David Leisner can’t escape Spanish music. He’s a guitarist.
“It’s been a crusade since early in my career to demonstrate that guitar programs don’t need to have Spanish music,” says Leisner. “Most of the guitar repertoire is not Spanish at all! The pieces most people think of by Albeniz and Granados were originally piano pieces.
“The majority of music written for the guitar before the 20th century is from Italy and from Central Europe. In the 20th and 21st centuries, only a very few important composers for the guitar were Spanish, the most famous being Rodrigo. The masterpieces of the modern literature are by Britten, Ginastera, Henze, and Takemitsu.”
Leisner thinks there’s one new masterpiece about to arrive, “Facts of Life” by David Del Tredici. Leisner commissioned the piece, worked extensively with the composer in its creation, and will premiere it on April 29 at Symphony Space in New York.
A composer himself, Leisner, 56, has already written extensively for his instrument (as well as plenty of orchestral, chamber and vocal music). With his concert series Guitar Plus, he’s now focused on expanding the repertoire for the instrument by commissioning other composers. Though Del Tredici has never written for the instrument, he was at the top of Leisner’s list.
More than an admirer of Del Tredici, Leisner also studied orchestration with him some years back. During the two-month process of birthing “Facts of Life,” the tutoring seemed to go in both directions.
“David and I were in contact through phone calls and visits at least a couple of times a week. I wanted to make myself available as much as humanly possible for this great composer who knew little about the guitar,” recalls Leisner. “We both discovered how valuable my input was because of my abilities and perceptions as a composer. I had certain capacities as an editor that a non-composing guitarist simply wouldn’t have had, and I believe David found that helpful. And observing David’s composing process so intimately was like one big composition lesson.”
Leisner originally approached Del Tredici for a 10-minute piece. Yet as with many other DDT commissioners, he got far more than he bargained for. Del Tredici countered that original offer with a suggestion of 15 minutes, yet the piece continued to grow. In final form, it stands at four movements and more than half an hour in length. Leisner likens it to a symphony.
“He wrote what he thought was 26 minutes of music, but because tempos on the piano (his composing instrument) tend to be faster than what’s possible or sounds good on the guitar, it’s turned out to be closer to 35 minutes.”
The piece includes two fugues – a challenge for the guitar that both composer and performer relished. And then there’s the final movement.
“A request I made at the beginning was not to write Spanish-flavored music. I told him it was a cliche. A couple of months later he wrote the humongous last movement of the piece, called ‘Flamenco Forever,’ which centers totally on a typical Spanish Flamenco rhythm and style. He was being very naughty and he knew it. Probably only DDT can get away with this, but it’s fabulous!”
Along with the Del Tredici premiere, Leisner’s program features pieces for guitar and harp by Alan Hovhaness and Xavier Montsalvatge, performed with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. Another Guitar Plus event, also at Symphony Space, happens on April 23 with the trio known as Crazy Jane, which consists of baritone Patrick Mason, guitarist David Starobin and percussionist Daniel Druckman. Their program features Leisner’s Three James Tate Songs plus works by George Crumb, Akemi Naito, Paul Lansky and William Bland.
By the way, next month Leisner and his partner Ralph Jackson will celebrate their 29th anniversary. Ralph is vice president of concert music for BMI. But they’re an integrated musical family. To wit: Del Tredici is a member of ASCAP.