Critic Arlo McKinnon listed Leisner’s new album of his vocal compositions as a “CRITIC’S CHOICE” in Opera News. The review is noteworthy and deserves to be printed here in its entirety: “David Leisner is in the midst of a long and successful career as a composer and guitarist with numerous recordings. As a composer, he’s predominantly known for his vocal music. Letter to the World, Leisner’s most recent release, is devoted to four of his song cycles.
His writing for the voice is straightforward, largely tonal, and is quite natural and rewarding. In his early days as a musician, he primarily performed folk music, and the harmonic structure of this genre remains evident in his later music—the listener will note a familiarity in many of his harmonic choices. Underlying this is a strong, inquisitive interest in new possibilities. His palette is varied, ranging from the sad to the playful, frequently impassioned but never mawkish, and the words are always clearly and aptly set.
Confiding, a ten-song cycle for voice with accompaniment written in the mid 1980s, is basically the story of a person who is ready for love, falls in love, loses it, then comes to peace with it all. Leisner sets poetry by Emily Dickinson, Gene Scaramellino, Elissa Ely and Emily Brontë to create the story. Soprano Katherine Whyte gives an evocative performance, endowed with beauty of tone and seeming effortless technical mastery. She winningly conveys the original innocence, joy, disillusionment, loneliness and ultimate embrace of life that the cycle demands. She is most ably accompanied by pianist Leonore Fishman Davis.
Das Wunderbare Wesen (The Miraculous Essence), a five-song cycle for baritone and cello, sets excerpts from Richard Wilhelm’s German translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. (Wilhelm was a very significant early translator of classic Chinese literature.) It’s the most recently composed work on the album (2011) and the most exploratory of them. Here the vocal line is developed out of the cello line, and the harmony is much more abstract. The cello music, well played by Raman Ramakrishnan, ranges from the ornate to the minimal. Michael Kelly gives a compellingly searching vocal interpretation.
Simple Songs (1982) sets six poems by Emily Dickinson, covering a range of emotions. Like Confiding, this cycle was written for the great and lamented baritone Sanford Sylvan. Here again, Michael Kelly is the warm, versatile soloist, authoritatively accompanied by the composer himself on guitar. The music explores various contrapuntal and rhythmic complexities. Noteworthy is the fifth song, “Humility,” which is a three-voice canon with two of the voices carried by the guitar. The effect of this song reminded me of the great lute songs of Renaissance England. In contrast, the final song, “Simplicity,” is almost fully a cappella, with a guitar accompaniment of few more than five notes, each uttered but once.
The album closes with Of Darkness and Light, a single-movement setting of five poems of Wendell Berry for tenor, oboe, violin and piano. Written in 2002, when New Yorkers were still reeling from the memory of the World Trade Center attack, it expresses worry about the future and the quest for emotional equilibrium. The music ranges from a folklike beginning through the heights of existential anxiety and hope. Tenor Andrew Fuchs gives a gorgeous performance that fully captures the moods and character of Berry’s poetry and Leisner’s music. Oboist Scott Bartucca, violinist Sarah Whitney and pianist Dmitri Dover are sensitive, empathetic collaborators.
Letter to the World is a well made, very rewarding recording that will appeal to listeners across the aesthetic board.”