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Interview with Miloš Karadaglić

img  Tobias Fischer

In terms of recorded music sales, the classical guitar has never been popular on a mass scale or even remotely approximated the success of its younger, amplified sister from the realms of rock. And yet, the instrument has always held a particularly deep and personal meaning to a small, yet dedicated circle of listeners and artists. Perhaps it is the unique achievement of Miloš Karadaglić, that he has not only managed to win over the notoriously exacting hard-core guitar lovers, but also conquered the rest of the classical music world in a storm. Today, eight albums into his recording career and two records into his notable deal with leading label Deutsche Grammophon / Mercury Classics, Karadaglić's studio output has garnered as much praise as his celebrated stage appearances, with his current full-length Aranjuez stubbornly holding on to the top spot of the classical charts all over the world. The success of the album is, on the one hand, the logical result of and reward for several years of hard work - of continuing to practise his instrument while others were eying him with doubt; of leaving Montenegro for an uncertain future as an artist; of staying true to the guitar in the face of what is generally held to be a financially ungrateful proposition. On the other hand, it is testimony to the power of Karadaglić's uniquely personal interpretation of a work which already seemed interpreted to death, of a fruitful collaboration with the inimitable Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. About time for an interview with Miloš Karadaglić about his early years, growth as an artist and the recording of Aranjuez.

About the guitar, you've said that "for me, there is no instrument more beautiful or more delicate".  What, exactly, is it that makes it so special to you?
It is no accident that the guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. When you think about it, in order to make a sound you need to directly touch the string with your own flesh and nail. You feel the frequency resonate through your whole body because of the way you hold it pressed to your stomach. This creates such a special intimate feeling. Like in all personal relationships, your conversation with the instrument is different every day. Sometimes if flows uninterruptedly, and sometimes it's a struggle. The more I play, the more mysterious the whole thing is to me.
In my teenage years, when I was still living in Montenegro, I was addicted to all John Williams recordings. He is my hero to this present day. The sound and precision of his playing is inimitable. My favourite recording is The Sevilla Concert. I love the repertoire on that CD, and played some of it way too early. So, when I came to London, and sat in front of my teacher with all these extremely difficult pieces, it was a rude awakening. I needed to start almost from the beginning. I was upset at the time, but now I am grateful.

What were your earliest motivations to start playing the instrument?
I started to play the guitar because in my mind it was the coolest thing one can do. At this time in Montenegro, you could only really learn to play an instrument if you enrolled at the specialist music school. So, I passed the entrance exam and was put on a serious classical guitar programme. To tell you the truth, to start with, I found this incredibly boring and decided to leave school. I hated the idea of growing nails, learning to play scales, etc. I wanted to strum, sing and impress the girls. After all, I was rubbish at football!! However, my father asked me to reconsider and in order to inspire me he played me an old record of Andres Segovia. It was then that I heard for the very first time what a real classical guitar sounds like. And to me this was a kind of magic I never forgot.

Your first public concert took place in Paris at the age of 14. What do you still remember about that experience?
Coming to Paris from Montenegro in 1996 was the same as if you would now go from London to Mars. It was Christmas time ... and my country just came out of the most difficult period. I suddenly found myself in a place where everything is glittering with life and festivities. For the first time really, I saw the world in full colour. I felt I was the luckiest person to be there. I thanked my guitar. The whole experience inspired me to work harder and dream bigger. When, in 2012, I finally had my big Paris recital debut it was a very emotional, personal moment. It was truly a dream come true.

Later, you moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Can you tell me in a bit more detail, what those years were like?
Those were the years of relentless hard work. I was so incredibly focused and didn't allow myself to get lured into the charms of the great city that London is. I was young, very homesick, but I knew why I was there. I wanted to become the best musician I could be. My teacher Michael Lewin was the most genuine and wonderful guide through those years. We had to start from basics and build again. He gave me all the tools to make music that I had in me. He is a truly great teacher and a friend. While at the Academy I also met my guitar idols - Julian Bream, John Williams, David Russell ... This was inspirational on every level. As you know, the music scene in London is incredible. I fell in love with opera, went to the Barbican and the Festival Hall every week. However, Wigmore hall always had a special place in my heart. Today, it is my favourite place to perform.

At the Academy we had plenty of opportunity to perform. This was so important. Yes, you need to study hard and build knowledge, but it must never get on the way between you and the audience. I have always been very comfortable when on stage and as a student I used every opportunity to play. In my mind, music only becomes alive once you're in front of people. Everything else is merely a preparation.

It would take until 2011, before you released your debut album Mediterráneo. What was the process of finding your own approach and touch like before that?
I believe that you cannot consciously 'find your touch'. Yes, you can influence the process by studying hard and giving yourself a clear direction. However, your sound is more than anything a result of your feelings and the depth of connection with your instrument. Mediterráneo marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life. Listening to it today often makes me feel nostalgic and teary. I can hear the emotional tornado in every note on that disc. It was time of great change and the music I chose to play on the album felt like a perfect starting point. Now we are building on that foundation.

You've just published your third album dedicated to Joaquín Rodrigo and his legendary "Concierto de Aranjuez". What are some of the specific technical challenges of playing the piece?
Concierto de Aranjuez is one of the most famous and beautiful pieces ever written. As such it represents the rite of passage for all professional guitarists. It was recorded countless times, inspired numerous musicians of all genres, features so prominently in popular culture. I have played it for many years now, and with each experience of a new orchestra, conductor, venue, I learned something new. So, the time for it needed to be right, because the recording will stay for the rest of your life. I couldn't have asked for better collaborators: Yannick Nezet-Seguin was a dream to work with, the London Philharmonic is like a family. I am most proud of this recording because it was a true labour of love.

Rodrigo is a master of the programmatic style, most probably because he couldn't see the world around him. Aranjuez is bursting with colours and textures of the gardens that inspired it. The second movement is so intensely emotional. Naturally it helps to feel all those things when you play it ... I always let my imagination take me places when I play. Regardless of who the composer is.

You've mentioned that one of the challenges in this particular case was performing with other musicians. I thought this to be very interesting, since I've talked to many performers and they habitually tend to conversely find the solo situation frightening and 'naked' ...
It could partly be a personality question, but still - guitar players spend most of their time on their own. The guitar is a polyphonic solo instrument and as such we tend to start our careers playing solo recitals. Our repertoire also lends itself to it - we don't have nearly as many concertos or chamber music as violinists do. So, it is only later that we experience music making with other people and that is a very different skill.

You've mentioned that the work on a recording can focus on the tiniest of details - do you actually think this microscopic work makes the interpretation better compared to a live recording, where you may hit a few 'wrong' notes but attain a wonderful flow and coherency?
Live performance represents a moment in time that can never happen again. For that reason music that happens on stage, in front of people, has such different qualities from what happens in the controlled environment of the studio. It's exciting, less controlled and generally on the edge. In the studio you have the opportunity to create an "ideal interpretation". The one where you take time to make decisions you feel are best for the musical result you desire. It is most similar to painting a picture. And once it is done, you simply share it.

Miloš Karadaglić interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Miloš Karadaglić
Homepage: Mercury Classics

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