Make no mistake, David Leisner is a conspicuously gifted guitarist, especially considering his dramatic, resourceful recovery from a hand injury that kept him away from the stage for much of the '80s. He has also supported the worthy cause of expanding the instrument's repertory, via commissioning, composing and uncovering such obscure guitar composers as 19th-Century Johann Kaspar Mertz, whose moving Elegy opened his recital Monday at the Ambassador.
Yet, somehow, the stars weren't consistently aligned this night. From the audience came dreaded between-movement applause and the occasional sonorous purr of snoring. Leisner's reading of Paganini's rigorous Grand Sonata was lined with rough spots and distracting gaffes amid the virtuosity.
Leisner's own "Freedom Fantasy, No. 1," presented here in its Los Angeles premiere, is a set of variations based on "Go Down Moses," which, at its best, gamely fuses the languages of spirituals and classical schemes. Attempts at inserting pedantic blues licks and mannered string-bending tics, though, mar the work's integrity.
Brushes of tentativeness seemed to vanish and all was redeemed after intermission. Leisner brought a startling poise and lucid grace to Bach's Lute Suite No. 1, and neatly defined the balance of rawness and sophistication in Four Etudes of Heitor Villa-Lobos, that admittedly Bach-inspired and most guitaristic of guitar composers.
For an encore, Leisner performed his own frenetically rustling Toccata, in homage to Alberto Ginastera.
Watching any concert at the Ambassador these days carries a certain bittersweetness, in the face of a planned, impending finale. Its absence would be especially acute in the field of world-class guitar recitals, a dynamically and acoustically fragile cultural species. Leisner voiced the chorus of local sentiment when he spoke out, "I sure hope somebody finds a way to keep this hall going." The crowd applauded heartily, at precisely the right time.