Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I was exposed to music from a very early age, in a very natural, instinctive way. I simply responded to when my grandmother sang, or when my parents were listening to something on television, or if a song that I liked came on the radio. We had no formal classical music knowledge or education in my family. In Montenegro at that time, there was very little classical music, but somehow I was instinctively drawn to any sort of music.
Then, when I was 8 years old, I heard that it was possible to go to music school and that it was free, my parents didn’t have to pay for it, that I just had to go there and they would check whether you were musical or not. They thought that I was very musical. Originally, they wanted me to play the violin or the piano, but at home we had an old guitar that nobody played and that was much easier because my parents didn’t have to buy an instrument. It was a very challenging time in Montenegro in the 1990s and money was not abundant. So that was it, I ended up playing the guitar – and the rest is history!
The most important influences have been the people that I met on the way – my colleagues, mentors, teachers. I guess the first big inspiration was Segovia, because at the time when I was bored with the guitar at the age of 9, my father played me an old LP with his recording on it. That was the first time I heard what the classical guitar sounded like and I was completely mesmerised by what I heard. I said “I will one day played Asturias like that”, and I think that was a crucial, critical moment of inspiration. And then when I met David Russell when I was at the point between primary and secondary school (4 years before university in Montenegro) – that is when you decide what to specialise in – and I was torn because I was a very good student in school as well, and pursuing a career in music in Montenegro at that time wasn’t exactly a popular choice. But meeting David Russell in a masterclass in Italy really opened the doors for me, broadened my thinking and made me believe it was possible. He encouraged my career in music and said that if I was really serious about it, if I wanted to study and become the best musician I could possibly be, that I should come to London to the Royal Academy of Music. They have an amazing programme there and that when I was ready I should apply. From that moment on, that was all I could think about, and I made it happen a couple of years later.
Then when I came to London I took huge inspiration from the presence of John Williams and Julian Bream, and what they meant and represented in London. Having the chance to meet them both, to win the Julian Bream prize when I was a student, and to have his feedback was a huge inspiration. And John Williams through all his recordings and repertoire and his incredible way of playing that is, aesthetically, second to none. Other inspirations include great conductors, colleagues, musicians from different walks of life. I was very lucky to build a rich career of different influences and inspirations, and I always say “I am the luckiest plucker in the world!”.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I feel that we only go forward when we are challenged, and my life in music really happened against all the odds. The first was for me to find a way to go from Montenegro to London and study at the Royal Academy of Music. It was a kind of “mission impossible” to do that because we had completely different ways and systems in Montenegro. There was hardly any money, and suddenly I got a scholarship and I had to be in London. So being there was incredibly challenging. And then finding my way and learning and forgetting everything I knew and almost starting from scratch again; that too was a huge challenge.
The second one came when I finished my formal studies, when I developed this way of playing and when I felt ready to have an international career, and to realise that the world out there was not open to the guitar and guitarists in the same way it was 30 years ago, or that it is now, 12 years later. And pushing through that and breaking that glass ceiling was a huge challenge, but I was blessed with incredible stubbornness and determination. I had this one goal, and no plan B.
When I signed with a major recording label and got a wonderful manager, then I really started living the life of an international musician in a way I had always dreamt of. But then that life also comes with huge stresses and responsibilities: hardly any free time, everything that you do suddenly matters, knowing that all the eyes are on you, so that’s also a huge challenge for every young artist who is part of this industry. Then 7 years ago from working too hard and from being emotionally exhausted and burnt out, I wasn’t able to play for over a year and faced the possibility of never playing again because my hands were really acting up and nobody really knew what was wrong. But again I found my way out through my love of music, and I think that allowed me to come out of that huge crisis. In order to come out of that crisis, I had to rekindle my relationship with the guitar, to rediscover the love that I felt, and the purity of that love for music, and why I did what I did. And I think by doing my best and by achieving this sort of success, that I was perhaps trying to prove something to the industry, to people, to everyone around me. That really chipped away at that purity of connection I had with music when I was younger, and I think I had to rediscover that. The injury to my hand was a catalyst for that rediscovery.
The pandemic was of course a huge challenge for everyone because I think it also allowed everyone to re-evaluate, and to understand that what we do [as musicians] is a huge blessing and a huge privilege, and we do it because we love it. There are maybe 100 other things we could have done, but we chose to be musicians. That realisation in itself is incredible, and it was so formative for me personally, now I finally feel, through all those challenges of my life, my career and my musicianship, that my relationship with guitar is finally complete.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
I have been, shall I say, blessed with a very vivid imagination and ever since I was a child, whenever I heard or played something, I always created pictures and visual images in my mind. So anything that is very programmatic, very exciting and emotional, usually allows me to express myself in this open, free and honest way. So I find great inspiration in modern works, especially those written especially for me because when I work with composers I think that they pick up on that idea. The Guitar Concerto that Joby Talbot wrote for me at the Proms a couple of years ago is an example of that – a sort of programmatic Ink Dark Moon, as he called it.
Then some modern contemporary compositions written by guitar players who really know the instrument and what it can achieve and create, a sort of drama in sound, and inspire an audience – I love those because they allow me to have direct access to each and every person in the audience. That has been great – pieces like Coimbra or works by Leo Brouwer. Even when I think of Villa Lobos and the strength of his writing for the guitar, it’s just something that I enjoy tremendously.
But equally, I enjoy the opposite of that energy in the music of Bach, because I think in Bach everybody can find themselves. Bach is a mirror of our personality and our musicianship; it’s the beginning and the end. We go on so many musical journeys and always come back to Bach, and the purity and perfection that his music offers. When I perform Bach I really feel that is when I arrive and achieve the deepest levels of exploration and of my musicianship.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I love to live a very varied life. I love being surrounded by people from different walks of life. I like to be inspired by talking to artists in different fields, to writers and philosophers, to business people, to people who do regular jobs. I often look at the barista who makes my favourite coffee at the café near to where I live and I just think whenever you do something with love, you are really giving something beautiful to the world, and it doesn’t really matter what you are doing. So I’m inspired by all those small and big things, and all the people and influences that I have in my life. So creating experiences with them brings me inspiration. It gives me space when I am inside my music to allow the music to really “live” in its full capacity. I’ve always felt that when you are too focussed on just one thing and exclude other things, then the pressure on what you’re doing is too great. And you create this fake ideal of responsibility, that in the end only damages the free flow of your music making. I’ve been very lucky to understand this through the challenges of my career and I’m very grateful for that.
When it comes to things that I like to do, I walk everywhere and I love travelling, without going to give a concert. So sometimes I just take a train and go down to Paris in the morning and leave in the evening, and I just breathe in a different city, different culture, different food, different smells. I read a lot. I write quite a bit and I’m so inspired by that because it clarifies my thoughts. And anything to do with the hands: I’m very good at cooking. Being curious and discovering new things – that really keeps me sane.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Somehow from the beginning, my career was connected with recording because at the same time I started touring, I signed a major record label contract. So for every album that’s released, comes a different angle and a different theme for the repertoire that I’m recording. My recital programmes very often reflect that because it’s so important to tour at a time when the album comes out. So, from season to season, I make decisions very closely based on whatever I am doing in the studio,
With concertos, there aren’t so many concertos in the guitar repertoire, so in my fingers I always have the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, and a couple of others. But every season or two I made it my mission to collaborate with composers and to do a different premiere. Focussing on the repertoire for guitar and orchestra in particular, because of the lack of really well known repertoire for guitar and orchestra, has from the beginning been my mission and something that I took very, very seriously. With each season I set up these goals very clearly.
When it comes to chamber music, I wish I had more time to do more interesting projects in chamber music, but whenever I do them, I do them for all the right reasons, with a composer or musicians that I love, or someone who is very a close friend and whose musicianship I admire. It just gives you a chance to really connect on so many different levels and that has been in the case in the last couple of years, with dear colleagues. Festivals in the summer are a great opportunity for this kind of sharing and I always look forward to that. In the summer I think I am most flexible in my repertoire choices because summer festivals often give you an opportunity to have a couple of days to really work on things and really challenge yourself.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Over the years I have experienced so many concert halls, and they are not always amazing, but when they are, it’s incredibly inspirational and it really changes how you play. Especially with an instrument like guitar, which by default is quite intimate, when you are getting that feedback from the room and when the wooden box that the guitar is extends to the hall and becomes another soundbox that just envelopes the sound in the room with so many people; it’s just an incredible feeling.
If I think of the venues that have given me most inspiration when I perform solo, I would say that the Wigmore Hall does have a very magical acoustic when it comes to the guitar; also the small hall at the Concertgebouw, and there are couple of beautiful places in America that are perhaps not so well known. In Japan, every second concert hall is extraordinary. But with the big halls, I have often experienced places where I just couldn’t believe it was possible to play a concerto without amplification, or where I would play a recital to an audience of 2500 people, but possible to hear the smallest sound. What really stands out for me in this way is the Symphony Hall in Osaka. It’s just such a privilege to go from one place to another and take in the energy of the room and really transfer it to the audience through your instrument and your musicianship.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
This is a big one. I feel that there is a real misconception when it comes to classical music. We have this label of being elitist and exclusive, and at the same time we live in a world where buying a Chanel bag for thousands of pounds, or everyone wanting to on holiday to the Maldives and everyone feeling that they deserve it, has, on one hand, become acceptable and not elitist. And on the other hand, going to a classical music concert, especially in the UK where ticket prices are lower than in Europe or America, is somehow considered elitist.
There have been so many efforts to make classical music more relevant and I think some of those have been remarkably successful when it comes to equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion, but at the same time I feel that there have been so many attempts to bring classical music closer by actually going away from what it really is and putting the centuries of tradition, excellence and effort in the background. I think reformulating those values and what they represent is incredible opportunity for all of us to really allow classical music to continue to exist as a part of the whole ecosystem and to not carry that exclusive label. People don’t even really know what that means any more, but it has become almost like the subtitle for classical music. And that’s something where I feel we have a huge responsibility to make a difference, in this crazy world that we live in that is overpowering us with too much information, where we are constantly manipulated on social media, and all media in general, to follow one bandwagon of thought and completely cancel the others. I think people today are so confused and it’s never been more important to actually present something that is so deep and excellent, and there for all the right reasons and all the right values [as classical music]. Because in all that confusion, what people crave is a profound connection, and there is no artform on the planet that is able to do this in a more direct or more instant way than classical music – or music in general.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I have to say that the first time I performed at the Royal Albert Hall was probably the stand out moment of my whole life. I was playing a solo recital in the round to a completely full hall, pieces from Bach all the way to the romantic guitar repertoire in the purest, most classical form, and at that time there were a lot of sceptics, people who didn’t think a solo guitar recital was possible because it hadn’t been done before. That really was the moment that made my life and career, because it was extraordinary to shrink that great space of Albert Hall into such a small, pinpointed place with just me and the guitar. The energy and the feeling that experience gave me really gave me the wings to fly and to believe that nothing is impossible.
That is the single most memorable concert experience I had, and every subsequent concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall in recital or in a concert has been built on that experience. I did a concert there on 1 June, just after the pandemic, and it was a major moment for me because it was the return of the audience and I was very nervous to see if people would come, and if everything would feel good again. And it did; it was just remarkable to see so many people and to once again share with them this thing that 10 years ago broke certain boundaries and that now, after the pandemic and 10 years later, I was able to do the same thing on different foundations, perhaps in a more grown up way.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
The one thing I always say to young musicians is never compare yourself to anyone else. Always know that your voice is unique and that there is nobody in this world who can play the guitar, or piano or violin, or sing like you can. And once you understand that, you start to seek the best of the version of yourself rather than look to be better than someone whom you admire or who is artificially imposed on you as some sort of competition. I think that advice cancels all the negative energy and inspires you at once to achieve success through finding your deepest and purest and most honest self. That is the most important advice that I can give to anybody and I always try do this whenever I have the opportunity.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?
I feel that we live in a world where our society and our industries have never been more open and inclusive, and we have really progressed so far in that. And of course there is still work to be done and we have to continue on the right path. But what I feel is not being talked about in the music industry is the idea that musicians are not some sort of extra-terrestrial fairy creatures. I think my experience with injury and having to deal with that in secret, even though I tried not to make it a secret (I thought that by talking about it, I would actually create an open conversation and save a lot of musicians from future injury) was to realise that it remained taboo, and that was extraordinary to think about. At times almost it felt as if talking about was somehow making me weaker; luckily I didn’t suffer from thinking that was the case, but it was just a realisation that there isn’t enough talk or conversation about what it really means, in practical terms, to be a musician. What it means to be able to perform such an extraordinary thing, every time you’re on stage to work at this level, which is almost superhuman, while at the same time you might be incredibly jet-lagged or tired, and then you push your body and when your body is not happy, then you hurt yourself. In the sports world, and other industries, the conversation about this is such much more open. If we could create a conversation about this topic it would be much, much easier for future generations of musicians to protect themselves and to have concrete tools through the experience of colleagues to safeguard themselves from injury. I know that so many orchestral musicians are silently suffering. I know many professional soloists at the highest level are silently suffering from these issues, simply because being a musician is physically incredibly exhausting and when something is also emotionally so challenging, then it can create such an imbalance and can be very, very hard. So many people have left the industry because of this, because there hasn’t been an open conversation. I feel there has been a lot of talk about mental health and I think that’s incredibly helpful as long as it doesn’t go to an extreme. But I think that if we talked more about concrete issues that go hand in hand with mental health, such as physical injury, then we would be creating an atmosphere of greater inclusion and support, that I don’t really feel exists right now.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
A very important question to ask every musician, because we all work in different ways and we all get a kick from different things. I feel that as you progress in your life, into adulthood, the driving force behind your success changes a lot. It hasn’t been any different for me. I decided to be a musician because of this incredible love and connection which I had with the guitar, and then what drove my success was to reach out to a very wide audience, and that meant everything to me because my happiness and my music making depended on that. I’ve always felt that music only comes alive when you are in front of an audience, so I wanted to have an audience and that drove my need for success.
When I reached that level, I wanted to prove success through how many concerts I was playing, which orchestras I played with, how important and relevant I was in the classical music world because as a guitarist that was very important. I was carrying the flag for the instrument, and I took that very, very seriously. Then after the pandemic, and all the problems I had with my hand, I completely redefined what success means for me. For me now success means finding that deepest and purest connection in my music making: playing concerts and playing for people and each time having an opportunity, without any unnecessary ‘noise’ around me, without the pressures of the industry and the environment in which we exist as international concert artists, each and every time to enjoy this extraordinary privilege of talking to people all around the world through the language of music. If I am able to do that for many years to come, then I feel I have achieved the biggest success that I possibly can.
MILOŠ performs Rodriguez’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Friday 13 January. The programme also includes the world premiere of ‘The Peacock Pavane’, written especially for MILOŠ by David Bruce. Details/tickets
MILOŠ is signed exclusively to Sony Classical and his debut recording for the label is expected later this year.
MILOŠ is one of the world’s most celebrated classical guitarists. His career began its meteoric rise in 2011, with the release of his international best-selling Deutsche Grammophon debut album ‘Mediterraneo’. Since then, he has earned legions of fans, awards, and acclaim around the world through his extensive touring, six chart topping recordings and television appearances.
Now exclusive to SONY Classical, MILOŠ is committed to expanding the repertoire for the classical guitar through commissioning of new works. His latest release ‘The Moon and the Forest’ features two world premiere concertos, by Howard Shore and Joby Talbot. His new solo album is due for a released in 2023 and will explore the theme of baroque and its guitar repertoire treasures.