A clarinetist would have to be from Mars to not recognize the name Ricardo Morales, but ask that clarinetist where Ricardo came from, and I suspect you might get a blank look.
Puerto Rico, a green, mountainous island, 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, sits 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. As its motto, la Isla del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment) suggests, it is a tropical paradise with lush vegetation (they say you can care for your garden with a machete,) sea breezes, and the sound of tree frogs (coquis) chorusing after a rain.
Ricardo, or Ricky, as he is called “back home,” made his solo debut with the Puerto Rico Symphony at the age of 13 playing the Second Weber Concerto, won the Grand Prize in the Seventeen Magazine competition at the age of 17, became principal clarinetist at the Metropolitan Opera at the age of 21, and principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003 at the age of 31. Current rumors are that orchestras such as Chicago, New York, and Berlin are vying for his employment, and his performances at the ClarinetFests never cease to amaze (such as in Cincinnati in 1992, when, at the age of 20, he played the Nielsen concerto from memory with piano on a 4 p.m. recital, and then performed the Weber Concertino, also from memory, with the Cincinnati Pops at 8 p.m. This writer will attest to both being flawless.)
So, how was this “wunderkind,” with his characteristically even sound, clarity and lightning-speed technique, nurtured? An interview with Ricky’s first teacher, Leslie López, now retired from San Juan’s Escuela Libre de Música (Free School of Music,) was illuminating. On September 11, 2006, the day after he turned 79, Don Leslie spoke of Ricky as a natural talent—”¡talentosisimo!” He added, “De las 24 horas del día, el practicaba 30.” (“Of the 24 hours in a day he practiced 30,”) giving a little laugh. A dapper gentleman with thinning white hair and a small moustache, “el maestro” spoke of Ricky coming to him in the seventh grade “un bebé” (“a baby,”) who played bongos and sang with his family.
Born in 1927 in Naguabo, a small town in the mountains southwest of San Juan, Leslie López Rosario was the oldest of three children born to Doña Ana Rosario and Don Pascual López. The family also included three sons and three daughters from Don Pascual’s first marriage, which had left him a widower. The band director in Naguabo loaned him a wooden Albert-system clarinet. His family moved to San Juan, to a house his father built in Hato Rey, when Leslie was six, keeping the “finca” (farm) out on the island for visits. When he was 11 his father gave him his first very own instrument.
Leslie’s started clarinet lessons with Don Jesús Figueroa on Calle Tanca (Tanca Street) in Old San Juan, an picturesque island at the entrance to the city’s harbor, settled by the Spanish in the 16th Century, encircled by a hefty wall and protected by massive forts.
Don Jesús and his wife, Doña Carmen, had eight children, all of whom became fine musicians: José (Pepito,) Leonor, Narciso, Jaime (Kachiro,) Carmelina, Angelina, Guillermo, y Rafael. Leslie was a few years younger than Rafael.
In Puerto Rico’s strongly Catholic culture, family has traditionally been extremely important. Thus, being virtually adopted into the Figueroa family, young Leslie was nurtured by the close-knit environment that produced youngsters who continued their studies in Paris at the Ecole Normale, and then returned to their island to become stalwarts of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and Conservatory. Pepito, born in 1904, was concertmaster of the PRSO from its founding, in 1958, until his retirement at age 86. Kachiro was the assistant concertmaster, at his side. Guillermo was principal viola, and Rafael a member of the cello section. Narciso was professor of piano at the Conservatory, where Carmelina was a professor of solfeggio. Angelina was a fine pianist, as was her sister Leonor, who, sadly, died at an early age.
The next generation of the Figueroa family has been no less influential in music: two of Kachiro’s sons are currently members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (Rafy, is principal cello, and Narci, is in the violin section;) Guillermo’s two children studied in New York (Guillermito, an early member of the Emerson Quartet and of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, is now conductor of New Mexico Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Puerto Rico Symphony, and Ivonne, is a concert pianist.) More information about the prestigious Figueroa family and its contributions to music may be found at www.musicosfigueroa.org.
Meanwhile, back to the early 1940’s, when Leslie López, an almost-adopted Figueroa, was studying clarinet with Don Jesús and attending Central High School, a beautiful edifice with a stately, classical façade in the heart of Santurce, which was then the business district of San Juan. His father also gave him an alto saxophone, which he studied with Luis R. Miranda, the composer of the famous Danza Impromptu, and Recuerdos de Boriquen.
He graduated at the age of 16, and decided to go to New York City, on his own, to continue his music studies. He shared an apartment there with some friends, paying $5 per week for a place on 134th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. A ride on the subway cost 5¢. A friend recommended he search out a saxophonist named Joe Allard, which he did, and thus began his lessons with “un maestraso” (“a mega-maestro.”)
Leslie describes Joe Allard as “un hombre bien bueno” (“a very good man,”) and lessons went well. Allard sometimes took his protégé to jobs with him, especially to rehearsals for the Bell Telephone Company Orchestra, where he would ask the young man to sit in different places in the hall and tell him how he sounded. The student’s appreciation of his teacher was very great: “Joe Allard tenía un sonido precioso—en saxofón no había nadie mejor.” (“Joe Allard had a beautiful sound—on the saxophone there was no one better.”)