January 7, 2014
Balada: Sinfonia en Negro; Double Concerto; Columbus
Emanuel Abbuhl, oboe. Joan Enric Lluna, clarinet. Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra/Edmon Colomer
Total Time: 61:51
There is always a risk involved in supporting recordings of new music when they are devoted to a single composer’s work. Labels such as Naxos make this discovery process so much more affordable while also managing to link committed interpreters to these lesser known works. The music of Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) has appeared before on the label rather frequently and this new release may be an excellent way to explore the composer’s music. The present recording provides three distinct works spanning some forty years of the composer’s life. We have an opportunity to hear an early symphony, a new debut recording of a concerto, and a recent orchestral suite derived from one of the composer’s operas. This makes for a rather interesting way to hear Balada’s work.
Leonardo Balada studied composition with Persichetti and Copland, and conducting with Igor Markevitch. He teaches composition at the University of Pittsburgh. He is most known for his use of ethnic music within avant-garde musical styles in often massive orchestral pieces that appeared in the 1960s. His music is performed throughout the world with recordings of his music often garnering high critical acclaim.
The opening work is perhaps one of Balada’s more well-known compositions. It was his first symphony, though it bears marks of a larger-scale dramatic tone poem with the movements somewhat interconnected. The composer had actually met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967 and when he was subsequently assassinated, Balada wanted to find a way to address this struggle of African-Americans. The opportunity came with a commission from Spanish National Radio and the Sinfonia en Negro: Homage to Martin Luther King was the result. The work was later recorded for Albany Records along with three other of Balada’s symphonies. Each movement bears a subtitle intended to help move the listener through the journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom. The opening movement, “Oppression”, is filled with a variety of avant-garde orchestral ideas and an almost intense variety of rhythmic ideas that run amok in the orchestral texture. It is a rather intense six minutes exploring all manner of color. “Chains” follows and includes a more lyrical melodic idea that, in its first appearance on violin, feels somewhat folk like in nature. The somewhat more brutal nature of this secomd movement moves into “Vision” which begins to move further from the lower spectrum of the orchestra and harmonic ideas begin to open up more as the energy begins to move towards a more ecstatic feel. Sometimes, there are rhythmic ideas that feel connected to folk dance though these have been quite mutated into 20th-Century musical sounds (most on display in the third movement). There is often a lot of interesting transfer of lines around the orchestra allowing it to show off different sections. African drumming ideas are referenced in the very brief final movement, “Triumph”. Overall, this is an interesting work that provides an introduction to Balada’s music of this type. The material may be more difficult to grasp, but one can certainly be drawn in to the extreme dramatic quality of the work and the celebratory ending helps as the music moves quickly to a final fanfare.
The Double Concerto for Oboe and Clarinet is a relatively recent commissioned work that was premiered in July 2011 in Mexico. This somewhat explains Balada’s incorporation of two Mexican folk tunes (one of which is the “Hat Dance”) in this work composed as one long essay. The music shifts between these folk elements and more contemporary techniques all while creating opportunities for virtuosic display for soloists and orchestra. A warm clarinet idea opens the work and hands off this idea to oboe as strings build underneath. The piece tends to create these moments where the soloists carry on a discussion of sorts with splashes of interjections from the orchestra. Often underneath these solos, there is a growing dense harmonic idea lingering. The music tends to shift from these more intense clustered harmonies to more traditional harmonic flashes rather quickly and often the latter can catch the listener off guard with their touching beauty. Sometimes it feels as is some of the harsher edges from Balada’s earlier period have been softened a bit, though the assured technique of unusual orchestration and clusters still surfaces. The final moments feel as if the work ends a bit too soon as it dies off. However, as a whole this is a rather nice addition to the catalogue with the colors of clarinet and oboe balancing quite well with the exciting rhythmic energy of the folk material and brilliant orchestration all coming together quite well.
The final work on the disc was composed in 1991. Columbus is a four-movement work that is derived from Balada’s 1989 opera Christopher Columbus. The “images”, as the work is subtitled, presents different scenes that move through the announcement of the famous voyage as the sailors set off through the final discovery. The first movement, “The Port of Palos” features this blend of clusters and traditional harmonics. The music will remind many of 20th Century Mexican composers mid-century with its exciting rhythms and color. “Admiral! Admiral!” is taken from an aria allowing more delicate orchestral ideas and warmer writing for contrast. There are some really beautiful moments here with interesting writing for brass. “Where is the Will of God?” serves as a more contemplative pause before we head into the “Dawn of the Indies.” In this latter movement, taken from the final scene of the opera, Balada incorporates Indian chants and rhythms.
The Malaga orchestra has this material down quite well and Edmon Colomer proves to be an apt interpreter. Textures are crystal clear and intonation, so very important in works of this type, is spot on throughout. Every section of the orchestra manages to show off their skill very well. Balada’s music is worth the attention of contemporary music lovers. Here one gets a chance to hear how the essential elements of his style and approach to music are a consistent thread in his work over the latter 20th Century. These are more accessible works perhaps as well which makes this an added bonus. They are also distinct enough that they pair very well together. Easily recommended as an important addition to the Balada discography.