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

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 at one 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)