Miloš Karadaglić Returns After a Devastating Hand Injury

BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA | From the Summer 2019 Issue of Classical Guitar

The London-based Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglic has become such a prominent figure in the music world over the past decade that he is known by many simply by his first name (pronounced me-l¯osh). That familiarity of style and celebrity status has been assisted by his extra-musical activities, which include representing brands such as the upscale Swiss watchmaker Raymond Weil. 

After the 2011 release of his debut album for Deutsche Grammophon, simply titled The Guitar, Miloš’ career seemed to move from strength to strength—but crisis, in the form of crippling hand issues, hit just as he was launching his critically acclaimed Blackbird: The Beatles Album in early 2016. In this candid interview, the guitarist discusses this major setback in his career, his long road to recovery, a variety of exciting new projects, the imminent premiere of a Howard Shore concerto, and his Play Guitar with Miloš series for Schott Music. All of a sudden, the darkness has passed, and the future looks bright again!

CLASSICAL GUITAR: The classical guitar world had an encounter with film composer Howard Shore a number of years ago when he wrote Three Pieces for Two Guitars for Sharon Isbin as part of the score for Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed. So, the news that Shore has been commissioned by [British conductor] Alexander Shelley to write a guitar concerto especially for you is very exciting indeed. Can you give us some background on the commission and the choice of composer?

MILOŠ: For a long time before we met, I had been fascinated by Howard Shore’s insanely imaginative soundtracks and classical compositions. The story of this collaboration goes back a few years. When my Aranjuez recording came out in 2014, it was a very hot piece in my repertoire, and I played it all over the world. It was incredible to have the opportunity to create music with some of the world’s finest musicians and conductors. In just one summer, in the USA alone, I performed Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, L.A. Philharmonic, and Cleveland Symphony. Aranjuez is a jewel—it’s timeless and I love it. And what a way to make a debut in all those places. 

But then I asked myself, what would I come back with to those orchestras in the following seasons? Would I simply need to wait five years or so until it’s time for another round of Aranjuez? Most other guitar concertos, no matter how much we guitarists love them, simply don’t have the commercial attraction of the Aranjuez, and in the end, orchestras want to have concert halls at full capacity. The “Rach 3” [Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3], Bruch, Elgar, Tchaikovsky—in combination with a starry soloist—all guarantee that. That’s what we are up against. After a lot of thinking, it became clear to me that the only way to really make a difference here is to inspire big-name composers to write for me.

Alexander Shelley and I worked together in Munich. We performed Aranjuez at the Gasteig and we loved working together. After the performance, we had an intense conversation over dinner about music and repertoire, which gave birth to many great ideas for the future, including the idea for a Shore concerto. Alex was just about to go to NAC [National Arts Centre orchestra] in Ottawa and start his term as a principal conductor. The stars aligned and almost immediately the idea was presented to Howard. We then met in New York; he came to a solo concert I was doing there. He was mesmerized by the pieces I played and immediately started writing the concerto.

CG: Did you have much contact with Howard Shore during the writing process?

MILOŠ: We were in touch throughout the whole process. Composers are often confused about how best to proceed when writing for the guitar, so I gave Howard many pointers about the key signatures, style, texture, techniques, things that I enjoy playing, etc. We met in person, too, and went through the material on numerous occasions. The main difficulty, however, was that in the middle of it all, I was ordered by doctors to stop playing, so I wasn’t able to premiere the piece as originally planned for 2017. I am so grateful to Howard and the NAC for allowing me the time I needed to recover properly and for rescheduling the premiere to May of this year.

CG: Can you explain the background to the title—The Forest: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra?

MILOŠ: The work is magical, just like the enchanted forest Howard wanted to paint with his unique musical brushstrokes. The first time I heard the piece, I was moved by the honest simplicity of its harmonies, the idiomatic writing, and the incredibly programmatic nature, which makes you instantly dream up so many colors and so much scenery in your head. I have been struck by how masterfully—through the texture of the sound he creates, amongst so many shades of musical color—Howard discreetly interweaves the net of various echoes from my own homeland. Montenegro and its dark forests have been an inspiration to Howard from the beginning. He finds my Balkan background mysterious and very inspiring. On the other hand, whenever I think of Howard, I always have those luscious, swooning Lord of the Rings soundtracks in my head. Those movies also look as if they were shot in the Montenegrin mountains. There are indeed a lot of parallels here.

CG: In Joby Talbot’s Ink Dark Moon guitar concerto, which you premiered at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in August 2018, the composer had you sitting almost in the midst of the orchestra, and seemed to be trying to generate a slightly different relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. What was that like for you as a soloist?

MILOŠ: Joby’s concerto is a completely different beast. It was the first big performance that I did after my break, and for that reason, it will always have a special place in my heart. Joby went all-in—he wrote a concerto that feels almost limitless in its power and effect. When we discussed the commission, I gave him a very straightforward brief: I asked him to write a piece that was going to break the glass ceiling. I wanted a musical vehicle to be able to go further than before, and to challenge some common misconceptions about the guitar in the concerto context.

Next to his purely classical training, Joby also has a notable rock ’n’ roll background. With everything else he imagined for this concerto, he also drew on those experiences and wrote a piece that has true musical fireworks. The first movement opens with these gentle rolling ostinato passages which immediately make you sit up and listen. The second movement is incredibly reflective and deep, while the third movement always makes me feel like a rock star—it’s infectious in its energy and edge. The idea of reimagining the layout of the orchestra by creating a small concertante group—like a “band”—around the soloist was very powerful, too. In effect, he wanted to create a human soundboard, where every single musical idea that comes from the guitar bounces off and around the orchestra, creating this sort of minimalist polyphony that is very much in the essence of his compositional style. The premiere at the Proms was such a culmination of our work together and, to this day, I don’t remember ever feeling happier and more fulfilled onstage. I couldn’t have asked for a better piece. Ink Dark Moon has also just been recorded with the BBC Symphony at Abbey Road, and it will come out on my next release for Decca. I want the whole world to hear it now.

CG: Is Howard Shore’s approach to concerto writing distinctive, too?

MILOŠ: Howard thinks in a more traditional “soloist vs. orchestra” way. He showcases virtuosity, as well as the intimacy of the guitar sound, by carefully orchestrating the score. The second movement is very still, the outer movements are constantly moving. The orchestra is at full power, but never overpowering. The music is so beautiful. At the time of this interview, it’s all a few weeks away. I am nervous and very excited all at the same time.

Conceptual video for Piazzolla’s Libertango:

CG: The Talbot and Shore premieres were delayed because of some hand injuries. This has always been a taboo topic among musicians, for the very sensible reason that it could destroy one’s career, even if the crisis has passed or diminished. Were you surprised that the unspeakable happened to you?

MILOŠ: There is a very big issue to discuss here. I was on this very dark path alone and I had to learn from my own mistakes. Two years of searching for answers were tough, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

First of all, the “unspeakable” needs to become the “speakable”—this is a major part of the solution here. It has to be said that we, as musicians, unfortunately, exist in a world where developing a hand injury is seen as weakness and something shameful. Suffering in silence is very much a part of our masochistic physiology, of our constant, insatiable appetite for perfection and excellence. We use our hands in extraordinary ways—just think how many hours a day, multiplied by weeks and years. We try to “fix” things to the point of breaking, to make no mistakes, to play faster than fast, to produce sound louder than loud—and yet it’s never enough. It’s a paradox, because the whole beauty of music is in its fragility and unpredictability. But still, we try. No pain, no gain. . . .


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I have been guilty of all those things—much less as a student, but much more so as a professional. From 2010 until 2016, I gave 120 performances on average per year, recorded new albums in between, kept learning new repertoire, not to mention the pressure of being so exposed, chronically jet-lagged, tired, etc. On the one hand, all my childhood dreams came true, and yet it was somehow never enough. So, I pushed and pushed. And being onstage and making music was my refuge. 

A few months preceding the injury, I was in the best shape of my life. I performed effortlessly and never felt more free and content in my recitals. But then the schedule intensified, and in one month I had to prepare repertoire for the Beatles album—all brand-new and freshly arranged. I was alternating between a two-hour solo recital program and the Concierto de Aranjuez, and I created a new collaboration for the Verbier Festival, as well as other chamber projects. I remember sleeping very little and struggling intensely to find a moment of peace. But I persisted, to great results—it was some of my best work. My determination was inexhaustible, but I didn’t know that my body wasn’t. This came as a huge shock to my system.

At the end of this very intense stretch, I was not able to hold the guitar any more. I played the last note at Abbey Road and then felt that I needed to rest for a few weeks. My hand was hurting so much, and for the first time ever I didn’t have it in me to push through. Everyone understood and was so supportive. I consulted a hand specialist in London, and to my relief, I was told that everything was simple and easily fixable, and that it was just intense muscle tension. I needed to wear a support on my wrist, not work too hard, enjoy life, sleep, and eat. It felt so good to do that. 

But after a few weeks of treatment and good rest, when I wanted to start working on the repertoire, it was far worse. I was in a panic, and so was everyone else. I was told one confusing thing after another, and the more advice I had from the specialists, the more lost I felt. I couldn’t sleep, and soon I struggled to even open my shirt, brush my teeth, write . . . and yet, all scans were negative; I had dealt with any tension that was there. Strangely, I could easily play fast passages on the guitar, but the slow lyrical phrases were impossible. It made no sense. And then the “D-word” [dystonia] was mentioned. And that was enough to create more psychological mayhem. 

I was crushed, but I was prepared to face it. I researched dystonia beyond what I already knew and talked to many people. But everything I was hearing made no sense to me. My feeling was nothing like that. When I went back to the specialists, it was as if they were trying to convince me that I was wrong, as if they knew my hands better than I do. Let’s not forget that a few weeks before, I had come into their practice being perfectly able to move my fingers, except for the tension, and now, after all the amazing splints, braces, and treatments, I couldn’t even use my hand for normal day-to-day activities. I decided to leave London and seek help elsewhere.

After a few weeks of mental rest, slow practice, and very carefully selected physiotherapy in a hospital in Belgrade, I felt incomparably better. I was still weak, but I was able to play without huge issues. With the whole world waiting for me to recover, I then began the promotion for the Beatles album and Aranjuez-ing around Europe. It was hard to begin with—my muscles had been subjected to a lot of treatment and not used properly for a few months—but with each concert, it was better and better. Parallel to all this, however, the outside pressures resumed, too, and by the time I got to doing long recitals on tour, it was obviously too soon, and I relapsed. I needed more time. I was beyond concerned and confused as to why this wasn’t going away. I went on a search to solve this once and for all.

Everywhere I went in the beginning, the advice was always super positive—absolutely no possibility that this is anything other than muscle stress. Yet after a few weeks of treatment and every medical test and therapy known to man, I was physically weaker and weaker. Dystonia was always mentioned, when all else failed. As months of aimless wandering between Europe’s finest specialists went by, I was beginning to doubt myself. Some days I played Recuerdos de la Alhambra really well, and other days I struggled with the [easier] Spanish Romanza.

I couldn’t go on like this, cancelling month after month of concerts. I had to make the toughest decision I ever made—we decided to clear the calendar and announce cancellations of all forthcoming concerts. Everyone around me was amazingly supportive, but I was inconsolable—all that hard work just thrown away. A big part of me genuinely thought I had tried everything and that I really might never be able to play again; these were very dark days. Then, by pure chance, in the moment when I was at my lowest point, I met Dr. Victor Candia. We spoke and soon I was in Zurich starting treatment. Within a few days of working together, as if by a miracle, I was playing nicely again; then after a week or so of steady progress, my playing was really good indeed. But then, when I wanted to start some concerts, it all went off again. It was so frustrating, unclear, and senseless. But, one step at a time, and with an insane amount of patience and analysis, we got there—we finally understood the issue.

There was nothing [physically] wrong with my hands after all. Instead, it became clear to us that all those months ago, I suffered an intense burn-out, first of all by feeling so much physical pain in my hand due to a work overload, and then by the psychological pressure to recover while being unsuccessfully treated by so many different specialists who, one after another, on top of everything else that was happening, told me I had dystonia. Victor and I spent days and weeks analyzing what happened, working equally on the playing, as well as talking about literally every aspect of life in music. To this day, I have never in my life met anyone who knows the guitar better than this man—every aspect of the technique and physicality of playing, as well as all the psycho-physiological conundrums that surround us as performing musicians every day. I would have never recovered without his help and I will be eternally grateful to him.

The “dystonia” part of this story is not exclusive to me. This unfortunately happens to many musicians. After everyone I talked to, everything I saw and went through, I strongly believe that true focal dystonia exists in a small percentage of musicians that have been diagnosed with it. It’s extremely rare, and yet so many musicians—particularly guitarists—have been confidently diagnosed with it by specialists. This is simply wrong, and it needs to be re-evaluated. Too many careers have been destroyed by labeling “dystonia” on an issue that is just not that straightforward. Medicine fails to understand that playing an instrument and creating music is a whole universe of physical and psychological reactions—you cannot rationalize this no matter how hard you try.

I didn’t want to come to the other end of this battle and not talk about it. It is my great wish to help others who find themselves in a similar situation, hence this long answer. Maybe someone reading this interview will find hope in it and realize that things are not so black and white. At the same time, I don’t wish to point fingers at anyone. I just truly wish for this discussion to continue and I am determined to open the subject even further, to start an inclusive, open, and constructive series of conversations about performance-related issues. I believe it would be so helpful for us musicians to share a platform with other colleagues, as well as top specialists and scientists, to find new answers together, create more effective treatments, and make this much less of a grey area than it is today.

CG: Do you have words of advice for other guitarists that might save them from the same situation?

MILOŠ: Yes, a few things:

1. Never lose that amazing feeling you had when you were younger and when things just flew effortlessly. There is no reason for this to ever stop. If you’re in the flow, you will never injure yourself.

2. If something hurts, stop and rethink. Talk to your colleagues who might have had issues. And whatever happens, don’t ever allow fear to set in, because this is a bigger problem than the injury itself. Know that whatever it is you’re experiencing, there is always a solution. But there are no quick fixes.

3. Seek professional advice when needed, but don’t immediately jump on the treatment or think this will solve it. You know your hands better than anyone else. It is you who does it in the end.

4. If you have an identifiable inflammation or pain, follow the protocol and you will recover. But whatever you do, never immobilize your hand—movement is always best cured by correction of the same. Every day that passes without using your hands, muscles weaken and things become worse.

5. If you’ve been diagnosed with dystonia, think again—it’s very possible that you don’t have it. But if such a diagnosis gives you enough of a reason to give up something you don’t enjoy doing any more, then that’s another story altogether.

CG: The start of the hand injury problems seemed to coincide with the launch of your Blackbird: The Beatles Album. Are you disappointed that you weren’t able to promote it as much as it deserved?



MILOŠ: I strongly believe that things always happen for a good reason. This injury was the biggest test I ever had to endure and one of the most important I’ve processed in my whole life. Even though I keep a calm presence, I have always been a very dramatic person underneath it all. This sensitivity often gave me incredible experiences on stage, but it often took away so much. Through this dark time, I learned so much about myself, in a way I would have never had a chance to if nothing happened. One day, desperate for answers, I asked Dr. Candia: “Why did it all have to be so extreme?” His answer summed it all up. He said: “Because otherwise you wouldn’t have noticed it.” This was true. And now I feel stronger and better than ever before. It’s a feeling like no other.

Our recordings, on the other hand, stay forever. Most important, Blackbird was an artistic departure for me, into an area of style and repertoire that was completely new. I loved being pushed to the musical extreme and, of all my albums, it was the one I enjoyed making the most. In many ways, it set up a new sound aesthetic I wish to follow from now on. I was bereft that I had to abandon all the fabulous promotion while truly receiving so much amazing attention from both classical and mainstream media. But I was not well, and I had no other choice but to stop. Everyone understood this and was on my side. I am so grateful. Despite this obvious setback, the album still sold in many tens of thousands and it continues to be present on all the streaming platforms. Together with the other three albums, we shifted over half a million records.

 

CG:  Has the injury affected your approach in the Play Guitar with Miloš method that is being published with Schott?

MILOŠ: Not at all! Play Guitar with Miloš has been the biggest joy and a wonderful island of happiness in the time when I couldn’t perform. I loved collaborating with Schott Music on creating a series of books that are aimed at everyone who’s interested in the guitar. It always gave me great joy to see that in my concerts there are people of all ages and backgrounds and that they all love the music they are hearing, regardless of what guitar might represent to them. This continues to be my biggest source of inspiration.

Not everyone needs to become a professional guitarist/musician, but having guitar, and classical music in general, as an active element in your life is a tremendous gift and one rare, enriching element in this crazy world. To understand music beyond just the surface is life-changing. These books aim to give the reader exactly that—to bring the joy of discovery to the fore, and open the door into the world of guitar, all through the carefully selected repertoire and stories of my own experiences.

I am very proud of this project and thrilled that out of so many wonderful nominees this year, we just won a Teachers Award for Excellence. I must give a special mention to my dear friend and colleague Carl Herring, without whom these books wouldn’t have been the same. Carl is not only a great player—we studied together at the Royal Academy of Music in London—but also a wonderful guitar teacher, and his experience and advice while working on the books has been invaluable.

We are aiming to release Level 3 in the fall and Level 4 in the spring of next year. In the more advanced stages of the series, there will be even more well-known pieces, also from my albums; we are thrilled to have had the permission from the various estates to use them. I know that all those budding guitarists out there will have a lot of fun giving it a go.

CG: Is there a third guitar concerto by David Bruce, which was written for you, still awaiting a premiere?

MILOŠ: David is a very talented man. I met him via Avi Avital, a mandolinist and close friend. They both came to my place for dinner a few years ago, just a day before the premiere of the concerto David wrote for Avi. He spoke so passionately about his love for plucked string instruments, which is indeed rather rare with [non-guitar-specific] composers. I went on to listen to his work and loved it—it’s so different from Joby or Howard, much more impressionistic and abstract, and yet very tonal and flowing.

My idea was a large Fantasy rather than a concerto. The reasoning was that Aranjuez is rather short compared to other big romantic concertos, and whenever I performed it, I always felt the need to play more—not just an encore or two, but something rather more substantial with the orchestra. My friends at the London Philharmonic Orchestra loved the idea hence, so we decided to commission such a piece from David and premiere it just before my next Aranjuez with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall, London. This is now firmly scheduled for February 2021.

CG: Do you plan to pick up on the Beatles album promotion or are there plans for a new recording taking precedence?

MILOŠ: My new album is very much a priority for me now. At this point, 80 percent of the recording is done. After the Shore premiere, I will finish the rest of it and we will start the campaign. So much has changed in the last few years though—with the way we listen to music, the concept of albums and repertoire. As artists, we need to adjust to this new age and think creatively how best to proceed. I am really excited by this moment in time and feel in the best hands with my team at Universal music.

In between a wide range of music, as I mentioned earlier, Joby Talbot’s concerto features as an important part of the project. This is an amazing opportunity for the piece. The rest of the music is drawn from many different areas of the classical and non-classical genre. I’ve always been inspired by the fact that guitar so comfortably and effortlessly sits between the worlds of classical and mainstream. It’s a huge advantage we have and I want this to reflect in my musical choices. After all, it’s one of the main reasons why I became a guitarist in the first place!