The term "intimate performance" gets thrown around a bit by promoters and critics. Often times it is merely a description of the distance from performer to the audience and not of the emotional depth of the performance. Guitarist Berta Rojas´ performance Saturday night at the Northwest Hills United Methodist Church, courtesy of Austin Classical Guitar Society, showcased her talent for performing the songs of her native Paraguay with an understated beauty that reminded me what a truly intimate performance is.
Rojas selected pieces from fellow Paraguayan guitarist and composer Agustin Barrios to bookend her set, opening with the delicate "El Ultimo Canto." The piece, built upon an ostinato triplet figure woven around a waterfall of descending bass harmonies, established not only Rojas´ technical acumen, but her affinity for Barrios´ music. Rojas completely enveloped her guitar at times, swaying with the instrument like a dancer.
Rojas explored the music of Brazil with two spectacular preludes by one of the classical guitar´s most esteemed composers, Heitor Villa-Lobos. During the first, a dark and languid selection, Rojas coaxed entire harmonic passages from the guitar before returning to the delicate melody and ending the piece so softly, I found myself leaning forward in my seat to catch the last note. In stark contrast to the first, the second prelude exploded from the outset with frenetic melodic runs and culminated in a rapid succession of power chords that would have been at home in a Black Sabbath song.
It was her return to the music of Barrios after intermission that was the most captivating of the evening. Her treatment of "La Catedral," a Barrios composition inspired by a visit to the Catedral San Jose de Montevideo, conjured images of church bells and a solemn pipe organ. Pastoral scenes of the Chaco came alive during the playful "Las Abejas" (The Bees). Rojas transcendent playing revealed a deep affection for the music of Paraguay´s historic son who is credited with making the first classical guitar recording in 1910.
After returning to the stage Rojas ended her set with an encore performance of what she described as "a sort of national anthem" in Paraguay, the lively "Danza Paraguaya.
As a guitarist, Rojas is not a showy technician, eschewing the mechanical, often pedantic, technical playing in favor of passionate expression. Rojas´ dynamic sensibility allows melodies to develop organically, beginning with a mere whisper, growing to fruition then fading back into the shadows. Her ability to translate the beauty of Paraguayan music, from the elegant to the playful, makes her not only a cultural emissary as Paraguay´s Ambassador of Tourism, but a captivating performer.