March 8, 2023

Catching up with MSM guitar faculty member David Leisner: New recordings, a solo concert, commissions, and student successes

On April 20, MSM faculty member David Leisner will take to the Morgan Library stage in New York for a solo performance of five compositions he commissioned during the pandemic. He has also recently completed a full score for guitar and orchestra, commissioned by legendary guitarist Pepe Romero.

We caught up with the prolific guitarist, composer, and former head of MSM’s guitar program who has been teaching at MSM for more than 30 years. He is also the author of Playing With Ease: A Healthy Approach to Guitar Technique, published by Oxford University Press, about ergonomic technique for the guitar that is easily applicable to other instruments as well.

David tells us about his new recordings, commissions, and shares some recent successes enjoyed by some of his students.

Can you tell us about the two recordings you recently released, as well as the one you have coming up?

David: As difficult as the pandemic was, for me it was a time of great productivity.  These three albums were all recorded in 2021 and 2022, and I’m excited about their release.

First, I made an arrangement of Schubert’s iconic song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, for baritone and guitar and recorded it with the phenomenal young baritone Michael Kelly.  We have been performing it for a number of years now, honing down both the arrangement and our interpretation over time, so it’s a thrill to have this album finally released on the Bright Shiny Things label.

Next, I assembled a collection of my vocal chamber music compositions and a stellar cast of performers for the Letter to the World album on Azica.  A large part of my composition catalogue is devoted to vocal music, and I wanted to highlight this, particularly the combination of voice with varied instruments.  There’s a half-hour song cycle for soprano and piano, one song set for baritone and cello and another one for baritone and guitar, and a set of five songs contained in one continuous movement for tenor, violin, oboe, and piano.

Finally, there’s my most recent solo guitar album for Azica, a group of 19th-century gems written by guitar composers Sor, Giuliani, Regondi, Mertz, and Schulz. It will be released a little later this year.

Tell us about the guitar concerto with orchestra you have written, commissioned by Pepe Romero!

David: Pepe is my favorite living guitarist, and I was thrilled when he asked to look at some of my compositions for voice and guitar. He loved them, and we continued to be in touch about this until one day, when I was thinking about how much I’ve always wanted to write a guitar concerto, I screwed up my courage to ask Pepe if he might be interested to commission a concerto from me. To my shock and delight, he responded to my email in, literally, two minutes, saying, ‘Yes, absolutely, I love your music and I want a concerto from you!’

The resulting 22-minute work, in 3 movements, is called Wayfaring and is scored for guitar and full orchestra. The entire piece is based on the folk-song/spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” and is centered around fragments of the tune and its emotional atmosphere, as it relates to my current feelings about what is going on in the world. Pepe will premiere the piece at the brand-new Hamptons Festival on Long Island this September 3 with the New American Sinfonietta, conducted by Michael Palmer. And other conductors have already expressed interest in the work as well.

You have a couple of premieres coming up in March, being performed at the New Music Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina, can you tell us about that?

David: This wonderful new music festival has been presenting exciting programs for many years, and I am honored to have an entire program in the festival devoted to my work. I’ll start off the program as a soloist, performing three newly commissioned works. Then they will perform a 10-year-old flute and guitar work of mine, Away, which was originally commissioned by MSM alumni Bradley Colten and Heather Holden Garcia.

Completing the program are premieres of two works that the Festival’s resident guitarist, Robert Nathanson, commissioned from me. One is a large, dramatic 3-movement piece for soprano, violin, saxophone, and two guitars called Singing to the Stars. The other, Tsunami, is a shorter, exuberant work for soprano saxophone and guitar.

During the pandemic, you commissioned friends to compose works that will be performed this spring – what can you share with us about that process? What was it like for you creatively during this period?

David: As mentioned before, the pandemic turned out to be a remarkably fertile time for me. After being initially stunned and depressed by it, my inner dragon kicked in, and I got busy with recording, composing, and commissioning. I decided to commission five friends of mine who happen to also be masterful composers. A diverse group, Pierre Jalbert, Laura Kaminsky, Chester Biscardi, Bun Ching Lam, and João Luiz (who is an MSM alum and former student of mine) were all thrilled to be asked and up for the challenge of rising to the occasion during the pandemic. They all wrote pieces very much about the pandemic, all very different from each other, and each one is a jewel.

I can’t wait to premiere these five significant additions to the repertoire in a concert program that juxtaposes these new works with some of 19th-century repertoire on my new solo album.


David Leisner (right) performing at MSM's Centennial Gala at Carnegie Hall in spring 2019 with, from left to right: then-MSM student Yunxiang Fan (MM '20), Chair of MSM's guitar program Mark Delpriora (BM '82, MM '87), and then-MSM student John Bogan (BM '18, MM '20).

As a current faculty member and former chair of the guitar department at MSM, what can you tell us about teaching at MSM and about your students? Why do you recommend studying guitar at MSM?

David: I love our guitar department at MSM and what we have accomplished over the years that I’ve been teaching there (30, as of this year).

We emphasize strong musicianship and attention to high-level repertoire, with the rigorous classes of Chair Mark Delpriora, as well as the first-rate private lesson teaching of David Starobin, Oren Fader, Mark, and me.

Chamber music, with instruments other than the guitar, has been a strong priority, as we require it for every single semester, except for the first semester of undergrad. And there are plenty of performance opportunities of all sorts, plus a healthy dose of visiting master class artists, who provide the students with the additional inspiration of true artists who are among the best in the field.

We consistently attract the highest level of students, and the current crop is no exception. My own teaching often centers on the physical aspects of playing and how to play in a way that understands what the body needs in order to be relaxed and free, and to prevent injury. It is a joy and a privilege to teach my very gifted students, and I love watching them improve by leaps and bounds during the time we have together.

Why is MSM a good choice?

David: MSM is one of the top conservatories in the US and in the world. Both faculty and students are among the very best, and yet, at the same time, there is a spirit of camaraderie, community, shared values of excellence, and a positive spirit of the strength of diversity of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity that is nurturing and empowering. MSM is a school where mastery and artistry are in healthy abundance, in a very well-balanced environment – a place in which to learn and grow as both musician and human being.

Can you tell us about any recent successes of any of your students or former students?

David: With pleasure and pride! It’s hard to keep track of Steve Cowan’s dizzying activities. After winning first prize in the Tallinn International Guitar Competition in 2020 (adding to a long list of competition triumphs), Steve went on a concert tour in Europe as part of his prize. Following his debut solo recording, which featured a sonata by another former student of mine, Gulli Björnsson (more about him in a minute), he is now on his way to Europe to record his second solo album, which will feature a piece of mine, dedicated to Steve.  Meanwhile, his album with guitar duo partner, Adam Chicchillitti, won Classical Recording of the Year at last year’s East Coast Music Awards in Canada, and they have just received a major grant from the Canada Council for the Arts for a new album of world premieres of six concertos for two guitars and strings, which they commissioned. In addition, he went on tour in Australia and New Zealand last year with flutist Hannah Darroch, and while over there, made a concerto appearance with the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez in New Zealand. And if you’re not dizzy yet, Steve is the newest member of the renowned Canadian Guitar Quartet and is also the newest member of the guitar faculty at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal.

Giuseppe Buscemi, currently finishing up his DMA, recently released his newest solo guitar album, Italian Guitar Rarities, featuring lesser-known but important works of the Italian guitar repertoire. It is his first album for the Naxos label. Giuseppe and I worked very carefully to prepare the works for this album during the years he studied with me.

Recent DMA graduate João Luiz, another Naxos recording artist, has been phenomenally busy, both with the Brasil Guitar Duo, who just released their latest album of works by Gismonti on the Coop label, and as soloist with his newest album, From Spain to São Paulo. He recently joined the faculty of both the Mannes School of Music and SUNY, Stony Brook.

Gulli (Gunnlaugur) Björnsson, after his undergraduate studies with me at MSM, attended Yale for his master’s, and then Princeton for a Doctorate in Composition. He just landed a job at the University of Kansas as an Assistant Professor of Electronic Composition, as well as continuing to perform on the guitar in duo with his “other half,” Jiji, an emerging guitar star.

In a nice full-circle moment, my current student, Richie Johnson, recently told me of a piece he’s dying to work on, which just happens to be composed by Gulli!

There are so many other former students to boast about, but since space is limited, I’ll just also mention that Rupert Boyd [MM ’06], who is quite busy on the performance circuit, recently released his two latest recordings on the Sono Luminus label – one a solo album and the other a duo album with his cellist wife, Laura Metcalf, a group called Boyd Meets Girl. Both albums have received rave reviews.


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