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Leonardo BALADA (b.1933)
Cumbres – A Short Symphony for Band (Symphony No.2) (1971) [14:02]
Concerto for Piano, Winds and Percussion (1973) [17:02]
Concerto for Cello and Nine Players (1962, rev.1967) [16:00]
Viola Concerto (2009-10)* [16:27]
Sonata for Ten winds (1979) [16:07]
Enrique Graf (piano), David Premo (cello), Ashan Pillai (viola)
Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble/Denis Colwell, Stephen Story, Thomas Thompson, George Vosburgh
rec. 2010/11, Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland, Pittsburgh, USA
*world première recording
NAXOS 8.573064 [79:38]

It is always extremely useful to hear from the horse’s mouth and the liner notes for this intriguing disc are by the composer himself. He explains the background to how these works came into being. In relation to the first work on the disc he was seduced by the concept of electronic music in the early 1960s but because he had limited access to synthesizers and the like he decided to find a way to create the sounds these made through the use of traditional instruments.

Cumbres – A Short Symphony for Band was commissioned by the Carnegie Mellon University Symphony Band and is played here by the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble — presumably the same band renamed or a group from within it. Balada explains that in writing the piece he separated the winds and the brasses to better reproduce an ‘electronic’ sound. I have no real experience of listening to that kind of music so cannot say how successful Balada is in his quest to recreate these sounds. I did however enjoy the music and feel happier listening to ‘traditional’ instruments and picturing a band producing the sounds rather than a few individuals manipulating electronic equipment in a studio. The kaleidoscopic nature of the work makes for an interesting listening experience.

I first came upon Leonardo Balada when I bought a disc of his music last year. It included two ‘Images for Orchestra’: Zapata and Columbus. Each of these is a suite from his operas Zapata and Cristóbal Colón. I was struck by Balada's colourful use of the orchestra. The other two works on it were equally impressive: Reflejos, Music for Strings and Flute and Divertimentos for String Orchestra (Albany TROY 343). America is a true melting pot of peoples and cultures adding an extra je ne sais quoi. Balada, though born in Spain in 1933 and graduating in 1960, has been living and working in the USA since 1970. He is open to all kinds of influences from the melting pot and adds these to his own very Spanish musical background.

His Concerto for Piano, Winds and Percussion was another commission from the Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked there since his arrival in the US in 1970 and he is now University Professor of Composition. This commission was from the University’s Alumni Association and dates from 1973. The concerto requires the pianist to be centre-stage for almost the entire time. It stretches the soloist’s capabilities with demanding passages in which thunderous pounding of the keyboard is called for in a series of repetitive episodes. As Balada himself explains the work, though in a single movement, is cast in three distinctive sections each reflecting different ideas of time and structure. The first pays homage to the “20th century of Poulenc and Stravinsky” while the middle one is closer to the ““Chopinesque” Romanticism of free rubatos and dynamics” and a final section embodies an explosion of notes to bring the piece to an impressive climax. It is really only in the final section that orchestra and soloist are working together having been more or less at odds throughout the rest of the work.

With Balada’s Concerto for Cello and Nine Players we are firmly back in his neo-classical style. His declared aim with this work was “to highlight the beauty and virtuosity of the instrument”. This he manages perfectly by the clever use of winds and brass as accompanying instruments as opposed to strings. This allows for the mellow nature of the cello to be contrasted with the more angular sounds of the others. Having heard eight of his compositions so far it is interesting to note that they range in length from around 14 to 23 minutes. It seems that he is not one to feel the need for great length in order to get his message across.

With his Viola Concerto, which is a recent composition dating from 2009-10, we have another work in which the soloist is in conflict with the band. This was a commission from the Banda Municipal de Barcelona for their 125th anniversary. Unsurprisingly it incorporates material from a Catalan folk melody but not in any easily discernible way; rather it makes itself heard during a brief allusion to the national dance of Catalonia, the sardana. Balada often has the viola perform in its highest register making it sound more like a violin than a viola. This recording is its world première.

Balada composed the final work on the disc in 1979. The Sonata for Ten winds is a work which he explains treats the ensemble “as a massive single entity” for much of the time. Balada is a consummate master when it comes to writing for woodwind and brass. He draws out all kinds of amazing sound combinations from the instruments that contrast markedly with how they are used by so many other composers. It is small wonder that the New York Times said of the Sonata that “It is an exciting instrumental showcase with motoric passages that are quite stunning”.

For anyone interested in American music or for enthusiasts of woodwind and brass ensembles this disc will amply reward. It features some really fascinating and thought-provoking music that delivers at several levels. Naxos boast a large number of Balada CDs in its catalogue.

Steve Arloff



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