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Counterpoint

Miloš Karadaglić: Classical guitar’s superstar

About the author

Clemency Burton-Hill is a presenter of the BBC’s Culture Show, Review Show, and Radio 3 Weekend Breakfast. A published novelist, she writes for the FT Weekend, The Economist’s Intelligent Life and the Guardian.

The 30-year-old musician is earning the instrument new fans and hard-won respect with a combination of charisma and skill, says Clemency Burton-Hill.

The superstar guitarist Miloš Karadaglić is gently chastising me for suggesting that his is an instrument that needs to be rescued from obscurity. “It’s the most popular instrument in the world!” he reminds me. “A true instrument of the people, if ever there was one.”

His point is valid, of course, but as a solo instrument the guitar is vastly under-represented in the classical music sphere. You can count on the fingers of a single hand the classical guitarists who have met with any degree of success comparable to other instrumentalists over the past century. Yet Miloš, who is just 30 and hails from the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, is fast on his way to becoming as significant an icon for his generation as Julian Bream and John Williams were to theirs. A chart-busting, prize-winning, charming yet serious young man who appeals to critics and audiences alike – and just happens to have the star quality that can only be helpful for any young artist hoping to make an impact in our image-obsessed world – Miloš is that rare thing: a commercial marketeer’s dream, whose outstanding talent sets him apart from his peers.

It is hard to believe it has only been three years since the boy who left his war-torn country to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music first appeared on the scene. Out of nowhere, or so it seemed, his eponymous first album in 2011 sensationally topped classical charts around the world and earned him Gramophone magazine’s prestigious Young Artist of the Year Award, amid stiff competition. His second album Latino, which appeared the following year garnered rave reviews and bagged him yet more accolades, including Germany’s prestigious Echo Klassik and a UK Classical Brit award. And he has just enjoyed another banner year, selling out major performances with some of the finest conductors and orchestras around the globe. He’s preparing more appearances this summer: at the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; the Philadelphia Orchestra – and that’s just in the US. From Abu Dhabi to Tokyo, Paris to Seoul, his feet will barely touch the ground in 2014.

“It has been a bit mad,” Miloš admits, bashfully. “It’s unbelievable that in such a short time, such a shift has taken place. It’s a very rare privilege.” As arguably the most powerful ambassador for the classical guitar on the planet, he does not take his success – or his position – for granted. Where others might have rested on their laurels and cynically released a lowest-common-denominator disc of popular guitar music which would have inevitably sold gazillions, the industrious Miloš has instead gone back to what he has always done best – work, work, work – and has pushed himself to produce a new album Aranjuez,  his most exceptional artistry yet.

Released on the world’s most esteemed classical label, Deutsche Grammophon, for whom he is an exclusive recording artist, Aranjuez is a musical journey across the Spanish guitar landscape that has as its centrepiece Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Miloš calls this piece “the holy grail of the guitar repertoire and an endless source of inspiration”. Complementing that and other major works by Rodrigo is Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje and Danza del Molinero.

As well as charting the ‘revolution’ of 20th Century Spanish guitar music, which saw the instrument graduate from the elegant aristocratic salon to the concert platform, the album also marks a major leap forward in Miloš’ maturity and technical ability. “In the beginning, when it all starts, and you suddenly go from 10 to 100 concerts per year – and not even 100 concerts in churches with a handful of old ladies in the audience but discerning crowds from Japan to LA – it is a bit overwhelming,” he tells me. “It’s exciting, of course, but you are really trying to find a way to introduce yourself. The first two albums, it was a time of exploration. I was a young artist in the spotlight starting this great adventure. But in a way I was just trying to find my feet and wanting to showcase the repertoire which made me fall in love with the guitar in the first place and share that with the new audience I was hoping to create.” Now, with three full international touring seasons behind him and that audience of millions firmly established, he reckons he has “found my own peace. This is the album. Every note is exactly how I wanted it to sound, which is very gratifying.”

For all his protestations that the guitar is already the world’s best-loved instrument and that he doesn’t have to “fight for people to believe in it”, Miloš concedes there is much to be done when it comes to changing people’s perceptions about it as a classical sound. “By playing classical guitar and continuing to work on that recognition I am doing what feels very natural to me,” he says. “The best thing that ever happened in my life is that I discovered the guitar. I’m trying to share the joy of that with people, to show them that a classical guitar is still a guitar and not some kind of alien instrument that can’t be understood! So when I see 15 or 16-year-old teenagers in huge concert halls, people who have never been to a classical concert before, my heart just swells.”

I recall that, at his sold-out 2013 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the 6,000-seat auditorium was clearly packed with punters of all ages and from all walks of life, despite the programme being pure classical music. It must be a thrill, I venture, to have the power to bridge the perceived chasm between the classical and mainstream worlds without ever resorting to “crossover” gimmicks? He laughs, still sounding a little incredulous. “If I never played a note again in my life, I would still die happy having played that concert,” he agrees. “The audience came from every background imaginable. That was terribly, terribly exciting.”

At just 30 and with the musical universe at his feet, Miloš is clearly thinking seriously about where he goes next. For all his glamorous international engagements and adulation, he is passionately committed to teaching and helping younger musicians. “Things haven’t always been easy for me, and I never forget that if people hadn’t supported me, I would not be where I am today,” he says, of the many initiatives he is involved in that support opportunities for youngsters to have access to classical music. “Wherever I can, I try to add my own contribution to changing the life of a young musician, or a young person in general.”

I mention that I can’t imagine many other superstar artists in his position who would be so generous at this stage in their careers. “What is most important is that what you do is exactly in line with who you are,” he says. “Different things work for different people, but I have always known what works for me. My parents taught me to always believe in who I was, to listen to other people of course, but also to always trust my own instincts and stick on my own path.”

And boy, is it some path.

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