play with the Philadelphia Orchestra. When a guest cellist of the orchestra was one of Morales’s brothers, it seemed the family dominated the scene. “At one point in Philadelphia, there were four Moraleses on stage,” he says with a chuckle, counting his sister-in-law as a Morales. One of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s guest conductors has been Omaha Symphony’s Maestro Thomas Wilkins. Wilkins and Morales began talking and eventually arranged for Morales to join the Omaha Symphony. Wilkins could not be more pleased about his guest clarinetist. “I’ve known Ricardo for four or five years,” he says. “He is, in my opinion, the best orchestral clarinetist in the country, if not the world. And I say that without any reservation whatsoever. He’s a phenomenal talent, and he’s extremely versatile. Depending on the style of the music that we’re doing, he adapts on the spot.” Wilkins, with Morales’ input, worked on a lineup that will not only take the audience on a complete roller coaster, but also flaunt Morales’ ability to play fast and flexibly. The Omaha Symphony will open with Graeme Koehne’s “Unchained Melody,” a piece roughly based on the old Righteous Brother’s tune. “I think this is music that ought to be heard,” Wilkins says simply. “It’s also sort of in your face, but in front of your face, too. It’s short enough that it won’t wear you out. If you have listened to rock ‘n’ roll all your life and someone drags you to the symphony, it will blow your mind.” Morales will then join the Omaha Symphony for Aaron Copland’s “Clarinet Concerto,” which was originally written for Benny Goodman. “At the very beginning, ‘Unchained Melody,’ very high-powered and energetic,” Wilkins says. “It makes Copland seems like it’s a reaction to the first piece.” Morales will stick around for Claude Debussy’s “Première Rhapsodie.” “You have to have something to go with Copland,” Wilkins says. “I love the contrast with the Debussy. It’s serendipity that it happens to show off his (Morales’) versatility. It reveals his immaculate sense of control. Some of the stuff is very sensitive playing and very high. It’s not just about being able to play fast.” The Omaha Symphony opens the second half with Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and closes the show with Igor Stravinsky’s classic ballet piece, the “Firebird Suite.” “The whole program is really closer to dance to anything else,” Wilkins says. “If there’s a common denominator, it’s rhythm and dance, with ‘Firebird’ being the famous ballet music of Stravinsky, as well as ‘Afternoon of a Faun,’ and even including the opening piece.” , The Omaha Symphony Presents The Firebird, Oct. 22 and 23, at 8 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St. Tickets are $15-$75, available by calling 345.0606 or visiting omahasymphony.org.