ON THE SCENE: Classical guitar music in the church

Berta Rojas performs Saturday, Sept. 17 at the Keene Valley Congregational Church. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The guitar is one of the world’s most universal and versatile musical instruments. It is used to play rock, reggae, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz, classical, hip hop, and the list goes on. On Saturday evening, Sept. 17, Paraguayan guitar virtuoso Berta Rojas demonstrated the breathtaking enchanting beauty of the classical guitar at the Keene Valley Congregational Church.

The classical guitar — often referred to as a Spanish guitar — features music played on gut or nylon strings. Made out of wood, it is slightly smaller than the modern acoustic guitar that uses metal strings. The contemporary classical guitar — which generally has six strings, though some have seven — evolved from the 17th and 18th century five-string baroque guitar, which had replaced the Renaissance lute.

Rojas is considered one of the world’s leading classical guitarists. The Washington Post has described her as a “guitarist extraordinaire” and the Classical Guitar Magazine as and “ambassador of the classical guitar.” A professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rojas regularly performs in many of the leading venues worldwide, including in New York City’s Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Lincoln Center, London’s South Bank Centre, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, and Washington’s Kennedy Center.

“I think that music calls you, you know,” said Rojas. “I started playing the guitar when I was very young. It caught my attention, and I wanted to play. As a kid, I didn’t take it seriously; I was just playing with it. And later, when I was 18, I wanted to become a professional musician, so I continued my education and came to the United States and other countries. In my whole life, I only played classical guitar. Also, I learned how to play popular music. I was lucky; my teacher could teach me classical and popular music, as I wanted to learn that as well.”

Both in the classroom and while performing, Rojas promotes classical guitar, women composers and the music of Latin America, particularly Paraguay. Her priorities in those areas were showcased and received vigorous applause at her Saturday night performance, which was made possible by East Branch Friends of the Arts. On the program were works by Ida Presti, John Duarte, Sergio Assad and Agustin Barrios Mangore.

Phebe Emerson and Bruce Thompson pose at the Berta Rojas concert Saturday, Sept. 17 at the Keene Valley Congregational Church. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“For a long time, it’s been very challenging for women to become composers,” said Rojas. “Imagine, in those days, it was difficult for women to travel. It wasn’t possible for a woman carrying a guitar to travel alone. They couldn’t travel to one place to perform, spend the night, and then travel to another, which I do naturally today. A woman couldn’t do it on her own, especially women like Ida Presti, the woman from Argentina that I played tribute to tonight.”

Rojas shared how Presti had to wait until her mother died, years after her father died before she could travel on her own. Before that, she could only travel to give performances when her father would accompany her, and only when he had days off from his job. Thus, Presti could not travel and perform internationally in halls like the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, until late in her life.

Rojas said that while she composes, in her words, “nothing remarkable,” she instead uses her talents to highlight the talent of women composers, Latin American composers building audiences for classical guitar and nurturing emerging talent. Rojas also spoke about the importance of her Michael O’Leary guitar, which she has had since 2008.

“An interesting story is that my guitar was stolen from me,” said Rojas. “It was stolen in Cleveland in April of this year. I was so sad. It’s such a beautiful instrument; it has been with me for a long time. It had been missing for two months. I knew nothing about the instrument. Then one day, I received a message on Instagram from a woman that she had bought the instrument from somebody and wanted to return it, so I got the guitar back. It was in perfect condition.”

Rojas said she loves her guitar because it has a powerful sound and, at the same time, a sweet sound. She told me the guitar enables her to bring out all the nuances of the music, from soft melodies to being very loud. Rojas loves the wide range of colors it can provide.

Jonathan Plehn and Joe Hearn pose at the Berta Rojas concert Saturday, Sept. 17 at the Keene Valley Congregational Church. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“We have been through a lot together,” said Rojas. “It’s been my partner in crime; we know each other and bring out the best in each other. I love my guitar. Every day, if I haven’t played my guitar, something itches me, something is missing. Everything is in order as soon as I pick up my guitar and start playing. Making music is very much part of me. It’s how I communicate; to bring out something inside me that’s powerful that comes from my heart with great honesty. It’s a spiritual journey for me.”

Rojas’s heart was on full display and captured the many who came to hear her and had the chance to speak with her at the post-concert reception.

East Branch Friends of the Arts sponsored the concert with critical support from the Statewide Regional Regrant Program. Matt Dunne, president of East Branch and head of the guitar program at the University of Texas at San Antonio, met Rojas at an international guitar competition and immediately recognized her exceptional talent. They developed a friendship over the years, and he recruited her to perform in Keene Valley, a concert planned earlier but delayed by COVID.

“I heard her play,” said Dunne. “She stood out. She has such a beautiful sound and an amazing attention to melody, amazingly shaped melodies. It stays with you. It’s sharing. She conveys the music to an audience in a beautiful way that’s sharing; that’s rare, and stays with you.”

Other agreed. “I was blown away,” said Jonathan Plehn. “It was like listening to an angel. The tone she gets out of a guitar is amazing.”

“Incredible,” said Joe Hearn.

“Her tone is wonderful,” said Bruce Thompson. “It was incredible to hear her in this room with its great acoustics and to have the ability to be up close like that to her and her guitar. You can tell through her Latin American pieces that that’s the music of her soul.”

“It was lovely, said Phebe Everson.

East Branch has featured a series of unique talents this past year, with more planned. Signing up for their newsletter and announcements is a decision you’ll not regret.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)

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