Leonardo Balada, born in Barcelona in 1933, has been a resident of the United States since his early twenties when he came to study at the Juilliard School under Vincent Persichetti and Aaron Copland. He has been a teacher of composition at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh since 1970. I was first exposed to his music when the Pittsburgh Symphony played and then recorded his 'Steel Symphony,' a brutalist work that initially turned me off. I have since come to like that work a lot. But not long after that Balada changed his style to include ethnic and folk elements as well as a polystylistic approach that is evident in all the works presented here. Two of them, the most recent ones -- Symphony No. 5 'American', and 'Prague Sinfonietta' -- written in 2003, are given world premiere recordings here by a fine Spanish ensemble, the Royal Seville Symphony Orchestra. They also play his 'Three Divertimentos' from 1991 and 'Quasi un Pasodoble' from 1981. The conductor is Balada's former student, Eduardo Alonso-Crespi, who is now a colleague at Carnegie Mellon.
The Fifth Symphony is in three movements. They progress from the stark desperation memorializing the events of 9/11 (the premiere was given only a couple of months after that calamity), to a slow movement based on a Negro spiritual-like melody, to a cockeyed 'Square Dance' that has the violin section sounding for all the world like drunken hoedown fiddlers. The progression from horror to consolation to joy outlines a journey of healing. Musically Balada says the symphony progresses from 'the abstract to the ethnic.'
'Prague Sinfonietta,' first played by a Czech orchestra at a Spanish music festival, is a weird combination of echoes of Mozart's 'Prague' Symphony and of the national Catalan dance, the sardana. Light and lyrical in texture, expert in performance, and invigorating in effect, this eleven minute work is a triumph.
The three 'Divertimentos' are for string orchestra. Each features a particular aspect of string playing -- the first is entirely pizzicato, the second employs harmonics, the third normal bowing but utilizing tone clusters and swirling polytonal harmonies. The set of three pieces lasts about seventeen minutes. 'Quasi un Pasodoble' is an extension of another Spanish dance rhythm, the march-like form so often heard at bull-fights (and in William Walton's 'Façade'). The work is polystylistic, mixing consonance and dissonance, tone clusters and clear lyrical passages, colorful orchestration, mysterious polychordal passages juxtaposed with those of Ravelian articulation. A very effective piece.
One comes away from this CD with the feeling that Balada is the master of his craft, the possessor of a creative musical imagination, and the ability to bring his ideas to fruition. This CD is recommended for those who already like Balada's music -- much of it has been recorded -- and those who want to be exposed to representative, well-played examples of his work.