Audience Review: Berta Rojas, Classical Guitarist from Paraguay

Tim Healy suggested I “review” Berta Rojas’s concert last Saturday night, March 21st, at the Westmoreland Congressional Church of Christ. Following in the footsteps of such august critics as Olin Downs and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times and Virgil Thomson of the Herald-Tribune, I naturally approached this assignment with trepidation. But what was almost my real undoing was following in the footsteps of my 11-year-old grandson, Brendan, who wrote a very favorable review of the concert himself earlier this week!

Berta’s recital was a potpourri of Hispanic composers spanning two continents and two centuries. The two Manuels, Ponce and de Falla were both born in the late 19th Century, within a few years of each other and died within a few years of each other in the mid-20th Century.

Her program opened with the ‘Suite in A Minor’ by Ponce, which mirrored the format of J. S. Bach’s French and English Suites, originally written for harpsichord but played on the piano today. Just like Bach, Ponce began his suite with a ‘Preludio’, followed by an ‘Allemande’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Gavotte’, and ‘Gigue’. Bach himself used these forms, as did his contemporary, French composer François Couperin. But similarities ended there. Ponce’s ‘Suite’ was thoroughly modern with a dash of Mexican flavor, but few trills and no mordents. Berta, however, performed them with the crisp, strict beat demanded of this 18th Century style, allowing for little rubato.

The featured piece before intermission was ‘Fiesta Americana’ by American composer Vincent Lindsey Clark, dedicated to and admirably played by Ms. Rojas. It was an interesting piece in a contemporary vein, exploring various guitar techniques. Included in the suite was ‘Flight of the Butterfly’, Clark’s answer to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee! Hopefully this will also have a butterfly effect on Clark’s music!

Manuel de Falla’s music is mainly known by such orchestral compositions from his ballets, ‘El Amor Brujo’ (roughly translated ‘The Love of the Magician’) and ‘El Sombrero de Tres Picos’ (‘The Tree-Cornered Hat’). His famous ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ was made even more famous by his piano arrangement dedicated to and performed by Artur Rubinstein, who seldom left the stage without playing it as an encore. ¡In fact, Rubinstein wasn’t allowed to leave the stage once in Madrid, until he played it as an encore six, yes, six times!

Here, Falla was represented in ‘Seven Popular Spanish Songs’ performed by Rebecca Lister and accompanied by Berta. I was impressed not only by Rebecca’s singing ability but also her impeccable diction—in song and speech. Berta’s accompaniment was just that—accompaniment. She played with warmth in the shadows while the spotlight was on Rebecca.

Berta closed her printed program with ‘Danza Paraguaya’, one of whose themes danced through my head for days! This was where sensitivity transcended technique. Having been brought up on this music, it’s obviously in her blood.

– Bob Scharf