Concerts in Review

David Leisner

Weill Recital Hall, New York City

May 12, 1997


Weill Recital Hall is a charming place for a recital. The blue velvet curtains on its sidewalls coordinate with the comfortable blue cushioned seats. The ornate, crème-colored wood panels and porticos rise to a high ceiling holding two huge sparkling chandeliers. Though the venue was classic, the concert¾Music After 1976¾was thoroughly modern. This recital was the last in a three-concert series by David Leisner, which also included All Bach and Romantic Masters programs.

The hall was about two-thirds full for Leisner’s performance. The absent one-third missed an electrifying concert. Leisner strode confidently onto stage dressed in a black shirt and pants, topped by a colorful patterned vest. His warm engaging personae came through even before he spoke and played. Simply put, Leisner connects with his audience.

The first half of the program was noteworthy because three of the four composers¾Randall Woolf, JoanTower and Leisner himself¾were in the hall that evening. The opening work, Woolf’s Going Home, is a carefully crafted piece consisting of linked musical ideas whose rhythms, harmonies and melodies are rooted in the blues. Sections of wild strumming contrast with sections of tranquility. The ending is a clever sequence of string de-tunings. Going Home is a piece with its own distinct personality¾fun but not fluff.

Joan Tower’s Clocks begins with a repeated pulse that reflects its focus on musical time. The pulse evolves into fast scales and leaping arpeggios. Clocks requires precise playing to get the pulse and rhythm right. Leisner succeeded, while keeping it fluid and maintaining the piece’s forward motion. One small flaw in the performance was Leisner’s tendency to play repeating motives in same way, rather than developing them through subtle changes in phrasing, color or dynamics. But overall the performance was engaging and it garnered an enthusiastic response.

Peter Sculthorpe's From Kakadu was inspired by the terrain of Australia’s Kakadu National Park. The opening Grave is built on plaintive, dark chords, while the dance-like Comodo is typified by repeating motives with discrete starts and stops. Misterioso, the third section, imitates the first, opening in the lower registers before moving to a section consisting of counterpoint in contrary motion. The closing Cantando has a singing line. Leisner used a warm and perfectly balanced color that brought life to the austere material. Echoes of the first movement appear throughout and, to give the piece cohesion, Leisner played them in the same manner. Except for some slight memory hesitations, this was a world-class performance. The first half of the recital ended with a musically and technically adept performance of Leisner’s own Passacaglia and Toccata.

The second half of the program consisted of two major guitar Sonatas from the late twentieth century by Richard Rodney Bennett and Alberto Ginastera. Bennett’s Sonata is a masterfully composed serial work from the early 1980s. Leisner is no stranger to this Sonata, since he worked with Bennett on the editing of the piece for performance. While playing, Leisner used the score for reference¾a good idea given the complexity and difficulty of Sonata. The work demands intense concentration and can seem overwhelming on first listening. Nevertheless, from the opening barrage of sixteenth notes to the closing ascent of single-note harmonics, Leisner made a convincing case for this under-appreciated composition.

Ginastera’s Sonata was the only piece on the program that acknowledged the Spanish tradition of the guitar, making use of idiomatic techniques like tambour. Leisner performed with a controlled abandon that resonated with the audience. As in Clocks, Leisner could have better distinguished the short repeated phrases through articulation or dynamics.

Considering the intensity of the material, the brief one hour and forty-five minutes for the recital was a wise decision. The encore was Lou Harrison’s Serenade for Frank Wigglesworth¾a short, simple work that served as both a musical retort to the Sonatas and a relaxing end to a stimulating program.