Questions in wake of a tryout

Clarinetist Ricardo Morales has been offered a job by N.Y. Philharmonic.
Clarinetist Ricardo Morales has been offered a job by N.Y. Philharmonic.
Posted: October 19, 2010

It's doubtful that any sentient Philadelphia Orchestra listener of the last seven years hasn't marveled at principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales - his nimble Ravel, cushiony arpeggios in a Mozart symphony, or his beguiling ability to float a Rachmaninoff melody over the ensemble without edging above a whisper.

Classical music doesn't have an MVP, but it's clear that Morales, raised from the pit of the Metropolitan Opera by Wolfgang Sawallisch, is the best thing to happen to the orchestra in years.

And so the idea of losing him hurts. His open tryout for the New York Philharmonic in concert last week produced what everyone expected - a job offer.

The fact that the courtship was covered in incremental detail by the New York Times no doubt strengthens Morales' bargaining position. Will he negotiate a contract in New York, or parlay his Avery Fisher Hall triumph into a better deal in Philadelphia?

As of late Monday, the matter had not been settled, and a Philharmonic spokesman said a conclusion was not expected before the New York ensemble leaves on tour Thursday.

Morales is a rare talent. But his exit wouldn't be devastating. Not by itself. Orchestral music is a buyers' market, and astonishing players can be found. The conventional wisdom was that no one could hold a candle to one of Morales' predecessors, Burt Hara, and conventional wisdom proved wrong.

It would also be a mistake to think that the only orchestra to lose great talent is the one in financial jeopardy. Musicians are people, and while it's tidy to think of this as a sport won by the team offering the best deal, musicians, like the rest of us, often take new jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with the job itself.

They prefer one city to another, or perhaps are recently divorced and want to be close to children relocating with the ex-spouse.

Morales did not respond to an e-mail inquiry, and the orchestra declined to address the issue.

But that doesn't mean there aren't salient questions to ask now, whether or not Morales leaves. How they are answered has everything to do with whether this orchestra continues to operate at its high artistic level, or begins a drift to second-tier status.

The most urgent worry is whether this is the thin end of the wedge. With threatened cuts in salary, size of ensemble, and duration of season, is this the beginning of an exodus? When organizations contract, after all, it tends to be the best players who find other jobs - because they can.

Will the orchestra be able to retain Morales if he is open to being retained, and, alternately, do they have the means and the will to replace him with comparable talent if he leaves?

Lurking in the background is the hypocrisy that has long run through orchestral personnel decisions.

Both players and management have held that talent is the sole criterion for determining who gets into the Philadelphia Orchestra. The process is "squeaky clean," in the words of one former orchestra leader.

There can be no prejudice or favoritism, they argue, since auditions happen behind screens.

Except when they don't.

Morales auditioned not only without a screen, but in public, when he played concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Philadelphia Orchestra principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa also exposed his identity for all to see when he recently auditioned (unsuccessfully) for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in concert, and the Philadelphia followed the same path in its previous search for a concertmaster.

When orchestral musicians feign perplexity on the question of why orchestras aren't more diverse - but we use audition screens! - the disingenuousness is insulting.

But the orchestra regularly asks us to accept an equally ludicrous proposition: that when auditions draw hundreds of aspirants, the most qualified musician just happens to be related to someone already in the organization. Morales has two relatives in the orchestra: his wife, second violinist Amy Oshiro-Morales, who joined in 2008, and sister-in-law Dara Morales, who came aboard in 2007.

More than a dozen members of the orchestra are related to each other - not counting several more who were, until recent retirements or resignations, entangled in one way or another.

On balance, has the hiring of spouses, partners, children, and in-laws been justified by first landing their stupendously talented relatives?

It's subjective. But once you engage in this practice, you lose moral authority, and you certainly can't maintain that music is the sole criterion for hiring. Moral authority is something that an institution should be able to claim at a time when the orchestra's artistic integrity hangs in the balance.

As contract talks come to a head, perhaps by this spring, don't be surprised to hear management and musicians each vying to speak for the good of the orchestra. The slogans can already be heard at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where a damaging strike is under way: Musicians stake out a role as guardians of world-class quality, while management argues for lowered operating costs, because quality is irrelevant if the orchestra goes out of business.

Players no more or less than management bear responsibility for the outcome, and interestingly, Morales himself is an embodiment of the issues.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch/.

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