Miloš Karadaglić brings the universality of his guitar to the NAC

Miloš Karadaglić will be performing at the NAC on May 1.

When Miloš Karadaglić was a young lad in Montenegro he dreamed of being a guitar god.

But not the kind he has become. Miloš Karadaglić is a god of the classical guitar, not the rock and roll kind.

“What other idea of the guitar could a kid in Montenegro in 1983 have but rock and roll.” That’s why he signed up for guitar lessons. But, “what I didn’t know was that I would get more than I bargained for.”

Today, he is known around the world as Miloš and he’ll be making a long over due trip to Ottawa this week to perform with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

“We don’t have much classical music back home,” he said by phone from his current home in London, Eng. ‘When I was thinking of the guitar then I was listening to local heroes and pop stars and I wanted to be one of them.”

In Montenegro, music education is provided by the state. It was an important opening for Miloš.

“In Montenegro, we have many problems but when it comes to this, we are lucky. I wanted to play the guitar so the first thing my father did was take me to music school. They just checked that I wasn’t tone deaf and then they took me in.”

He said he sort of fell into classical guitar training.

“To be honest I really didn’t like it in the beginning. I didn’t think this was what I wanted to do: grow nails, read music, all that geeky stuff.

“I was about to give up but I didn’t and I’m really happy I didn’t.”

Montenegro is a beautiful nation in between Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. It was part of Yugoslavia before the brutal civil war tore the country apart.

It is a Mediterranean country and the sound of the Mediterranean is present in Montenegrin daily life and culture, he said.

“Traditional Montenegrin music is very simple, very linear and it’s not the most melodic music,” Miloš said. “Actually neighbouring countries make jokes that all Montenegrin music is written in four tones, which is not far from the truth. But you can do a lot with four tones.”

You can even play Beatles music.

He released a recording of Blackbird and other Beatles songs in 2016.

“I wanted to do something a bit different from Spanish and Latin music that I was doing. That brought me to The Beatles and this idea that the guitar is a unifying factor in all music, whether pop, jazz or classical. The universality of the instrument I believe is what attracted me to it.”

Montenegro is mountainous and forested. The natural world is part of the national identity, he said.

This was in his mind when he was discussing a guitar concerto written by the Canadian Howard Shore with the composer.

“When I was talking to Howard Shore about what kind of piece we should work on there was something so parallel in my mind with what Howard had written in the Lord of the Rings with the forest and the environment. It’s an epic feeling I remember so well when I was growing up in Montenegro. He was very inspired by that.”

The piece is that rarest of musical beasts, a concerto for guitar and orchestra. The work is called The Forest. It is an NAC commission. 

“When you are a guitarist it is not a given that the doors of the greatest orchestras are open to you because you really only have this one concerto — the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo.” When the NAC commission surfaced, Miloš had just recorded the Rodrigo with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and had spent a year touring it around the world.

“It was an insane season.”

Miloš says he loves the Rodrigo concerto but “at the same time I was a bit frustrated because you can’t keep going around the world playing this one piece over and over again as much as I love it.”

Then he met Alexander Shelley in Munich and the two were working together on a performance. Shelley was about to head to Canada to take up his post in Ottawa with the NAC.

Shelley said he wanted to commission a concerto for Miloš and asked him for ideas on a possible composer.

Miloš mentioned Shore and John Williams. He is a fan of film composers. He believes the music for film is well-suited for the guitar.

The two talked some more and within a few weeks it was set.

“It was like it was meant to happen,” Miloš said. He met with Shore in New York when he was playing a concert and the collaboration began in earnest. It seemed like a natural fit. Shore has written some pieces for guitar, Miloš said, noting that the soundtrack of The Departed features a lot of guitar.

“The piece he has written for me is so incredibly idiomatic in terms of the guitar and what is playable. We worked on it quite a bit together. I gave him some clear ideas about keys and positions and so on.

“Just this morning I was practicing the first movement. It feels like a guitar piece. That doesn’t always happen. You can see that a composer wrote it on the piano.”

When Miloš performs with an orchestra, his guitar is amplified. He normally uses a very small sound system but much depends on the hall.

“Sometimes we need to use the PA of the hall, but I usually like to keep it as close to sound of stage as possible.” This concert may prove to be a good test for Southam Hall’s new acoustic shell

Miloš isn’t worried about his debut here. He’s been following NACO and is impressed.

“With a lot of huge orchestras and national institutions, you very often feel there is this immense pressure to deliver and please everyone. With NACO you get the sense they do it organically without much fuss. That gives positive energy about what music should be in the society.”

Speaking of music and society Miloš actively works to advance music education for youth.

“I have great passion for this because I grew up in a country that had less than ideal circumstances. My childhood curiosity to play an instrument and to be involved in music was met with instant music education.

“That wouldn’t have been the case in the developed western world ironically which I have always found really shocking. Countries like Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. have more than enough resources to offer free music education and yet they don’t. It’s sad; it’s not necessary.

“I’m passionate about it because, for me, music opened doors to a completely different world. When I was a teenager, maybe 12, the first Balkan War had just finished in 1995 when I was invited to perform in Paris. Can you imagine the feeling for a 12 year old to play in Paris at Christmas time.

“That was life-changing. I want Paris to happen for many, many kids. We have to care about that in society.”

In the west, Miloš said, there is a belief that the stars should be supported and nurtured. He believes it should be the other way around.

“Let’s open it to other people because they will be our audience. These things go hand in hand.”

The Balkan conflict swirled around Montenegro, but it didn’t enter in. Still the country was affected, Miloš said.

“We were on the receiving end of so much rationing. It was a difficult five years. I was very young and my parents were amazing. They always tried their best and I never lacked for anything, But it was hard. You never knew when the army might come and take your father.

“It was horrible, but nothing compared to what the people in the war zones suffered.”

Miloš hasn’t been to Canada a lot but this spring and summer he’ll be in Ottawa twice. At the NAC May 1 and 2 and, he said, at the Music and Beyond festival in July.

The premiere of the Shore piece was actually planned for last spring but Miloš had to take almost a year off because of an injury.

“I had to cancel a full season of concerts because I was in so much pain and tension in my right hand. It took a long time to figure out what it was.

“I had to really pause my career and I was in danger of not being able to resume.”

The injury was mysterious but eventually it was found that “I had an incredible buildup of tension, not only in my hand but also psychologically.

“For six years, I had been playing more than 100 concerts a year and recording a new album every year.”

He was feeling chronic jet lag. He was proud of his ability to withstand his punishing schedule but it caught up to him.

“The first time I felt it in my hand, I was so shocked. Then I got really worried. I went to lots of doctors and they confused me even more. One doctor would say it wasn’t serious, the next would say I wasn’t able to play.”

In the end he said he realized he needed a break. he stepped back and only started again when he was ready.

These days he’s not performing as much. He says a healthy career is about knowing exactly what you want to do and understanding what your limitations are.

Miloš performs Howard Shore
Where: Southam Hall
When: May 1 and 2 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.