PSO goes from fairy tales to fascism and war

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Most music has a story to tell, whether or not the composer reveals it.

One of the most-popular pieces ever written is about storytelling itself. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's “Scheherazade” is a musical depiction of the tales invented by a bride to so fascinate her husband that he can't live without her.

By contrast, many pieces have a fairy-tale feeling, such as Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, but no program or other verbal guide to what the music is about.

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos will lead the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with violinist Arabella Steinbacher as soloist, at a concert Nov. 8 to 10 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Leonardo Balada's Symphony No. 6, Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov's “Scheherazade.”

Balada's Sixth Symphony was commissioned by the Barcelona Symphony and National Orchestra of Catalonia in Spain for the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. It was first performed in Barcelona in February 2006.

The Pittsburgh Symphony performances will be the U.S. premiere, and will be part of the symphony's focus this season on Pittsburgh-based composers. Born and raised in Barcelona, Balada studied composition and conducting at the Juilliard School in New York City. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1970 to join the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is a professor of composition. His music is extensively documented in an ongoing series of CDs on the Naxos label.

The Spanish Civil War began as an attempted military coup led by Francisco Franco against the democratically elected republic of Spain. Franco received extensive support from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, while the republic received help from liberal and leftist volunteers and from Josef Stalin.

“I remember a lot,” says Balada, now 80. “I was 3 years old when it began and 6 when it ended. I remember running with my grandmother to the shelters of the underground subway in Barcelona. I remember I was crying.”

Balada says Barcelona wasn't a military target, or shouldn't have been, but was bombed by the Fascists for psychological purposes. He says that was also the case with the bombing of Guernica, which inspired one of Pablo Picasso's most-famous paintings.

“My family was liberal,” the composer recalls. “They didn't go to church and were in favor of the Republic and democracy. We always looked at citizens on the other side very negatively, but, I realized years later, when I was more mature, that a very close friend of mine, a painter, and his brother, a priest, were right-wingers. I realized they were not so bad. In fact, they were very good. One thing had nothing to do with the other. This family was very, very good.”

Balada uses hymns associated with each side in the civil war in his Sixth Symphony, which reflect his mature perspective on a searing experience.

“I wrote in a way that tries to depict the tragedy of brother against brother in a civil war. I put the two sides on the same level,” he says. “I don't say the Republicans were good guys and the others were bad guys. Individually, none were better or worse, just human beings who were killing each other. That's the tragedy.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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