On April 1, 2022, the day before her concert for the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society, three-time Latin Grammy nominee Berta Rojas experienced what every musician dreads. While she and her hosts had lunch at a restaurant, a thief smashed the window of their car and stole her guitar. The consummate professional, she played a brilliant concert nonetheless the following evening on a borrowed instrument. But Rojas returned to her home in Boston suspecting she might never again see the guitar on which she had practiced countless hours and played more than 200 concerts worldwide over 14 years.
The night before she flew to Cleveland, Rojas recorded the final track for her latest album, Legado. Weary after teaching all day at Berklee College of Music, where she is an associate professor, she felt prompted to record the last piece for the album she was tracking in her Boston apartment. “I wondered if I should do it that night or after I returned from Cleveland,” she says. “Then I remembered the words my mother used to say: ‘Never leave for tomorrow what you can do today.’ So I recorded it that night. I am glad I did because there is a uniform sound on the album from using the same guitar on every piece.”
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, police detectives, local press, and the guitar community spread the news of the theft and followed leads for the instrument’s recovery. The guitar society offered a reward. Cleveland media publicizing the tale about about the storied guitar built by Irish luthier Michael O’Leary made it unlikely the thief would net anything close to its $20,000 value. In late May, on the eve of her album’s release, Rojas was reunited with the guitar after a two-month absence. Overjoyed, Rojas says, “I thought Legado might be my last recording with this guitar. I got lucky.” She can now resume building her own legacy in collaboration with the instrument she calls “La Rojita.”
Legado (meaning “legacy” in Spanish) features 12 tracks composed by or written in homage to a pair of classical guitar pioneers: Ida Presti (1924–1967) of France and María Luisa Anido (1907–1996) of Argentina. Rojas’ interest in the music of these figures was sparked by author and lecturer Candice Mowbray, who chronicles the lives and achievements of historic female guitarists. “Candice visited with me about 15 years ago when she was writing her doctoral thesis about Ida Presti’s compositions for solo guitar,” Rojas says. “I didn’t know about Ida before that. Other colleagues I knew—Cinzia Milani, Heike Matthiesen, and Emma Rush—began playing her music.” A guitar prodigy, Presti garnered international acclaim during her lifetime for her exceptional technique, expressive abilities, and aptitude for arranging and composing.
Rojas also became intrigued with María Luisa Anido: “She had an interesting life story that I wanted to tell through her music.” Rojas realized that the experiences of these women were not unlike those of Francesca Caccini (1587– ca. 1645), Emilia Giuliani (1813–1850), Vahdah Olcott-Bickford (1885–1980), and others who contributed to the history of classical guitar but receive scant notice today.
The album opens with Presti’s “Segovia.” Composed in 1962 and dedicated to its namesake, this is Presti’s longest and most sophisticated solo guitar work. Rojas thoughtfully navigates the piece’s floating melodies above rippling arpeggios and counterpoint, and swells of harmony and texture.
In “Idylle pour Ida (Hommage à Ida Presti),” John Duarte ponders the premature passing of his friend with a probing and insistent minor-key melody that flows to sunnier major-key segments and passages of swept arpeggios before concluding on an enigmatic minor-major seventh chord. Gilbert Biberian eulogizes his former teacher in “Prelude No. 1: Tombeau.” Its spirited theme ascends from the bass register and unfolds atop prismatic arpeggio figures and chordal and bass note jabs. Rojas maintains momentum throughout the two-minute elegy with her characteristic polished tone.
Presti wrote the waltz “Danse Rythmique” for her husband, Alexandre Lagoya, with whom she formed the preeminent guitar duo of their era. The pair performed from 1952–1967, giving an estimated 2,000 concerts until Presti’s untimely passing weeks before her 43rd birthday. Rojas’s buoyant rendition of “Danse” highlights Presti’s rhythmic sensibility, gift for melody, and gentle yet colorful chromaticism. It is her most-recorded work.
Just as Rojas has become the prime proponent of the music of Agustín Barrios (who hailed from her country, Paraguay), María Luisa Anido became a standard bearer for the music of her nation, Argentina. Anido’s musical abilities were nurtured by her father, Juan Carlos Anido, an indefatigable promoter of classical guitar in Argentina. Anido’s prodigious talents were noted by touring Spanish guitar legends who were frequent guests in her home, among them Miguel Llobet, with whom Anido studied and performed. Being an international performer, however, was not deemed an appropriate vocation for a woman in that time and place. It wasn’t until 1950 that Anido made her first international tour playing prestigious venues in South and Central America, Europe, Russia, Japan, and the Philippines.
“After Anido’s parents had passed away, she became able to travel the world,” Rojas says. “You see pictures of her with gray hair playing in Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. She got started later in her life.” Anido made up for lost time and pursued a robust career performing, teaching, composing, and arranging for the guitar until her death in Tarragona, Spain, at age 89. She credited her father for “making a guitarist out of me… I became a relentless traveler, with my guitar on my back,” she stated, “like the countrymen of my remote childhood. My guitar was my passport.”
Argentinian folk music elements are prominent components in Anido’s compositions, as reflected in selections Rojas chose to record. The dolorous “Aire de Vidalita” takes its inspiration from the vidalita folk song form of the grassy lowlands of the Pampas. “Triste No. 1,” from a set of nine works titled Impresiones Argentinas, has a solemn yet noble-sounding first theme that leads to a heartening middle section before a recap of the first theme. The evocative “El Misachico,” the final piece in Anido’s Impresiones Argentinas, honors the memory of Anido’s mother. It features an elegiac melody and somber tambura taps on low the strings. These sounds imitate the violin, bass, and drum typically heard in a misachico procession, part of a ceremony imploring heaven for rain for crops in the arid Catamarca province of northwest Argentina. Rojas renders Anido’s music with finesse, insight, and heartfelt sincerity.
Rojas commissioned Sérgio Assad’s four-movement Anido’s Portrait, the concluding work on Legado. Assad had gotten to meet Anido once in Paris after a concert by the Assad Brothers duo. “When I mentioned the concept of the album and commissioning this piece, he was immediately onboard,” Rojas says. She thought it important to choose Assad, one of the foremost composers of contemporary guitar music, to write an homage to Anido. “This will put her name out there and people will want to know who she was,” Rojas notes.
Assad asked Rojas and Mowbray to provide information about Anido’s trajectory and touring. “Candice sent him a timeline of María Luisa’s travels,” Rojas recalls, “and he started thinking about the rhythms identified with those places. The first movement, ‘Chacarera,’ relates to her childhood in Argentina. ‘Zapateado’ is a Spanish dance and includes a reharmonization of her piece ‘Canción del Yucatán.’ The third movement, ‘Barynya,’ has a Russian theme and rhythm representing her visits to Russia. The final movement, ‘Salsa,’ relates to the later years of her life spent in Cuba.”
Assad created his themes by assigning a note to each letter of the name María Luisa Anido and developing these motives throughout the work. “It’s a beautiful way to honor her memory and legacy,” adds Rojas.
Following Her Passion
Rojas is among the most prominent classical guitarists of our day and is named after her paternal great-grandmother, whose parents lived near the Swiss-German border before emigrating to Colonia Suiza, Uruguay. “She was named Berta and also played the guitar,” Rojas says. “She had 14 children, and each of them had four or five children. From our very large family, I am the only one named Berta and I play the guitar. I never got to meet her, but she lives on in me.”
As a child, Rojas played both piano and guitar, but focused exclusively on guitar by the age of 10 with teachers Felipe Sosa (an early champion of the music of Agustín Barrios) and Violeta de Mestral. When it came time for college, her mother encouraged her to study economics. After her first year, she attended a music seminar in Brazil and was inspired by the young and dedicated musicians she met. “When I saw their passion and commitment, I thought I’d do it too,” she says. “There was no possibility to study music at the university level back then in Paraguay, so I went to Uruguay and began a chapter in my life of constant study and practicing.”
Rojas had saved for a year to study in Uruguay with Abel Carlevaro, “But my money ran out very quickly,” Rojas remembers. “Carlevaro wrote a letter to my mother saying I was really talented and that she should support me. After that, she decided to help me.” Rojas subsequently enrolled at the music school of the Universidad Nacional de Uruguay and studied with Eduardo Fernández and Mario Payseé. She later received funding from a Kennedy Center program for young Latin American artists that brought her to Baltimore’s Peabody Institute for tutoring with Manuel Barrueco, Ray Chester, and Julian Gray. She earned her master’s degree and graduate diploma in performance there before launching her recording and performing career, which encompasses three albums of Barrios’ music, and more recent forays into different styles including Salsa Rojas (2013), Historia del Tango (2015), and her Brazilian-
flavored Felicidade (2017).
Legado is the 14th album in her discography, and throughout, her playing is refined and sublime. Rojas gives every note its due as she homes in on the essence of each work. The recorded sound of her guitar is rich and detailed thanks to the efforts of recording engineer Randy Roos and editor Sebastián Henríquez.
Rojas is a musical celebrity in Paraguay and bears the honorary title Illustrious Ambassador of Musical Art. With this project, she shines a light on women musicians, but she advocates opening doors across the board for all women. In a phone call from Asunción, where she spent last summer, she mentioned that Paraguayan women only gained the right to vote in 1961. “Down here, I am talking about equal opportunities for women using the examples of Presti and Anido,” she says. “They traveled the world and wrote music in a time when that wasn’t the role of women. They paved the way for me to travel the world with a guitar. Now, that’s seen as normal a profession for women as it is for men.”
What She Plays
Berta Rojas’ guitar, which she has dubbed “La Rojita” (a nod to both her surname and the red color of the instrument’s case), was built by the Irish luthier Michael O’Leary in 2008. The instrument has a cedar top with lattice bracing, and Madagascar rosewood back and sides. Rojas strings her O’Leary with normal tension Savarez carbon trebles and Savarez hard tension polished basses. —MS
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.