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Phillip Scott
Fanfare, January 2007

Leonardo Balada is a Catalan born composer, long resident in the United States, who has been heavily championed by Naxos. This is their seventh CD of his music; previous issues include sym­phonies, opera, concertos, and orchestral pieces. Presumably, the CDs are selling, and if so, it is probably due to the stylistic change Balada underwent from the mid 1970s on. At that time, he moved from an uncompromising avant-garde language to one that incorporated ethnomusical elements, notably Spanish and Afro-American. The composer describes the characteristics of his early style in the CD notes: "atonality, aleatoric devices, clustered harmonies, no tunes, no traditional har­monies, strong rhythms and big contrast of dynamics." Balada's change of direction continued to incorporate most of these elements-he added tunes and traditional harmonies-with the result that his recent music, while lighter and more user-friendly (and Naxos-friendly), in no way signifies a softening. It remains gutsy, energetic, and individual. On the latter point, I quote the composer again: "Do I cease being myself if I dress in a conventional suit today and in a colorful toreador costume tomorrow?" In Balada's case, at least, the answer is no: a personal stamp permeates his work, no matter what style he employs. Partly this occurs through his idiosyncratic scoring. Balada' s orchestra is rarely, if ever, an integrated entity; it is a group of individuals or sections who each have something specific to say, sometimes in accordance with each other but sometimes completely at odds. One has a sense that Balada has gathered his music together rather than molded and smoothed it, which is why it is often unpredictable and exhilarating.

The reason the composer felt the need to address the subject of his stylistic switch is directly related to the Fifth Symphony of 2003. This work, over the course of its three movements, takes a deliberate journey from the avant-garde to the folksy. It is one of several works I have heard lately inspired in some way by the events of September 11,2001 (not all of them American, incidentally). Many were written as an instant response and exhibit a reverent and memorial outlook. So does Balada's symphony in the slow movement, but the first movement is another matter: although titled "In Memoriam," it is an almost literal representation of the horror and chaos of that fateful morning, something no other composer to my knowledge has attempted. (The closest parallel might be John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, with its graphic depiction of the AIDS crisis.) The movement begins ominously and soon works itself up into a lather of restless activity. The collisions themselves are suggested by passages of vigorous, percussion-led fortissimos separated by very quiet minor chords suspended, as it were, in disbelief. Pandemonium swiftly builds, with the interval of a falling third prominent-the interval we associate with emergency vehicles. The falling third motif is played in counterpoint with the statements getting closer together, an almost pictorial depiction of ambulance sirens echoing through the streets of New York as they converge on the scene of destruction.

Clearly, Balada has set the stakes high for his slow movement, which is entitled "Reflections." Again, it begins as an almost literal reflection, the shimmering string-based texture calling to mind the gently rippling surface of a lake. Out of this, a solo oboe begins a lament using, once again, the falling third motif but now revealing it to be linked to the melodic contour of a Negro spiritual. Before long. a slow-moving pulse is established and the comforting world of the spiritual specifically evoked. Solo piano and later trumpet are featured, gently drifting in and out of the pointillistic texture.

The transition between the tough first movement and the tender second is efficiently managed: together they add up to a powerful statement. The work could have legitimately ended at that point. but Balada goes on to close with an up-tempo third movement called "Square Dance." He mixes in the stylistic fingerprints of the hoe-down-stamping rhythms, clopping woodblocks and double- stopped fiddles-using his individual orchestral palette, and produces a piece which is undeniably effective in its own right but somewhat problematical as a conclusion to this symphony. It's quite a leap from the opening movement to this, not just stylistically but in terms of the emotional expectations set up in the earlier sections, and I feel the work as a whole would be stronger with a tougher, perhaps more urban sounding finale. A fascinating score, even so.

The other works on the CD are not so ambitious, but all exhibit the composer's skill, control, and fastidious ear for color. The 10-minute Prague Sinfonietta was a commission for the Torroella International Music Festival in Catalonia. A chamber orchestra from Prague was to perform the premiere, which led Balada to the title and the idea to bring a Mozartean perspective to the Catalonian sardana (a national dance). The result is another typical piece of stylistic fusion. The three Divertimentos, a suite for string orchestra, play with instrumental textures in much the same way as Frank Martin's Etudes. Finally, Quasi un pasadoble from 1981 is a short tone poem, opening with impressionistic musings before lurching into a quirky march and snatches of carnival music.

Balada's interesting, enjoyable music continues to be a delightful discovery on Naxos. I can heartily recommend earlier issues, which contain concertos for violin, piano, and guitar. This disc is another winner. The Seville Royal SO under Alonso-Crespo is new to the series, replacing the Barcelona SO and Jose Serebrier (and others); they are right inside Balada's idiom. As is their wont, the Naxos engineers produce a close-miked sound-brilliant, dynamic, and detailed





Phillip Scott
Fanfare

Leonardo Balada is a Catalan born composer, long resident in the United States, who has been heavily championed by Naxos. This is their seventh CD of his music; previous issues include sym­phonies, opera, concertos, and orchestral pieces. Presumably, the CDs are selling, and if so, it is probably due to the stylistic change Balada underwent from the mid 1970s on. At that time, he moved from an uncompromising avant-garde language to one that incorporated ethnomusical elements, notably Spanish and Afro-American. The composer describes the characteristics of his early style in the CD notes: "atonality, aleatoric devices, clustered harmonies, no tunes, no traditional har­monies, strong rhythms and big contrast of dynamics." Balada's change of direction continued to incorporate most of these elements-he added tunes and traditional harmonies-with the result that his recent music, while lighter and more user-friendly (and Naxos-friendly), in no way signifies a softening. It remains gutsy, energetic, and individual. On the latter point, I quote the composer again: "Do I cease being myself if I dress in a conventional suit today and in a colorful toreador costume tomorrow?" In Balada's case, at least, the answer is no: a personal stamp permeates his work, no matter what style he employs. Partly this occurs through his idiosyncratic scoring. Balada' s orchestra is rarely, if ever, an integrated entity; it is a group of individuals or sections who each have something specific to say, sometimes in accordance with each other but sometimes completely at odds. One has a sense that Balada has gathered his music together rather than molded and smoothed it, which is why it is often unpredictable and exhilarating.

The reason the composer felt the need to address the subject of his stylistic switch is directly related to the Fifth Symphony of 2003. This work, over the course of its three movements, takes a deliberate journey from the avant-garde to the folksy. It is one of several works I have heard lately inspired in some way by the events of September 11,2001 (not all of them American, incidentally). Many were written as an instant response and exhibit a reverent and memorial outlook. So does Balada's symphony in the slow movement, but the first movement is another matter: although titled "In Memoriam," it is an almost literal representation of the horror and chaos of that fateful morning, something no other composer to my knowledge has attempted. (The closest parallel might be John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, with its graphic depiction of the AIDS crisis.) The movement begins ominously and soon works itself up into a lather of restless activity. The collisions themselves are suggested by passages of vigorous, percussion-led fortissimos separated by very quiet minor chords suspended, as it were, in disbelief. Pandemonium swiftly builds, with the interval of a falling third prominent-the interval we associate with emergency vehicles. The falling third motif is played in counterpoint with the statements getting closer together, an almost pictorial depiction of ambulance sirens echoing through the streets of New York as they converge on the scene of destruction.

Clearly, Balada has set the stakes high for his slow movement, which is entitled "Reflections." Again, it begins as an almost literal reflection, the shimmering string-based texture calling to mind the gently rippling surface of a lake. Out of this, a solo oboe begins a lament using, once again, the falling third motif but now revealing it to be linked to the melodic contour of a Negro spiritual. Before long. a slow-moving pulse is established and the comforting world of the spiritual specifically evoked. Solo piano and later trumpet are featured, gently drifting in and out of the pointillistic texture.

The transition between the tough first movement and the tender second is efficiently managed: together they add up to a powerful statement. The work could have legitimately ended at that point. but Balada goes on to close with an up-tempo third movement called "Square Dance." He mixes in the stylistic fingerprints of the hoe-down-stamping rhythms, clopping woodblocks and double- stopped fiddles-using his individual orchestral palette, and produces a piece which is undeniably effective in its own right but somewhat problematical as a conclusion to this symphony. It's quite a leap from the opening movement to this, not just stylistically but in terms of the emotional expectations set up in the earlier sections, and I feel the work as a whole would be stronger with a tougher, perhaps more urban sounding finale. A fascinating score, even so.

The other works on the CD are not so ambitious, but all exhibit the composer's skill, control, and fastidious ear for color. The 10-minute0 Prague Sinfonietta was a commission for the Torroella International Music Festival in Catalonia. A chamber orchestra from Prague was to perform the premiere, which led Balada to the title and the idea to bring a Mozartean perspective to the Catalonian sardana (a national dance). The result is another typical piece of stylistic fusion. The three Divertimentos, a suite for string orchestra, play with instrumental textures in much the same way as Frank Martin's Etudes. Finally, Quasi un pasadoble from 1981 is a short tone poem, opening with impressionistic musings before lurching into a quirky march and snatches of carnival music.

Balada's interesting, enjoyable music continues to be a delightful discovery on Naxos. I can heartily recommend earlier issues, which contain concertos for violin, piano, and guitar. This disc is another winner. The Seville Royal SO under Alonso-Crespo is new to the series, replacing the Barcelona SO and Jose Serebrier (and others); they are right inside Balada's idiom. As is their wont, the Naxos engineers produce a close-miked sound-brilliant, dynamic, and detailed.






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4:00:43 PM, 31 August 2015
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