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The first time the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra played Mozart’s bittersweet Clarinet Concerto, in 1939, the soloist was Benny Goodman. Swinging cat though he was, I can’t imagine Goodman playing the piece with any more soul than what we heard Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall, with Ricardo Morales doing the honors.

There must be a million ways to approach this concerto, considering all the inflection and expression the clarinet is capable of, and the various moods of various instruments. Morales has what seems to me to be a unique style.

At least I have never heard anyone play the concerto quite the way he did. I have never heard such quiet in the piece. At times Morales sounded as if he were barely breathing, and yet the notes were there, pure and precise. It was a glorious thing to hear.

The Mozart is the centerpiece of a concert that begins with Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite and ends with Bartok’s Orchestral Suite No. 1. It is not just the centerpiece, it is the highlight. The Bartok, which the BPO is recording for a Naxos CD, is a ton of fun, clever and invigorating. The Ravel, with its relaxed poetry, is a delight. But there is just no equaling the genius of that clarinet concerto. And Morales brought it out so beautifully.

Music Director JoAnn Falletta, conducting, got the tempi just right – unhurried, serene. The orchestra and Morales seemed like a natural fit.

The first movement struck just the right wistful tone from the first bars.

Morales is a big, steady man, and his playing reflects his demeanor. It is calm and grounded. You need an exquisite calm for this music. He gracefully navigated the music’s gentle dips and swoops.

The Adagio is like an aria, and the way Morales played that incredible first line was breathtaking.

Morales used to be the principal clarinet for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and maybe some of that experience went into this. He played like a singer. One interlude that was absolutely heart melting came in the brief cadenza later in the movement, the cadenza that leads back to the opening theme.

It was like one of those moments in opera when for a second, the world seems to stop.

In the last movement, Mozart lightens things up a little, but Morales kept his gentle tone. He and the orchestra gave the music a lovely continuity.

At the end, as the audience rose slowly to applaud – this music puts you into a kind of daze – there came a sweet moment: John Fullam, the BPO’s principal clarinetist, emerged from the wings with a bouquet for Morales.

The Ravel was a good preface to the Mozart. It has a quiet charm, with soft surprises and bewitching woodwind effects. One bird call is especially ingenious. There are whimsical touches from the harp, the celeste and the percussion.

As for the Bartok, Edward Yadzinski’s program notes pointed out the BPO had never played it before, at least on the Classics series. It’s about time. It’s perfect for our orchestra, and fun for the crowd.

The first movement’s brisk, upbeat, march-like themes can’t help but charm you. Kids would like this music. Bartok gets a marvelous array of creative sounds, and you get great contrasts. A buzzy trumpet sound cuts against sheer strings. There are trombone fanfares and sharp sudden trumpet solos. For a second Falletta went airborne.

The second movement has a wonderful section where the orchestra joins in a murmur almost like the din of traffic, with the brass blasting in like car horns. It’s a wild effect. The Presto that followed was airy and springy. Fullam got his turn to solo in the Moderato, playing Bartok’s lovely folk-like melody.

This was a great night for clarinet.

The concert repeats today at 2:30 p.m.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com