BALADA: Symphony No. 5 'American' (2003). Prague Sinfonietta (2003). Divertimentos
(1991). Quasi un Pasodoble (1981).
Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra/Eduardo Alonso-Crespo.
Naxos 8.557749 (B) (DDD) TT: 63:29
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Full of sound and fury. The Catalan composer Leonarda Balada, long resident
at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, has enjoyed a very nice career.
He connects with audiences, even with audiences not normally disposed to
listen to classical, let alone contemporary music. He's certainly not incapable.
I wished, however, that I liked his music more. All sorts of things in
it put me off.
First, Balada is a composer who seems to need extra-musical Big Ideas to
get started -- in that regard, a latter-day Berlioz. The Fifth Symphony's
first movement, for example, is a memorial to the victims of 9/11, and
is about as good as you would expect. It seems to me that a Big Subject
requires more inspiration, rather than less, but Balada seems to be working
on automatic pilot throughout much of the movement -- chaotic opening,
programmatic rendering of the twin-tower crash, nothing you couldn't predict
and, worse, nothing more either. The entire symphony emphasizes the interval
of a third, without ever once harvesting a truly musical idea from it.
There's no argument and no progression, consequently, no transformation.
It's music that squats. Balada throws in the kitchen sink, as far as his
forces are concerned (he fails to include, for some reason, an organ and
a choir) and basically comes up with mud. It reminds me of a restaurant
I used to go to outside of New Orleans. The specialty of the house was
a wonderful baked crab dish. The chef offered variations on it: with mushrooms,
with cheese, with cheese and mushrooms, and so on. The beauty of the basic
dish led me to try the super-deluxe variation (New Orleans and excess go
together like a breast and a warm, nicely-cupped hand). It didn't taste
like much of anything at all. The third permeates the rest of the symphony
as well -- a "black spiritual" slow second movement and a "square
dance" finale. Again, none of it goes anywhere. There's no dramatic
shape. Everything comes at you on the same level of importance. I strongly
suspect that audiences react to the "spiritual program," rather
than to the music itself.
The same "so what?" permeates most of the other pieces on the
program. The Prague Sinfonietta tries to combine an homage to Mozart (the "Prague" Symphony;
get it?) with a Catalonian sardana. At least it doesn't suffer from the
orchestral bloat of the symphony. The opening got my hopes up, I confess.
But the score quickly settled for inflated noodling. I should mention that
Balada has several techniques and styles at hand: postwar avant-gardisme,
minimalism, post-Romanticism, neo-classicism, probably serialism as well.
While at his best he gives you moments, he, from what I've heard, doesn't
give you a piece that really adds up or amounts to much. Each of the Divertimentos
for Strings dedicates itself to a particular string articulation. Thus,
the first movement deals in pizzicato, the second in harmonics, and the
third in "normal" bowing. At least Balada wastes no time here:
he gets to the noodling right away.
Of the four items, I liked Quasi un Pasodoble best. It kind of
reminded me of a Surrealist distortion of landscape (Balada collaborated
point with Dali). A folk march comes in and out of phase. It's actually
charming, but you probably won't ruin your life if you never hear it.
As far as I can tell, the Sevillians do justice to the scores. They just
can't save them.
S.G.S. (May 2007)