We often say music has the ability to take us on a journey, but perhaps consider less the journey a musician takes over the course of their career. When Ralph Skiano (Robert B. Semple Chair) won his audition for DSO Principal Clarinet in 2014 he was "thrilled" to be taking the next step in his, expressing at the time that the orchestra was extremely nice and supportive during the audition process, and performing with the DSO felt like a really good fit musically:
"I felt at home already, even during my audition."
Looking back, Ralph characterizes his start with the DSO as his "first big orchestra job," saying the move to Detroit was a "dramatic jump." It's no surprise then, that after three seasons with the DSO, being heralded for his fluidity and musical command, and noteworthy capacity to blend with fellow orchestra principals, Ralph was offered an opportunity with the Cincinnati Symphony, and felt compelled to explore it. He was leaving home to see if external motivators would push him to grow musically, something important enough to him that the move was worth the risk.
It's not unheard of for musicians to simultaneously hold positions with multiple orchestras, or take a sabbatical or extended leave, but when that leave is to play as principal of an orchestra whose schedule is just as demanding as the one being left, it often means they won't be coming back. Even so, Ralph left for Cincinnati with the support of DSO leadership, who understood what it likely meant, but believe in allowing musicians the space to choose where they want to be.
"When I was in Cincinnati, DSO Board members sent me Christmas Cards. Staff visited to see me perform."
Moving forward allows for perspective not always attainable until we are somewhere else. "I missed the OneDSO family," says Ralph, "which starts from the very beginning. Simple things like having a musicians' parking lot; and from structural to people: our Day of Service brings people together, but there is also focus on individual musicians at the DSO. I see them being celebrated and I think that’s amazing. Artistry and respect go hand in hand."
During his season in Cincinnati, Ralph had the opportunity to return to the DSO to play Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, and later Puccini’s Turandot. For him, these concerts sealed the deal: "Playing with them again was remarkable. The biggest reason I came back is because of the musicians on the stage. They have incredible chops. And their talent is poised to explode.” When asked to expand on his thought, he mused:
“How do you measure the quality of an orchestra? Our first rehearsal is as good as some orchestras first concerts!”
Another motivating factor in Ralph's return was the quality of Orchestra Hall and the DSO's ownership of it: "It’s amazing to me that the Hall is as old as it is. Acoustically, you are never aware of any compromises that are sometimes made when an old building has been restored. It's one of the very best places I’ve played in the world."
"When you own your own Hall you can come anytime to practice. I’m meeting a mouthpiece maker on stage to build a mouthpiece around the sound of the Hall. I’d never have that kind of freedom anywhere else. When you own the Hall, the concert experience is different, you feel like you’re inviting people into your home, the relationship with your sound in the space is stronger, more intimate."
As Principal Clarinet, Ralph acts as the administrative head of his section, setting the sound standard, and rotating the work load. With so many musicians on the stage, he sits with his section spread around him, watching and communicating with the other principals, and freeing his section to just follow him, "Then if we’re wrong it’s on me.”
Principals carry a lot of responsibility, but with that responsibility come perks, like playing solos. "For this season's winter music festival, American Panorama, Leonard asked me to Play Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs. It’s a wonderful piece that was written for a television program called The World of Jazz, and it was meant to bridge the worlds of jazz and classical music. The version we performed was arranged by Lucas Foss and made it possible for me to play with the full orchestra, rather than the small jazz ensemble for which it was originally written. It was amazing!"
"So often, the clarinet makes magical moments happen by playing extremely softly, but in this work, I could just scream at the top of my lungs! It was fun to try and emulate the great Benny Goodman, to whom the work was dedicated."
Ralph is home again in Detroit (you may have seen him in his Carhartt overalls on an #IAMDSO banner in the Atrium), and he appreciates the energy of the city as he watches it rebuild in new and interesting ways. "The energy in the city mirrors my energy for the DSO. Now, I’m embracing the heritage of the orchestra and thinking about the lineage of my position, what it means to carry it on into the future.”